New York Times
By Amanda Taub
November 9, 2016
It will take weeks or months to fully parse Donald J. Trump’s upset presidential victory, but his campaign was driven, at least in part, by the dramatic rise of a new kind of white populism.
It has fueled turmoil in the United States and Europe, including not just Mr. Trump’s election to the presidency, but Britain’s vote in June to leave the European Union and the rise of anti-immigrant, populist political parties across much of Continental Europe.
I have spent the past year investigating the rise of that new kind of populism — a majoritarian backlash — including speaking to dozens of social scientists and gathering original data. And while their research varies, their conclusions all converged on three key factors that explain what is taking place: fear of social change; fear of terrorist attacks and other physical threats; and the crisis of identity that many whites are experiencing as they struggle to maintain their position.
Fears of social change
The first is rising fear of social change. Marc Hetherington, a Vanderbilt University political scientist who focuses on polarization and authoritarianism in American politics, explained to me earlier this year that it’s important to remember that recent decades in the United States and Europe have been tumultuous.
The women’s rights movement changed gender norms; anti-racism and civil rights movements chipped away at old racial hierarchies; gay rights have led to a redefinition of marriage. More recently, immigration has dramatically reshaped demographics in cities across the United States and set the nation on a path in which whites, while still the dominant group, will no longer be a majority within a few decades.
As Eric Kaufmann, a political scientist at London’s Birkbeck University, told me for a previous story, rapid increases in ethnic diversity trigger corresponding rises in support for anti-immigrant politics.
In recent years, immigrant communities in the United States have moved beyond their traditional enclaves near borders and in large cities, reaching many states at the center of the country. Just as Mr. Kaufmann’s research suggests, those places turned out to be strongholds of support for Mr. Trump, who has promised to build a wall along the border with Mexico and to begin mass deportations of undocumented immigrants.
Some people are especially sensitive to social change. Mr. Hetherington and other social scientists have identified a group they call “authoritarian voters”: people who have a strong desire to maintain order and hierarchies, along with a powerful fear of outsiders.
Research shows that authoritarians find social change very threatening. When they are scared, they seek out strongman leaders and support harsh, punitive policies against immigrants and other outsiders — much as Mr. Trump has done.
Threat of physical attacks
The second factor is a fear of a different kind: the visceral threat of physical attacks.
Research by Mr. Hetherington and Elizabeth Suhay, a political scientist at American University, shows that fear of physical threats, like terrorist attacks or violent crime, can compel people to desire leaders who will prioritize security above all else, including, if necessary, civil liberties and democratic institutions.
That kind of fear is widespread: For the past two decades, most Americans have believed that crime is rising, even though crime rates have fallen dramatically during that period.
More recently, the threat of terrorist attacks has added a new layer, even though terrorist assaults on American soil remain very rare.
Mr. Trump has played on those fears, declaring falsely during his campaign that America’s homicide rate was at its highest level in 45 years. He also asserted that Muslim immigration needed to be halted in order to prevent terrorist attacks.
He described the Black Lives Matter movement as a “fuse-lighter” for assassinations of police officers, further stoking a sense of looming chaos.
In doing so, he has followed a playbook that is commonly used on the other side of the Atlantic, where populist politicians have accused immigrants and Muslims of bringing crime and violence.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, for instance, has said that accepting Muslim refugees would mean importing terrorism, crime, anti-Semitism and homophobia. In Britain, Nigel Farage, a central figure in the UK Independence Party and a major player in the campaign to take the country out of the European Union, has warned of a “Romanian crime wave” that he called the “dark side of immigration.” In France, Marine le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, has accused immigrants of bringing crime and terrorism.
Collapse of white identity
The third factor is the most difficult to measure quantitatively, but it may well be the most important: the collapse of white identity.
White, in this context, does not merely mean those with white skin. Rather, it means the majority group that has traditionally enjoyed the privilege of being considered “us” rather than “them,” both culturally and politically.
Although the boundaries of whiteness have always been blurry, they have traditionally excluded many who had white skin, including Jews, who were the targets of anti-Semitic attacks from many of Mr. Trump’s supporters during the campaign.
Demographics and longstanding elevated status once ensured that white Americans were socially dominant and had numbers on their side. That began to change decades ago, thanks to the civil rights movement and a more diverse immigration policy. But for a long time, economic progress meant that many working-class whites, not just in the United States but across the West, could still feel secure and successful, and be confident that their children would do even better.
That matters, experts say, because a sense of progress and achievement can, in itself, underpin a kind of identity. As industry and manufacturing in the West have declined and blue-collar jobs have disappeared, hitting many small cities and towns hard, that identity has been lost. People who live in such places can no longer feel confident in their future, and they see younger generations struggling or moving elsewhere in search of better opportunities.
People who lack opportunities for achievement-based identity, experts say, tend to become more attached to identities based on innate characteristics like race. But those who turn to white identity now are finding that it no longer offers the status it once did.
That can feel like a deeply painful loss, which perhaps explains why Mr. Trump has enjoyed consistently strong support in heavily white areas where children are likely to be less well off than their parents. It is in such places that those lost identities would be felt most keenly.
Those three factors have led to a new kind of populism: not the rage of the long-marginalized poor, as is typical of left-populist governments in Latin America, for instance. Rather, it is the majoritarian backlash; the rage of those who now are slightly less powerful against the gradual erosion of their privilege.
That backlash fueled Mr. Trump’s candidacy. And now, against all predictions, it has sent him to the White House.
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