Why Did Some White Obama Voters Go for Trump?

Trump gave them a choice between multiracial democracy and white primacy.

President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump talk to members of the media during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016.
President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump met in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Thursday.

Jabin Botsford/the Washington Post via Getty Images

I did not grow up in a place where black Americans predominated. Where I lived, whites were the clear majority. And while I moved through black spaces, my day-to-day world was filled with white people: My neighbors were white; my teachers were white; many of my friends were white. I can attest only to my experiences, but I suspect I’m not alone in what this environment meant for my life. It meant I had close, loving relationships with white people. And it also meant that some of those same people were racists. They hugged me hello, and they locked their car doors when an unfamiliar black person walked by.

There’s nothing novel in this dichotomy. There’s no point in American history where racists haven’t loved, and been loved by, people of color. At every point in our past, people committed to white racial superiority have also admired the minds and bodies of black Americans. And why wouldn’t they? Most racists aren’t Ben Tillman or Bull Connor. They’re not monsters. They’re just people. And on the other side, black Americans—whether in the South or outside of it—have always had relationships, even close ones, with white racists. Part of being black is navigating the reality of white Americans who show kindness and care in one breath and say nigger in the other.

Understand this fact, and you have a better grasp on one of the key dynamics that put Donald Trump in the White House.

Election Day exit polls are unreliable for understanding the shape of an electorate. Why? Because exit polls don’t measure the actual composition of an electorate; instead, they relay the shape of exit poll respondents. And while that can come close to representing the pool of people who voted, it isn’t an exact match.

But that doesn’t make them useless; exit polls still tell us something about how Americans voted. And the results are somewhat surprising. It’s clear that Donald Trump won on the strength of white voters. But he also performed somewhat better than his predecessor, Mitt Romney, among black and Hispanic voters (although Latino Decisions, a polling firm, disputes the latter finding). And a decisive portion of his voters—working-class whites in the states of the industrial Midwest—voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Even if these numbers aren’t exact, they’re still important. Taken together, they seem to complicate one narrative around the election of Donald Trump: that it represents a swift backlash borne of white tribalism and white resentment. If some nonwhites voted for Trump and if some Trump-backing whites voted for Obama, how could it be racism? What does white nationalism have to do with it?

During the 2008 election, FiveThirtyEight relayed an anecdote from the campaign trail:

So a canvasser goes to a woman’s door in Washington, Pennsylvania. Knocks. Woman answers. Knocker asks who she’s planning to vote for. She isn’t sure, has to ask her husband who she’s voting for. Husband is off in another room watching some game. Canvasser hears him yell back, “We’re votin’ for the n***er!”  Woman turns back to canvasser, and says brightly and matter of factly: “We’re voting for the n***er.”

At the time, this was presented as an anecdote about Barack Obama’s popularity—about the possibility of racial solidarity. With hindsight, we know that reading was wrong. What this suggests, in truth, is that these voters tolerated Obama as the best available choice. He wasn’t a transformative figure; he didn’t signify a change of heart. At most, he wasn’t George W. Bush. At best, he was “one of the good ones,” someone they could respect, even if they viewed his group with fear and suspicion. And four years later, he wasn’t Mitt Romney, a man who embodied plutocracy in approach, affect, and attitude. These Americans voted for Obama and kept the white racial frame that shaped their understanding of their place in this country.

In 2008, Obama lost Washington County, 52 percent to 47 percent. In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost the county 60 percent to 35 percent. (It’s worth noting, too, that when offered a choice between Obama and Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary, working whites like those in Washington County went overwhelmingly for Clinton.) If you jettison the idea that the bulk of white Americans expressed anything about equality in the election of Barack Obama, then the reality of Obama/Trump voters doesn’t actually complicate the picture of a white electorate fueled by tribalism and eager to reassert its dominance. All you need to do is treat Trump’s campaign with the seriousness that it deserves. Donald Trump broke a critical precedent in modern American politics. He abandoned the restraint and decorum that kept explicit racism out of national elections: dog whistles, not loudspeakers. And while race was a part of every conversation and every argument, no one tried to litigate the prevailing racial order of nominal tolerance. We were, on paper, a multiracial democracy, and our elites agreed to keep that issue off the table.

But uncontested multiracial democracy is a recent development in American history. For most of our national life, the United States has been a herrenvolk democracy, one in which whites have been favored citizens enjoying principal access to wealth and opportunity and presumptive status over nonwhites. And in the middle of the 20th century, that also meant first dibs on the fruits of an interventionist government. For millions of white workers formerly confined to cities—where social standing was found in the ability to create space away from blacks and assorted others—it meant status security in white schools and white enclaves. And if they belonged to unions, even integrated ones, it meant white shop floors and specialized jobs, for whites. When this was challenged, by black incursion into white spaces, the results were explosive, from political backlash—like the one that installed white supremacist Albert Cobo as mayor of Detroit in 1950, over vocal objections from liberal union leadership—to outright violence and anti-black pogroms.

We assume that the relative lack of racial violence over the last generation is because of a change of heart and attitude. And surely that has happened to some extent. But to what degree does it also reflect an erstwhile political consensus wherein leaders refused to litigate the question of multiracial democracy? Absent organized opposition to the idea that nonwhites were equal partners in government, there was no activation in the broad electorate. It wasn’t an issue people voted on, because they couldn’t.

Donald Trump changed that. With his tirades against nonwhites and foreign others, he reopened the argument. In effect, he gave white voters a choice: They could continue down the path of multiracial democracy—which coincided with the end of an order in which white workers were the first priority of national leaders—or they could reject it in favor of someone who offered that presumptive treatment. Who promised to “make America great again,” to make it look like the America of Trump’s youth and their youths, where whites—and white men in particular—were the uncontested masters of the country.

In the same way it has always been possible for white Americans to love black individuals and vote for the subjugation of black people, it is also possible to like Barack Obama and also yearn for a return to this idealized past, especially in a world that is tenuous and unstable. Which means that, in the case of the Obama/Trump voter, all we have is a case of simple preference order. When the choice was between Obama and a conventional Republican, these voters chose Obama. But when the choice was between Obama’s flawed successor and a man who promised to restore their greatness, Trump won.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.