The Resentment Powering Trump

His supporters believe he is the only one who understands their marginalization.

Ben Earp / AP

After a young black protester was dragged out of one of his rallies last week—getting sucker-punched by a 78-year-old white man on his way out—Donald Trump looked out at the jeering, seething, booing crowd in front of him. “Nasty, nasty!” he said. A plaintive look came over Trump’s face.

“Why are they allowed to do things that we’re not allowed to do, can you explain that to me?” he said fretfully, pointing his right index finger upward and jouncing his hand up and down. “Really a disgrace.”

It was a potent summary of the identity politics that seem to form a significant part of Trump’s appeal: the idea that they, the others, enjoy privileges, resources, and status to which we are denied access. It is a sentiment I have repeatedly heard from the dozens of Trump supporters I have met over the past eight months I have spent covering his campaign. More complicated than the overt bigotry of, say, the Ku Klux Klan, it is a form of racial resentment based on historic white entitlement and a backlash to the upsurge in leftist identity politics that has marked American politics in the age of Obama.

I was with Trump in Alabama and Georgia last month, in the days after he caused an uproar by briefly declining to disavow the support offered to him by David Duke. When I asked his fans about it, they repeatedly brought up the Black Lives Matter movement, asserting that politicians should be pressed to denounce all race-based agitators, not just those representing white people. Why are they allowed to do things that we’re not allowed to do?

“Democrats won’t renounce hate groups like Black Lives Matter, which are just as extreme on the other side as the Klan,” Randy Lawson, a 48-year-old business owner in Moulton, Alabama, told me.

“The Black Panthers stood outside voting booths and turned people away and the administration didn't prosecute them,” said Clayton Burns, who owns a timber company in Tifton, Georgia. “For Barack Obama to side with the Black Panthers would be like my president siding with the KKK. The outspoken racial groups, the media doesn't ask Hillary or Bernie to disavow them.”

“It used to be majority rules, but now just one or two people get to decide for everyone,” said Jan Brice, a 62-year-old who works at a retirement community in rural Georgia. “We should be respectful of everybody, but look at what's happening with the Oscars, with the [minority-representation rules for] government contractors—it's reverse discrimination. People shouldn't be hired because of that when they're not qualified.”

Trump’s supporters have told me that minorities commit crimes with impunity, that illegal immigrants get benefits at higher rates than Americans, that gays and Muslims are afforded special status by the government. They lament that Confederate symbols, and the people whose heritage they represent, are sidelined while diversity is celebrated. They don’t understand why Democrats can campaign on overt appeals to the interests of blacks and women and Latinos, but Republicans are deemed offensive if they offer to represent the interests of whites and men. They hear, incessantly, on talk radio and the Internet, that they are under attack by the emboldened legions of minorities who, in the age of Obama, seek white domination and reparations and race war.

Why are they allowed to do things that we’re not allowed to do? This sentiment has resurfaced in recent days as the conflicts at Trump’s events have flared. Why, his supporters ask, do protesters—many of them part of organized leftist campaigns—get to disrupt and even shut down his events, while Trump and his supporters are expected not to respond? Why is Trump asked to condemn and discourage violence, while the protesters aren’t criticized for coming and starting trouble? Why are minorities suddenly entitled to jobs and platforms and Oscar nominations that previously belonged exclusively to whites? Trump’s supporters see their social status slipping at others’ expense in what they perceive to be a zero-sum game. And they may not be wrong.

Trump feels their pain. He assures them their resentment isn’t racism, that the implicit accusations they feel oppressed by are mere political correctness. He tells them they are entitled to the privileges they see others getting—and that, when he is in charge, they will get them back.

This is why Trump won’t denounce the violence at his events: He is standing up for the people who are tired of being told the divisions in American society are all their fault. As far as they can tell, he is the only one who is.