Though the high turnout of minority voters gave Joe Biden the edge in this election, exit polls showed that the majority of white voters favored Trump, exposing a ‘race gap’ in election 2020.
While three in five white voters (58%) supported Trump in 2020 like they did in 2016, 42% of white women voted for Trump, alongside Asians (34%), Latinos (32%,) and Black (12%). Among voters of color, over a third of Arab Americans polled preferred Trump because “they felt the Democrat’s support for Arabs was nothing but pandering for votes.” An AAPI survey also found that 48% of Vietnamese Americans and 28% of Asian Indians voted for the president.
But what puzzles the pundits is why white people (74 million) and some minorities voted the way they did. Though some voting patterns remain predictable, why did Trump win 3 out of 10 non-white voters? Why did half the country support a candidate whom the other half finds unacceptable?
The threadbare cliche that none of these groups (white, brown, or black) is monolithic, does not sufficiently explain why some of the electorate voted to support a norm-breaking candidate, whose views hew racist, sexist, xenophobic, disconnected and delusional, and who is responsible for a mangled response to a pandemic that has taken more than 300 thousand lives.
What do we really know about who voted for Trump and why?
Experts at a December 11 Ethnic Media briefing shared insights into voter turnout and the race gap in a contentious election.
The panel agreed that exit polls don’t tell the whole story. Polls only reflect those who voted, not those who did not cast a ballot. Despite a record number of votes in 2020, said Mindy Romero a professor at USC, what’s significant is that 85 million eligible voters did not turn out at all.
Trump got 31% vs 33% for Biden of eligible voters, among whom whites are a majority. So the voting electorate is not really representative of the voting population, stated Romero, because “disparities are entrenched in our electoral and prevent people from participating.’ If disparities were eliminated, Biden would have had a stronger mandate.
But there’s more at stake than counting voter turnout urged influential Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild. “It’s in our interest to get into the mindset of the 74 million who voted for Trump” because of the president’s partisan efforts to create divisiveness in the electorate.
Hochschild, the author of Strangers in their Own Land, shared her insights into the rise of conservative American voters. Her research, based on intensive interviews of Tea Party enthusiasts in Louisiana, drills down into the fundamental values and concerns of marginalized white voters that shaped turnout in this election.
Their story, she said, reveals the ‘anger and mourning’ on the right that’s fueling a sizable divide between Republicans and Democrats who don’t really seem to understand each other.
The left cannot assume that right-leaning voters with MAGA hats and pumping fists ‘are sitting pretty’ said Hochschild. That image is an illusion, describing very few who live in the Trump heartland around Eastern Kentucky and Appalachia, which is the focus of her current research.
In interviews, Trump supporters admit that life isn’t better for them after four years, but they are still voting for him. Why? Because, Hochschild explained, Trump has a way of ‘insinuating himself into the dominant paradigm of evangelical Christians, and reaching into his base using the trifecta of a ‘treasonous press,’ the deep state, and his bout with COVID19, to position himself as a victim ‘suffering for them,’ and that he alone can save them. Many Christians see Trump as a savior, said Hochschild.
On the other hand, Democrats, despite their education and curiosity tend to live in urban enclaves and don’t have a presence in disadvantaged, white strongholds. Such political bubbles leave many in these communities feeling invisible explained Hochschild. Support for Trump is rooted in disillusionment and anger at the system.
White Anger and the Trump supporter
What prompts the right-wing hostility of Trump supporters, argues Hochschild, is “an anguishing loss of honor, alienation and engagement in a hidden social class war,” lying hidden beneath their difficult struggle for the American Dream.
Trump supporters get their picture of reality not just from Fox News but also mainstream media such as CNN and MSNBC. But their impressions of non-white newscasters and black football stars with multimillion dollar deals, have heightened their sense of being left out. To them, people of color appear to be getting ahead and receiving special treatment in what is perceived as a ‘put down of white men,’ said Hochschild, adding that they regarded themselves as ‘poor and dumb,’ and actually felt that life was rigged against them; they felt they were ‘sinking as others are rising.’
Ironically, this sense of victimhood has made ‘a lot of white people…blue collar, high school educated white (Christian) people’ and pockets of poor folk, “feel like a minority group themselves” that is in decline, explained Hochschild.
One of her respondents had grown up in a trailer park where drug abuse and crime was rampant; he pointed out that communities like his were not dissimilar to those in the Bronx and Detroit, yet the media tended to portray poor whites in a more negative light.
So it was not racism, but economic anxiety, that propelled disenfranchised white voters towards Trump, explained Davin Phoenix, Asst. Professor of Political Science, (USC Irvine), and author of The Anger Gap: How Race Shapes Emotion in Politics,
Trends show that “white people feel the ground shifting under their feet.” Trump has harnessed their fear of a shifting society and losing their dominant status, to fan white anger and normalize the Trumpian viewpoint. “Anger is a palpable force,” said Phoenix.
But anger against an unresponsive society does not drive people of color in a similar way, he countered. While white anger manifested in a 2016 Trump victory, there is a racial anger gap prevents black people from mobilizing their anger.
“Race shapes who gets to be publicly angry over politics’ stated Phoenix. It determines how the polity, the media treats groups inequitably based on how they air their grievances.
Contrary to the stereotype of the angry black man, people of color express less anger at the system than their white counterparts.
White people express anger over politics by canvassing for candidates, going to the voting booth, donating, or contacting election officials. People of color are less likely to do so, though they may protest or boycott, said Phoenix. His research indicates that when people of color encounter threats, they are more likely to withdraw from politics or pursue alternative forms of action.
“Anger consistently mobilizes White Americans toward a wide range of political actions more effectively than African Americans,” writes Phoenix
The Media Narrative has to Change
Trump and his media echo chamber have continued to fuel this white anger in the run up to election 2020, and deepen the divide between Democrats and Republicans. Panelists agreed that the media narrative needs to change.
“There are lots of stories that could be written to reach across this divide,” suggested Hochschild, to frame migrant stories of both people of color and whites – Latino and Appalachian for example – so people can form a common, human connection. While we read about migrant camps on the Mexican border, the mainstream press does not cover out-of-work Appalachians in camped outside Cincinnati. We need stories that remind us that “there is work that Latinos do, that is not competitive with what whites do.”
We also need to address the idea of ‘displacement’ said Hochschild, because many of these people are not entitled – they’re depressed and a little bit frightened. “Labelling people as racist is going to backfire.”
The media plays a key role in educating the electorate about race and power, democratic norms and how the electoral process works, added Romero. She warned that the media sets up the narrative when they blame certain groups for failure in voter turnout. Instead of playing the ‘blame game’ after every election – young people were apathetic, why did black people vote for Trump, why didn’t more Latinos vote – Romero suggested the narrative must evolve from handwringing, to understanding the nuances in policy preferences among groups and where people are coming from, especially with historically underrepresented populations. We need to reach out and honestly address racial bias to begin a positive dialogue and encourage people to get past their differences, urged Romero.
The racial divide is underscored by misconceptions Democrats and Republicans have about each other, said Hochschild. In a survey Dems estimated that 50% of Republicans felt racism is still a problem, when that number was actually 80%. Republicans estimated that half of Democrats felt that police were ‘bad people’ when the actual number was lower (15%). Both sides are unable to predict what each think, and when perception of the other is so skewed, they really need to change tactics.
It won’t be easy, but Americans need to ’abandon party tribalism’, lower their guard, and listen to really understand each other, if they want to forge a less polarized, more inclusive country.
Meera Kymal is the contributing editor at India Currents