How can the Democratic Party best respond to Donald Trump’s election? The current debate rages around whether to unify around class or instead to build a coalition of identity groups, key among them racial minorities. We reject as fundamentally flawed the implicit assumption that class and race are incompatible bases for moving forward. Race is not a distraction from but a key driver of widening inequality and stagnant or declining wages for the majority. To meaningfully help working people, the Democratic Party must simultaneously engage class and race.
Trump’s election reflects the triumph of dog-whistle politics—the use of (barely) coded racial appeals to mobilize white voters who have become anxious about their social position and economic standing. Nothing better illustrates this strategy’s potency than the demographics of Trump’s support. Exit polls show non-Hispanic whites contributed 86 percent of Trump’s votes, while a further 3.4 percent came from Hispanic whites. African Americans constituted only 2 percent of Trump’s votes.
But Trump’s campaign also spoke powerfully to the economic anxieties experienced by so many white working-class voters. Trump’s greatest success came among white men without a college degree, where Trump bested Clinton by 73 to 23 percent. Even the higher-income whites who voted for him have been on a downward economic escalator. They’re clearly worried about their futures.
So how should Democrats move forward? Despite the obvious role of race, many hesitate to acknowledge this fact, worrying that even raising the issue of racism would unfairly and unwisely insult Trump voters. Because race divides us, a developing consensus seems to hold that we should move forward on what instead ostensibly unites us: a common interest in addressing surging economic inequality. The injunction to eschew “identity politics” has become shorthand for a strategy that sets aside seemly divisive matters like racism and focuses almost exclusively on economic inequality.
Yet in order to more clearly discern the way forward, Trump’s election must be placed in historical context. In the 1960s, the Republican Party spied a possible advantage in the rising racial resentment among whites generated by the civil-rights movement, and quickly sought to harness and then to foment this seething sense of insecurity. From Richard Nixon’s invocations of “law and order” and “the silent majority” to Trump’s resurrection of those loaded terms, the GOP has made racial grievance a core organizing principle.
For all its ugliness, this was strategy, not simply bigotry. The goal was to win elections and to satisfy the demands of the moneyed class funding Republican campaigns. This required stoking resentment not only against nonwhites but also against liberal government, which was painted as coddling minorities with welfare while refusing to control them with lax criminal laws and weak border enforcement. By pandering to racial anxiety and enflaming hatred against government, powerful elites distracted voters from recognizing the threat posed to whites as well as people of color by increasing concentrations of wealth and power. In other words, white resentment helped build a toxic degree of economic inequality.