It wasn’t only Hillary Clinton who stoked the campaign’s culture war last week.
Just hours before Clinton set cable and the internet ablaze last Friday night by describing half of Donald Trump’s supporters as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it” her rival issued his own apocalyptic warning. In an interview Trump declared that if “I don't win, I think this will be the last election that the Republicans have a chance … because you're going to have people flowing across the border, you're going to have illegal immigrants coming in and they’re going to be legalized and … vote and once that all happens you can forget it.”
Like bookends, both candidates presented themselves as the last defense against gathering forces that would transform America and subjugate their supporters’ values. It only underscored the gulf that Clinton spoke at a Manhattan fundraiser of gay activists who were serenaded by Barbra Streisand, while Trump issued his warning in an interview with Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcast Network at a conference of religious conservatives.
Few moments have captured as clearly 2016’s evolution into a cultural civil war. Trump is rallying passionate support from the voters most estranged from the social and demographic trends reshaping America, particularly blue-collar, older, non-urban, and evangelical whites. But the brusque, racially barbed nationalism he has used to court those voters has provoked unprecedented resistance from all the forces that welcome (or even accept) this new America. That includes not only most minorities, young people, and cultural figures like Streisand who ordinarily tilt Democratic, but also much of white-collar white America and the business establishment, which ordinarily lean Republican.
On almost every front, the campaign now offers a stark contrast between the turbulent passion of Trump’s backers and the steely rejection of Trump by almost all institutions of elite leadership, across party lines.
He’s inspiring rapturous support from populist conservative media outlets (like Breitbart.com), and condemnation from even staunchly Republican newspaper editorial boards (like the Dallas Morning News). After much delay, Trump is now steadily raising dollars from small online donors drawn to his bristling message. But most of the GOP fundraising infrastructure has renounced him—even as Clinton has attracted huge financial support not only from traditionally Democratic donors but also some Republican-leaning ones. A detailed Wall Street Journal analysis last week found her drawing nearly 90 percent of the donations made by employees of major industries like finance and health care that four years ago directed most of their contributions to Mitt Romney. The top 10 firms whose employees are donating the most to Trump included a “five-acre hog farm,” a garlic producer, and an Anchorage-based “clothing and home-furnishings retailer.”
Likewise, polls suggest the blue-collar whites underpinning Trump’s support may be more isolated than ever from other voters. This week’s ABC/Washington Post national poll showed Trump leading Clinton among whites without a college degree by a resounding two-to-one. But the survey showed Clinton leading among college-educated whites—a group no Republican nominee has lost since 1952. In the poll, Clinton ran 17 percentage points better among whites with a college degree than those without one—more than double the widest gap between those groups in any previous election (a mark set by President Obama in 2008). Similarly, the poll placed Clinton’s support among minorities nearly 50 points higher than her support among blue-collar whites (roughly matching the two groups’ historic degree of separation in 2012).
These contrasting demographic patterns virtually guarantee more geographic separation too. America’s largest 100 counties are crowded with minority and white-collar voters and Obama in 2012 won them by a crushing margin of nearly 12 million votes. He lost the other 3,000 counties to Romney by about seven million votes. That gap between the largest places and everywhere else was nearly 50 percent bigger than it was as recently as the 2000 election. Few observers would be surprised if Trump suffers even greater repudiation in the largest metros and outpaces Romney beyond them—thus widening the electoral distance between town and country. “This election will play out with an historic and unprecedented gap between the college and blue-collar [whites], and the city-rural divide is where” that will manifest, said the Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg.
Against all this, it’s striking that Trump is keeping the race as close as it is (even if he’s yet to prove he can push much past 40 percent support). It also underscores why so many Trump voters view 2016 as their Alamo. It’s unlikely any future candidate will articulate their grievances as unreservedly as Trump. And it will only grow harder to construct a winning electoral coalition around his blue-collar base: although Census surveys show non-college educated whites as a larger share of all voters than media exit polls do, both sources show them declining on average by about three percentage points in each election since 1992. The minority and college-educated white voters most repelled by Trump’s insular message are inexorably filling the gap.
Clinton’s dismissal of the “deplorables” may help Trump energize his voters by deriding her as an elitist who “mocks and demeans” them (as he said Monday). But the exchange also portrayed Clinton to her coalition as the defender of a diverse, inclusive America against an opponent they consider uniquely hostile to it. And in fact, while polls show most Clinton voters welcome immigration and rising diversity, much of Trump’s support views each with alarm. Whoever wins in November will struggle to find common ground between these culturally antithetical coalitions. But it is Clinton, for all her other missteps, who has planted her party on the side of this divide that is growing larger every four years.