The Dirty Truth Behind Trump’s Success?

What if Trump is winning because of his racism and bigotry, not despite it?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump peers out into the crowd during a campaign event at the International Air Response facility on Dec. 16, 2015 in Mesa, Arizona.

Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

If you were one of the handful of Americans who watched Saturday’s Democratic presidential debate, you saw Sen. Bernie Sanders make an extended and impassioned statement against Donald Trump, tying his success to inequality and insecurity in the American economy.

“[T]hey’re looking around them,” said Sanders of ordinary Americans, “and they’re looking at Washington, and they’re saying the rich are getting much richer, I’m getting poorer, what are you going to do about it? What are you going to do for my kids?”

In that environment, says Sanders, a Trump-type can seduce. “[S]omebody like a Trump comes along and says, ‘I know the answers. The answer is that all of the Mexicans, they’re criminals and rapists, we’ve got to hate the Mexicans. Those are your enemies. We hate all the Muslims, because all of the Muslims are terrorists. We’ve got to hate the Muslims.’ Meanwhile, the rich get richer.”

In Sanders’ narrative, Trump is channeling class anger into prejudice, and exploiting the result. And Sanders isn’t the only person who thinks this. In an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, President Obama offered similar sentiments. “[P]articularly blue-collar men have had a lot of trouble in this new economy, where they are no longer getting the same bargain that they got when they were going to a factory and able to support their families on a single paycheck,” said Obama. “You combine those things, and it means that there is going to be potential anger, frustration, fear—some of it justified, but just misdirected,” he continued. “I think somebody like Mr. Trump is taking advantage of that. That’s what he’s exploiting during the course of his campaign.”

If this is true—and Trump is capitalizing on the economic anxieties of working-class Americans—then the response is straightforward: Address the anxieties, and you neutralize his appeal. Building economic security for working- and middle-class Americans is—and has been—a long-term project, undermined by a constellation of forces from globalization and the rise of Wall Street to the collapse of unions and the move toward a smaller, less-durable safety net. But if Sanders and Obama are right, then all liberals and Democrats have to do to beat Trump—or more broadly, diminish Trumpism—is continue being liberals and Democrats, with continued calls for more social insurance, more programs for families, more rights for workers, and a greater role for the public in our politics.

But there’s another possibility that challenges this sense that Trump feeds—and feeds off of—false consciousness. What if Trump’s racism attracts supporters? What if his bigotry is the point?

With the end of the 1960s and the rise of black electoral power, explicit racism fell out of political favor. It never disappeared—as late as the 1990s, prominent candidates were race-baiting their opponents—but it diminished, replaced by an era of “dog whistle politics” where politicians played on implicit bias with codewords and innuendo. Richard Nixon had “law and order”; Ronald Reagan had “welfare queens”; and in a move toward the explicit, George H.W. Bush had “Willie Horton” and an ad campaign that tied crime together with primal racial fears in a devastating hit on Michael Dukakis. “No campaign ever turns on one issue,” observed historian Dan T. Carter, “but no one—no one—who followed the [1988] campaign believes George Bush had any more devastating ally than the homicidal black rapist Willie Horton.”

(This, in particular, gives lie to the idea that the Bush family has been “squeamish” in its bids for the White House.)

What’s key is that there’s always been a portion of voters who are activated by racist appeals. And in an erstwhile herrenvolk democracy, this shouldn’t be a surprise. They show up in surveys, polling, and research data as Americans who rank high on racial resentment or hold strong anti-black views. They respond favorably to racial demagoguery—whether from candidates or media or both—and exist throughout American politics, in the far-right margins as well as a voting group in the Republican Party.

In fact, their racism makes them more partisan; in a 2010 paper, political scientists Michael Tesler and David Sears found that for Republicans in the era of Obama, the higher their racial resentment, the stronger their attachment to the GOP

Which brings us back to Donald Trump.

There is no question that Trump has run the most unapologetically racist and nativist campaign since George Wallace made his first national play in 1964. And, like Wallace before him, it’s been successful, drawing tens of thousands of people to massive rallies across the country. Trump probes their fears, excites their passions, and gives them voice in a way they love and understand. “We have losers. We have people that are morally corrupt. We have people that are selling this country down the drain,” Trump declares.

These voters may feel anxious about their economic status. But they also hold racial and cultural resentments. They’re worried about their futures and they dislike immigrants, Muslims, and blacks.

On Monday, the Washington Post looked at the white supremacists and white nationalists who cheer Trump as an asset to their movement. Trump has opened “a door to conversation” and “electrified” some members of the movement, says one leader in the Ku Klux Klan. “I think a lot of what he says resonates with me,” says David Duke, a “Grand Wizard” in the Klan and former Louisiana politician.

In a similar piece for the New Yorker, writer Evan Osnos spoke to Jared Taylor, a prominent white nationalist who described the situation as such. “I’m sure he would repudiate any association with people like me,” said Taylor, “but his support comes from people who are more like me than he might like to admit.”

These voices are self-serving, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Trump has shot to the top, fueled by vicious rhetoric against Latino immigrants and Syriain refugees. He has shared racist memes about black Americans and called for a ban on Muslim travel to the United States. And each time, his support ticks higher.

Economic anxiety plays a part here. But maybe Trump has discovered something we all like to deny: That in the 21st century, the racist vote is larger, louder, and more influential than we ever thought.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign.