Trump cuts to the heart of White American fears

Donald Trump’s meteoric surge through the Republican primary election is both unique and telling. His punchy rhetorical jabs at opponents and his unflinching sense of posterity make for a Republican Presidential race that basks in his self-made image. For many Trump represents a minstrel show mania, a candidate putting on an act to attract votes from the far right fringes of American society. For others he is the only honest and legitimate candidate on either side of the partisan line. Primary elections make for great displays of showmanship and political maneuvering in front of cameras, and yet there are deeper and more concerning trends that make the New York Real-estate  tycoon all the more symbolic of long standing divisions in America society.


It is undeniable that a majority of Trump’s supporters are White and conservative. Many of them hail from different economic classes, as the Republican Party maintains a strong White working class base in the Southeast and Midwestern United States. While a majority of White Americans may not support Trump, his speeches penetrate to the very core of the panic and hysteria that some would argue grips White Americans of all economic classes. The loss of racial position due to the ‘Browning’ of America and general economic decline following the Great Recession of 2008 has stoked the fires of White insecurity. The fear of economic competition for increasingly scarce middle and working class jobs from immigrants contributes to the panic. Donald Trump not only acknowledges the impending identity crisis facing an America that has been traditionally dominated by a largely White Protestant demographic, but he provides a necessary vent for their frustrations. His trademark decisiveness in diagnosing the social consequences of illegal–largely non-White–immigration along with the ineptitude of the Obama administration provides a strategic target for Republican anger and indignation.


Trump has set the tone and pitch for the Republican presidential race. His rhetoric is not new, yet he produces a novelty that is unsettling. He has created a discourse that is more radical, more discriminatory in its posturing, and more disillusioned than the traditional triumphalist self-styled narrative that permeates American politics. What’s more troubling is that many White supremacist groups that usually remain silent about supporting a mainstream politician have chosen to vocally endorse Trump’s candidacy.


The themes that help explain the Trump phenomenon are not just the residuals of political culture, but those of incremental changes across the American urban cityscape. Racial and class gaps in education and housing create totally separate spheres of existence for different groups. Not only is the social interaction along contrasting class lines relegated to superficial contact in places of work, but perceptions about the problems of America are increasingly drawn along lines of opposition. Attitudes toward police brutality by racial category, for example, show that large numbers of Black and White Americans have contrasting perceptions of the police response to instances such as the Ferguson protests.


As schools in the U.S become increasingly segregated according to socioeconomic status and race, the entrenchment of segregated urban spaces and urban poverty almost become inevitable.  The legacy of state-sanctioned segregation of schools in the Southern United States looms over the current crisis in education.


The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. the Board of Education eliminated the infamous ‘Separate but Equal’ clause, which allowed for schools to remain separated by race under the laws of the individual states if the schools had resources and facilities that fostered the same access to education. In 1954 the Court found that equal conditions did not exist in black schools and ruled the Separate but Equal doctrine unconstitutional. In the aftermath of the Brown decision the court mandated that school districts all over the country institute busing to forcibly desegregate. Schools would often be placed in the inner city where Black students were heavily concentrated and White students would be bused in from the surrounding sub-urban spaces. These programs were overseen by court mandate with varying instances of success all over the country. Desegregation through busing was vehemently opposed by many White residents everywhere, but was less successful in the Northeastern United States. The Sothern United States did see positive changes from forced desegregation.


Fast-forward to 2015, many schools in the U.S. have Balkanized according to ethnicity and income level.  In Northeastern cities such as New York and Boston schools largely remained segregated due to the failure of busing in the 1970’s; however, in other cities where desegregation was successful, many of the positive gains from that era are quickly being erased. Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) in Charlotte, NC and the Tuscaloosa City Schools in Tuscaloosa, Alabama are particularly notable examples of school districts that have re-segregated.


In 1999 a federal judge ruled that court enforced desegregation by busing in CMS was no longer necessary, as the county had reached a point where racial and socioeconomic equilibrium had been achieved. School districts could be left to oversee their own affairs without court oversight. Despite the many positive benefits of racial and economic diversity, many school districts across the U.S. eliminated busing and implemented plans that emphasized neighborhood schools. Vocal opponents of these policies stated that they would result in the eventual re-segregation of schools by race and income level, a development that impacts the quality of education for many American students. American school districts receive a large percentage of their funding from property taxes, hence if the area in which the school is located is poor the school will have less funding.


A recent study found that Charlotte Mecklenburg County is the second-worse county in the U.S. for upward economic mobility behind Baltimore, Maryland. While the study does not account for parental incomes or existing costs of living in the counties it examines, the study does paint a grim picture. Firstly the most economically ‘mobile’ locales are not in the Southern United States, and the study implicates a link between economic mobility and access to education. In CMS there is a cluster of high poverty schools where projected socioeconomic outcomes are far worse than everywhere else. Mecklenburg County is a paradoxical place, it boasts dynamic economic growth, and influx of newcomers, a booming financial sector, and yet it has high levels of income inequality, socioeconomically and racially segregated schools, and–for those that live in economically deprived areas for long periods–a significantly reduced chance of rising out of poverty.


The link between education and housing becomes ever more essential in light of patterns of urban migration. Shrinking tax bases due to White Flight from the inner city and the need for city governments chasing commerce to retain high tax generating middle class residents underscored efforts by city governments to eliminate busing. One investigative report discusses at length the secret political deals and long standing racial tensions that were essential to policy decisions which ultimately re-segregated schools in Tuscaloosa. The emerging trend of middle class, often White, professionals moving to city centers across the U.S. has added an even greater explosive element to these long standing tensions in American society. The recent arrest of Jason Goolsby in Washington, D.C. not only harkens back to perceptions of Black men as inherently threatening, but is also a likely result of the gentrification in the D.C. metro area.


As working professionals move into cheaper and heavily Black and Brown areas the resulting increase in property values price the local residents out. Neglect and urban decay in these spaces, worsened by the economic global economic crisis of 2008 prior to reverse White Flight, can foster environments of discontent and anger. Resultant criminality, an inevitable heavy handed police response, joblessness, higher rates of teen pregnancy, and other social indicators of urban poverty are colliding head on with the forces that promote urban renewal. Too many times, however, the local residents are forced to leave having never benefitted from the economic revitalization that middle class migration brings. The racialist undertones of urban migration to city centers coupled with the economic inconvenience for those in local government of catering to a mass of poor residents incapable of being a viable tax base for urban revitalization creates the perfect storm for class and race warfare in America’s cities. Schools with entrenched high poverty student bodies further ensure that this cycle remains in place, as these schools become ever oft-repeating separate and unequal drop-out factories. These ever-widening fault-lines, particularly in light of the optimism surrounding race relations due to Obama’s election, ensures that America will move toward greater internal strife down the road.


Donald Trump, more than anyone else, has chosen a specific way to package and express these underlying perceptions of America’s direction in the 21st century. While his speeches target Mexican American immigrants, convenient scape-goats for White conservative anger, his arguments cut to the heart of the anxiety that all Americans feel. He, however, has chosen to align his gospel with the interests of the traditional base of the Republican Party while targeting politically vulnerable groups in his campaigns. The implicit fear of a new black uprising–with tacit support from Obama–along with a fear that immigrants are stealing economic power fuels the engines of paranoia that Trump cleverly utilizes to drive his message forward. Yet it is undeniable that the seemingly bombast and crude language of his campaign solicits the respect of many White Americans looking for a radical messiah to guide them out of a deeply uncertain political and economic climate. While all Americans feel the pinch of a generally weaker economy, White Americans–for many Trump supporters–are in danger of losing their unstated position within America’s hierarchy. Trump is the charismatic phantom of a declining demographic in a declining empire.