When Donald Trump rolled down the golden escalator at Trump Tower to spout racial slurs to an eager press pool and a hired crowd of cheering extras, I thought, “How amusing. A narcissistic ignorant liar is offsetting his insecurities by saying outrageous things to get attention.” As the primaries went on, though, I noticed something different. Almost certainly by chance, Trump had re-created the coalition that made the Democratic Party so successful from the thirties to the early seventies. Since the Roosevelt era, the Democrats had united Southern segregationists with industrial states’ unionists to control Congress. The result was a cornucopia of goodies for the ironically named “greatest generation”: Social Security, the GI Bill and finally Medicare.
The glue that bound this coalition was not progressivism, but racism. The Segregationists’ animus was obvious, but up north the Unionists weren’t any more open-minded. The grand bargain fell apart when the Democratic leaders, thinking themselves idealists and champions of the downtrodden, began listening to their consciences and allowing the first few concessions toward civil rights. Since the concessions were made mostly in the South, the Northern Democrats indulged their party leaders, even felt good about it. But as busing became a thing in Boston, New York and Chicago, attitudes changed. The Northerners fought bitterly in the cities and failing that moved to the suburbs. (Nassau County, Long Island is the most segregated county in the nation.) The more rights blacks got — God-given, inalienable rights — the angrier the whites got in the North and the South.
The Democratic leadership patted themselves on the back for their high-mindedness and LBJ, sighed as he signed the Civil Rights Act, “We’ve lost the South for generations.” But he was only partly right. In a few years, he had lost the North too as his voters became “the Silent Majority” of the Nixon years, then Reagan Democrats and now Trumpers. People in the working or lower middle classes know how close they are to slipping into poverty. They see the economy as a zero-sum game and that every benefit they get is diluted by adding more takers to the rolls. They don’t hate blacks—or immigrants for that matter—because of the color of their skin. They hate them because they know part of their tax money is going to someone besides themselves. Why is the United States only one of two advanced countries without national health care? Because white people don’t want their tax money going to help someone poorer than they are. And they know blacks are poorer because whites have kept blacks second-class citizens who work for second-class wages. Like all exploiters, they hate and fear the exploited. Don’t believe me? Remember who the other country without health care is: South Africa.
Essays abound now attempting to explain the Trump phenomenon and tell us why white working people are so angry—especially when so many of Trump supporters are not poor, but comfortably retired people. But there’s nothing to explain. It’s the old Democratic coalition come to take its country back. They just want the government to stop giving stuff to black people and start giving stuff — more stuff that is — to them.
The Republican leadership is also confused. They thought the working class and evangelicals wanted smaller government and lower taxes. They thought they were conservatives. But what the GOP leadership calls smaller government the Silent Majority calls Social Security. They are opposed to Obamacare because they think putting more people on the rolls will reduce their Medicare benefits. So they are mad at the Republicans too. “Keep the government’s hands off my Medicare,” they shout. This is why they call the Republican leadership the same thing they call Democrats: “elite.” Elites are people who tell them they must pay for their benefits or have them reduced. Trump tells them they can keep their benefits and not pay any more. It’s the same thing the Republican leadership has been telling the rich for years—lower taxes, no benefit cuts! Reaganomics! But when you tell it to the working man it’s populism.
So if we’re surprised at Trump, it’s only because we’re been fooling ourselves. The Democrats thought they were popular because they were the party of fairness and equality; the Republicans thought they were popular because they were idealists. But really each was popular because it sanctioned racism, the one thing all Americans have really agreed upon since the grand compromise of our founding documents. And whoever delivers that racism will form a winning coalition.