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Donald Trump is not a real populist. That fact will not change despite how many times politicians and the news media say that he is. Reporters and journalists can also visit an infinite number of diners, bowling alleys, flea markets, gun shows, and other such places in Trumplandia in a quest to decipher the supposedly mysterious beliefs of the (white) working class in so-called real America and “the heartland” but that won’t change the fact that Trump is not a real populist. Real populism is radically democratic and inclusive.
By comparison, Trump’s fake populism is exclusionary and narrow as it channels widespread anger at “the elites” into something fascist and authoritarian with demagogues and other hatemongers like him in charge.
Moreover, Trumpism as a form of white rage-white identity politics, channels what has been described as “frustrated white entitlement” about an increasingly diverse and inclusive society where Whiteness and white privilege (and claims on it) are increasingly by themselves no guarantee of upward mobility and life success in America and around the world.
Black and brown people, as a community, were not seduced/deluded by such fictions as the American Dream or the Horatio Alger myth or American exceptionalism. As James Baldwin so incisively observed, “The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which White Americans cling.”
In a 2021 conversation with me here at Salon, leading sociologist Arlie Hochschild offered this explanation for Trump’s “populist” appeal and its connections to whiteness, white entitlement, white racism and white resentment:
The people who voted for Donald Trump did so for a variety of reasons. There were those who voted for him because of taxes or social issues, guns or being "pro-life." Others because they liked Trump's bravado. Some because they feel a generalized sense of decline. Some Trump people supported him because of racism. I think that the dominant group of Trump voters are people I would call "the elite of the left behind." These are not the abject poor. However, they are not rich either.
They're rural or small-town and white. They sense themselves as being part of a declining part of society. I believe such feelings are also global with right-wing populism, as seen in response to such issues as race and immigration. Fear and anger is displaced onto scapegoated groups.
But the group that's doing such things here in the United States specifically are the "elite of the left behind." Going back to 1970, there are winners and losers to globalization and the winners are generally coastal and more cosmopolitan and better educated. They can have jobs that are not as vulnerable to being automated or off-shored.
These losers from globalization consist of different kinds of people. But the people who are mobilized are the elites of that group. I remember going to a Trump rally in a bus. This was in New Orleans, with a member of the Tea Party who I had gotten to know and who I was following around for my research. On the bus, people were saying, "Oh! Look how many of us there are! We're all for Trump!" Trump has mobilized them. He's pulled them together. He's gotten them to see each other.
And here is how I believe race is operative. The white Trump supporters I met actually see themselves as some type of minority group: "We're being put down. We are being prejudiced against. They call us rednecks and hillbillies."
Ultimately, at its core Trumpism is a form of crude and toxic populism that is racist, white supremacist, nativist, misogynist, ableist, and based on a general type of hostility to the Other – usually racially defined. The role of racism and white supremacy in overdetermining support for Donald Trump and the MAGA movement and American neofascism – and today’s Republican Party and “conservative” movement more broadly – has been repeatedly demonstrated by political scientists, sociologists, social psychologists, and other researchers and experts.
New research by political scientists Ashley Jardina and Spencer Piston adds even more clarity to the role of racism and white supremacy in white people’s support of Trump and the MAGA movement. Their findings: Trump’s appeal to his white voters is impacted by some of the oldest, most vile, and dangerous white supremacist beliefs about the inherent biological inferiority of Black people.
Jardina and Piston worked with the polling firm YouGov to examine participants’ beliefs and attitudes (600 non-Hispanic whites) before and after the 2016 presidential election. The participants were asked to rate how “evolved” they believe Black people to be. The participants in the study were also asked about their feelings of “warmth” towards Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump:
Dehumanizing attitudes are measured using what has become a standard question in the social sciences. Respondents are asked to rate ‘how evolved’ they believe Black people are on a 0 to 100 scale accompanying an image of the iconic ‘ascent of man’ depicting a popular (and incorrect) perception of the evolution of humans. The image features five silhouettes arranged on a scale beginning with an ape-like figure and ending with a modern human.
Jardina and Piston conclude:
[W]e find that Trump support was associated with an increase in whites’ endorsement of dehumanizing portrayals of Black people after Trump's electoral victory. We also find suggestive evidence of a backlash effect: Trump's opponents became less likely to express dehumanizing views toward Black people after the election.
Many scholars have demonstrated that Trump's victory influenced expressions of racial prejudice in the U.S. We build on this work by providing evidence suggesting that Trump's election had a polarizing effect on the expression of dehumanizing racial attitudes. We find that Trump supporters became, on average, more willing to report dehumanizing attitudes about Black people. (my emphasis added)
Jardina and Piston offer these important details about their research and findings:
The figure reveals a polarizing effect. Those whites with favorable feelings toward Trump report lower evolutionary ratings of Black people over time, while those with unfavorable feelings toward Trump report higher evolutionary ratings of Black people over time. At the extreme low end of the Trump thermometer, in which respondents report the coldest possible feelings toward Trump, the predicted value for evolutionary ratings of Black people increases by about 4 points from the pre-election to the post-election wave. At the extreme high end of the Trump thermometer, meanwhile, in which respondents report the warmest possible feelings toward Trump, the predicted value for evolutionary ratings of Black people decreases by about 2 points from the pre-election to the post-election wave. The null aggregate findings reported at the beginning of this section did indeed mask countervailing trends. (my emphasis added)
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Jardina and Piston’s findings about the relationship between Trumpism and support for dehumanizing and white supremacist views of Black people were relatively small, but the implications for American society and the country in a time of ascendant fascism and racist violence are great.
Jardina and Piston explain, “To be clear, these effects are not enormous….The observed changes are nonetheless meaningful. When it comes to evolutionary ratings of racial groups, even a difference that appears quantitatively small can reflect a qualitatively meaningful distinction”.
Jardina and Piston’s research reinforces how some of the most dangerous and violent white supremacist anti-Black beliefs, attitudes, and values that legitimated centuries of white on Black chattel slavery, colonialism and imperialism, and then the Jim and Jane Crow reign of terror here in the United States, are still shaping American politics and society in the present. Some prominent examples include the attempt by Trump and the Republican fascists and “conservative” movement to take away Black Americans’ voting rights and revoke birthright citizenship, police thuggery and brutality and mass incarceration against Black people, the belief that white people are somehow being “replaced” by “illegal immigrants” and other non-whites in “their own country," and Trump’s Jan. coup attempt (the goal of which was to end multiracial democracy).
The enduring power of old-fashioned biological racism in American society is made even more terrifying given how Trump is now openly channeling Hitler, complete with threats to remove the “vermin” from the country and complaints of how non-white people are “poison” in the blood of the nation.
How Trump and the MAGA movement and larger American neofascists are nakedly trafficking in eliminationism and other racialized violence is a central part of their plan to create an American Apartheid Christofascist plutocracy.
Dehumanizing Black people and other non-whites and targeted groups is one of the first steps towards creating such a hellish America – and we are well down that horrible road as Trump is tied with or leading President Biden in the polls and the 2024 election is less than one year ahead.