If you’re someone who thinks and writes about politics, as I have for more than four decades, this election cycle has been—by turns—perplexing, humbling and terrifying.
More than once over the past months, I’ve found myself watching the primary returns and wondering whether I really know this country or its people anymore?
Virtually no serious analyst foresaw the sequence of improbable events and subterranean eddies of popular sentiment that now have put Donald Trump within reach of the White House. It sometimes seems nowadays that the this vulgar bully may be just one more Hillary Clinton scandal from the Oval Office—and God knows, that woman comes with more baggage than a Pullman railcar.
As their race tightens—as presidential contests nearly always do after Labor Day—the polls seem to become confusing. Smart consumers of their findings will want to ask just how the survey’s writers “weighted” their turnout estimates. Weighting is where the art of polling comes in and it involves making some informed assumptions about who actually is going to go to the voting booth on election day. Some pollsters are better at it than others and some just are unlucky.
One of the reason Mitt Romney’s people were legitimately caught by surprise by his defeat was that their surveys had made fundamentally wrong assumptions throughout the campaign about who was going to turn out to vote. The worst of these was that African-American enthusiasm for Barack Obama would wane the second time around, and that he wouldn’t be able to energize young voters a second time. Blacks and young people, in fact, came out strongly for the president, and along with Latinos, their numbers were sufficient to offset the Republican candidate’s traditional advantage among white voters.
Many of the current surveys showing Trump closing to within the poll’s margin of error, or even taking a slight lead, are assuming that he will bring into the election day mix, poorly educated white male voters, who traditionally stay home. Perhaps he will, though political history is against it—though political history hasn’t been much of a guide to anything that’s happened this year.
Analysts and political scientists have by now come up with quite a number of plausible and smart-sounding explanations for what’s happening, but one of the most disturbing things about this race is that the more closely you examine most of them, the less satisfactory they seem. That’s why a piece in this week’s Economist is so important. Few publications are as sober or thoughtful when it comes to handling data as this indispensable British news magazine. (Full disclosure: I have been a contributor over the years and several of its editors have been friends.)
The Economist cites a mammoth Gallup survey of 87,000 Americans that seems to put pull to the argument that Trump’s strongest support is rooted among those working class voters dislocated by globalization. In fact, Gallup found that Americans “who live in areas less affected globalization—whether the loss of manufacturing jobs or influxes of immigrants—were the ones most likely to view Trump favorably. The simple explanation that white Americans roiled by free trade and immigration are flocking to the outrightly protectionist and anti-immigration candidate does not suffice,” The Economist concluded from the data.
After running through other popular explanations of Trump and Trumpism unsupported by hard research, the Economist asked its own pollster, YouGov, “to ask a battery of questions aimed at measuring racial resentment. Different from outright racism, this is measured by support for the idea that blacks are undeserving and clamorous for special assistance. . .in other words, “lazy and overindulged.”
What the Economist conclusively found was that “racial resentment was tightly linked to Trump’s supporters.” This remained true when YouGov controlled “for region, race and religion. (Gallup did find that the more racially isolated a respondent’s neighborhood or region, the more likely they were to hold a favorable opinion of the Republican nominee.) The Economist found that “59% of Trump supporters in the Republican primary scored in the top quartile on racial resentment, compared with 46% of Republicans who backed other candidates and with 29% of voters over all.”
Is it really possible that, all the complex arguments over international economics, income gaps and social class, really come down to that old American flaw—racial antagonism, the original sin that has mocked our most cherished values and aspirations from the days of the Founders and Framers?
Can this whole crazy political year really be explained by simply acknowledging that what’s old is new again? After eight years of government by an immensely decent and eloquent African American president are there still tens of millions of Americans drinking from the sour chalice of racial animosity and resentment?
That would seem to be the case, and Trump’s foully opportunistic willingness to capitalize on it—and, let’s face it, there’s nothing this lout won’t do to win—has opened a door to something far more sinister than any of us could have imagined when this campaign began. Trump’s candidacy has invited the nationalist, nativist, white supremacist propagandists and organizers out of the shadows and positioned them to take an active role in a Republican Party that has long coveted their votes, but shunned public explication of their ideas.
This group now loosely styles itself the alternative right, or alt right and claims to represent the future of the conservative movement. As they assert themselves more forcefully and publicly in the months to come, it is likely to touch off a bitter civil war within the Party of Lincoln. Writing recently in the Washington Post, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro set the parameters of that impending conflict about as well as anybody yet has:
“Constitutional conservatives can’t stand the Alt Right,” he wrote.
“Conservatives—real conservatives—believe that only a philosophy of limited government, God-given rights and personal responsibility can save the country. And that creed is not bound to race or ethnicity. Broad swaths of the Alt Right, by contrast, believe in a creed-free, race-based nationalism, insisting, among other things, that birth on American soil confers superiority.
The Alt Right sees limited-government constitutionalism as passé; it holds that only nationalist populism on the basis of shared tribal identity can save the country. It’s a movement shot through with racism and anti-Semitism.”
It also contains many of Trump’s most fervent backs, though as the Economist’s survey shows, they have a depressing number of fellow travelers.
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