“Go ahead, give Trump a chance — can’t be worse than that n****r we’ve had the last eight years.”
On March 9, 2016, around 10 p.m., those statements floated toward me from a middle-aged, working class white man about 20 feet to my right. For the previous eight months, I had been hearing ad nauseaum the ominous racist underbelly of American society responsible for the rise of then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump. That night, under the stars in a hammock just above the coals of a dying fire, overlooking Lake Greenwood in Ninety Six, S.C., every layer of abstraction with which I perceived those individuals, every node of separation between us, every semblance they had in my mind to mythical creatures evaporated.
That man was not alone in his views, and I reckon his mindset is not as sparse as I would like to think. Still, I contend that this bigotry does not represent the majority of Americans, of Republicans or even of Trump voters. However, in The Atlantic national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates’ already-famous article published this month, Coates overplays his hand by writing that Trump’s “entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president,” and largely ascribes the Trump phenomenon to white racism. Indeed, the election does indicate that some sect of the population — much larger than I would have admitted to two years ago — is deeply racist. One needs only the data indicating a post-election spike in hate crimes to see that. But pretending that Trump was elected simply because he opened the floodgates of racism is divisive and naïve.
Coates makes an incomplete distinction between vote-driving issues and non-vote-driving issues. His argument holds water only if whites voted for Trump en masse because of their prejudices.
To begin with, Trump received just over 44 percent of the votes in the GOP primary, totaling to 14 million votes. Immediately we can see that even if Trump’s only appeal was his dog whistling to racists, less than half of the Republican voters held racism as a vote-driving issue. He clinched the Republican nomination with the votes of less than 23 percent of those who voted for him in the general election. Even among Republicans, less than a quarter preferred Trump.
Fourteen million. That’s a lot of racists.
But even of those 14 million, how many held racism as a vote-driving issue? Trump’s primary election voter had a median income well above that of both the average American and the average Democratic voter, so it was not exactly the working-class revolt it was touted to be. But from personal observation, many of Trump’s most ardent supporters seem to be those who hate liberal ideology, elitism and condescension, not black or brown skin.
The upper-middle class is perfectly situated to accommodate those who hate taxes and the jobless. We find top earners of the working class with incomes of $50,000 to $100,000. For instance, both plumber and truck driver, as well as several other higher-paying industrial jobs, fall in this range. These workers put in long, physically taxing hours; it cannot be pure irrationality and racism to support an anti-establishment candidate whom they perceive speaks honestly about — for instance — lazy people who live by the dole of the state. Even those who work office jobs are in a situation where the taxes they pay affects their lifestyle more than those in the upper-middle class; making $10 million and paying roughly four million has much less effect than making $70,000 and paying $15,000. As misplaced as their contempt may be, it takes a complete lack of empathy to dismiss these voters as purely racist.
As for the general election, Trump garnered 63 million votes. That number does not denote that 63 million people supported Trump’s policies, but that 63 million people thought Trump was a better candidate than Hillary Clinton. But take into account all the factors extrinsic to racism. How many people did you hear say that Trump was the “lesser of two evils?”
The ubiquity of misinformation in the 2016 election cycle ought to exculpate some portion of that group from charges of racism. Fourteen percent of Trump voters actually thought that Clinton was operating a child sex ring out of a D.C. pizza parlor — an additional 32 percent were unsure. Call them gullible, even call them stupid, but surely it is not deeply-ingrained racism that prompts someone to vote against a person who operates a covert child sex ring. Then, there is the portion of that 63 million people whose opinion on Trump’s social policy prescriptions range from hatred to apathy but voted for him because their vote-driving issues are wholly fiscal, also exonerating them from charges of racism. Still, more voted only to keep the Supreme Court conservative.
I am not suggesting that we should sing “Kumbaya” from the rooftops. The fact that Trump’s birther conspiracy, his accusation of Mexican rapists, his admittance to sexaul assault and his flirtation with David Duke did not disqualify him from seizing the nomination and presidency is disgusting. Every one of those comments — standing alone — should have been a vote-driving issue; the fact that they weren’t ought to be a serious conversation that we should have as a country. But voting against an ostensible criminal, voting for a fiscal conservative and voting to keep the courts originalist are not the same as voting for a racist.
Nor should my defense be read as an endorsement of Trump, his actions, his statements or his policy prescriptions. Every pore of the man’s body oozes incompetence and vitriol. But to trace those attitudes back to his supporters as a collective says more about the investigator than about the supporters. Painting Trump supporters with the same brush with which we paint Trump is neither pragmatic nor ethical — and if ostracizing, mocking and otherwise humiliating well-meaning Trump voters is the new modus operandi of the Democratic Party, maybe we should start calling liberal open-mindedness what it is: a farce.
Grant Osborn is a College junior from Springfield, Ohio.