Why (some) Americans vote for Donald Trump

R.W. JOHNSON / The shadow of Donald Trump already lies heavily across the international scene. Yet many people are still mystified by Trump. How did it happen that this politically illiterate businessman with no previous political base or experience was able – out of nowhere – to capture first the Republican nomination and then the USA? And now he looks capable of doing it again. And why are his followers so fanatical? When George Bush Sr. was running for re-election in 1992, Trump offered himself as Vice President. Bush thought he was mad, and threw his letter in the bin. That was the conventional judgement then. So what changed?

The answers are to be found in Samuel Huntington’s Who Are We?, a book about American national identity published in 2004, twelve years before Trump won office. Huntington quickly dispenses with claims that America is based on “universal Western values”, the “Judaeo-Christian heritage”, etc. In its formative years America was strongly white, British, Protestant and Puritan, with deeply rooted democratic instincts. It was of crucial importance that the more absolutist influence of Catholic France or Spain was not allowed to prosper. Native Americans and blacks were excluded from citizenship and for centuries were not allowed to count. Even by the year 2000, 69% of Americans were still white, and 63% were Protestant.

Enormous numbers of other Europeans entered America in the 19th and 20th centuries, but both among the newcomers and the established population there was a very strong ethic of integration. Immigrants were expected to learn and speak English, to be proud of becoming Americans, and to assimilate to the established white, Anglo-Saxon core. Typically, classes were organised to teach immigrants how to be good Americans and immigrants enthusiastically accepted this, even anglicizing their names so as to fit in better. This was so successful that it was often a surprise to learn that “quintessential Americans” often had very foreign roots. Yul Brynner came from Kamchatka in Siberia, Dustin Hoffman is Ukrainian Jewish – and so on.

By 2000 this model was challenged by the end of the Cold War (and thus a loss of national purpose), the rise of multiculturalism, the fact that most immigrants were now either Asian or Hispanic, not European, and by the fact that a majority of the new immigrants spoke a single non-English language – Spanish.  That had never happened before. Moreover, these new immigrants could easily maintain strong relationships with their previous countries which were relatively close by and accessible.  What this meant was that America was moving towards being a culturally bifurcated Anglo-Hispanic society with two national languages. Moreover, the popularity among the educated elite of multiculturalism and affirmative action had greatly weakened the pressure towards assimilation.

In particular, Mexican immigration was leading to the “demographic reconquista” of the areas America had taken from Mexico by force in the 1830s-1840s. Miami and Los Angeles are now both primarily Spanish-speaking cities. Similarly, large numbers of blacks from the West Indies and Latin America have decamped to America – over a quarter of the entire Jamaican population now lives there – but these immigrants no longer become American: they become “Afro-American”.

In particular, Mexican immigration is different. The US-Mexican border is 2,000 miles long and easy to cross. Mexicans make up well over half of all Latin American migrants to the US and, by 2000, comprised 27.6% of the total foreign-born population. Moreover by 1990 Mexicans accounted for 58% of all illegal immigrants. Never before has immigration to the US been thus dominated by a single country. By 2002, 72% of all school children in Los Angeles were Hispanic. Nothing like that had ever happened before. And the higher the degree of concentration of such immigrants, the slower and less complete was their assimilation. Texas, New Mexico, California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah all used to be part of Mexico, and they are steadily becoming part of Mexico again.

Historically, the first immigrant generation struggled with English, the second generation largely won that struggle, and the third generation was completely fluent in English. The Mexicans have disrupted that pattern. Many are frankly uninterested in assimilation, neglecting even to apply for US citizenship. They insist on their children speaking Spanish. Moreover, immigrants historically pushed their children to gain the maximum amount of education in the US, an indispensable aid to upward social mobility.
The Mexicans are the opposite. Thus by 2003 among the foreign-born populations, 83.8% of Asians completed high school as did 94.9% of Africans. The figure for Mexicans was 33.8%. The result is that the Mexican population is not achieving much upward social mobility, even by the third generation. And many seem quite content with that. That is, they are happy to live in much the same way as they did in Mexico. They are just Mexicans who happen to live in the USA, but they have not assimilated. By 1990 even-fourth generation Mexican immigrants were educationally far below the American norm. A 1998 study showed that while only one in 14 whites dropped out of high school, one in eight blacks did, but so did three Hispanics out of ten. In 2001 14.6% of all Americans were on welfare, while 22.7% of immigrants were – but the figure for Mexicans was 34.1%.

If children of other Latin American immigrants were asked how they identified themselves, the proportion saying they were Americans varied between 28.5% and 50%. Among Mexican-American children born in the USA, only 3.9% said they were Americans. There have been incidents of Mexican spectators at sporting events booing the American anthem, carrying Mexican flags, assaulting other spectators who carried US flags, and so on. Not surprisingly, native Americans view Mexicans as the least patriotic of all Americans.

The result of this massive Hispanic migration is that America’s demography is changing very fast. In 1980 whites accounted for 80% of the population, but by 2045 they will lose that majority status (in America Hispanics are not classified as white). And, as Huntington says, it would be “unprecedented in human history if these changes did not generate reactions of various sorts”. In particular. there is obviously scope for a white nativist movement which sees itself as a victimised group (as women, Hispanics and blacks are affirmatively preferred) in a country which was once theirs. This largely describes Trump’s base: a large group of mainly poorer whites, easily persuaded that America needs restoring to greatness because, of course, it identifies greatness with the period when white power was absolute.

Such folk had long resented the immigrant tide, but it was only when Trump began campaigning to build a wall to keep migrants out that they really connected with him. They had despaired of American elites who favoured multiculturalism and affirmative action, and preached the traditional gospel of the US as “an immigrant nation”. But Trump offered a completely different view of the future.  Inevitably, such MAGA (Make American Great Again’) folk were found particularly in the South where whites had lost power due to the civil rights movement, and where they took the brunt of the immigrant surge across the Rio Grande. Inevitably, such people looked to traditional values and to conservative, evangelical Christianity.

These MAGA people feel they are fighting for their identity, for the country and culture that was traditionally theirs and against their “betrayal” by liberal elites. With such fundamental elements in play, they cannot really accept defeat: losing means losing everything. So if Trump tells them that he only lost in 2020 because he was robbed by electoral cheating, they are only too keen to believe him. And Trump has become their tribune. He alone is willing to speak all manner of uncomfortable truths that others evade. They love him – and find him wonderfully entertaining. They loathe  upper class liberals like Hillary Clinton, with their sense of entitlement, their politically correct opinions and their condescension towards “deplorables”, that is, people like themselves.

There was no sign of Trump or MAGA when Huntington wrote his book in 2003, but that merely makes his foresight all the more impressive. Huntington died in December 2008, just after Barack Obama had first been elected. He would doubtless have understood that the election of the first black president would only increase the nativist reaction that he was expecting, though of that there was then no sign. In retrospect, one can see how well Trump’s campaign to prove that Obama was an illegitimate president – that he wasn’t really an American citizen – fitted into all this. Trump wanted to believe that Obama didn’t represent the real America. The “real America” didn’t include blacks of Kenyan descent – or Hispanics. Real Americans were whites of European descent (in Trump’s case, of German descent). And if only you could put people like that back in charge, if you could put Humpty-Dumpty back on the wall, then all would be well.

Like so many populists Trump promised to bring back a lost golden age, a partially imaginary past. But of course, it’s not possible. Trump can no more restore Eisenhower’s America than Gatsby could put the clock back to win Daisy. But few things are more powerful than imagination, and Trump may well turn the world upside down even as he fails.

FEATURED IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons.

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