Race, class and the Republican Party: Behind the rise of Donald Trump

Donald Trump has tapped into the rage and insecurity of white workers in the US with his own brand of racism and populism, writes Hannah McCann

Many around the world are looking upon the rise of Donald Trump in the US presidential election primaries with horror. Even the Republican Party elite are worried.

Meanwhile, media commentators and election analysts are struggling to understand his popularity. Trump first ran in the Presidential primaries in 2000 for the third-party centrist Reform Party, but didn’t enjoy much success. Why are people listening to Trump now?

Racism is a central part of Trump’s campaign. For example, after the San Bernardino shootings in California last year Trump suggested there should be a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. In March this year, Trump promised to pay the legal fees of a white supporter who punched an African American man who was protesting at a Trump Rally.

However, understanding his popularity merely as a reflection of racism in America misses a bigger picture about Trump’s relationship to class. Trump is drawing on racist sentiments and promoting racist ideas as part of his appeal to disenfranchised white workers in the US.

The racism from Trump is an extension of the kind of appeals many within the Republican Party have been making for some time.

Their efforts to stir up the Tea Party, as a populist movement against “big government”, unleashed a torrent of racism against Democratic President Barack Obama. This strategy is now coming back to haunt the Republican Party, as Trump reflects a more overt and extreme politics of fear and hatred.

Trump’s background is in business. Born in Queens, New York City, he is the son of real estate developer, Fred Trump. As a student he worked in father’s company Elizabeth Trump & Son, but in 1971 when he was given control he renamed this “The Trump Organization”.

Trump’s business is in developing real estate, casinos, golf courses and hotels, as well as other ventures such as hosting reality TV program, The Apprentice. It was only in June last year that he announced he would run as a Republican in the presidential primaries.

Economic crisis

Understanding Trump’s popularity has to start with looking to the effects of the 2007-2008 economic crisis on the US population.

Although unemployment is down from its high of 10 per cent in 2009, many remain “under-employed”, with low hours and minimal wages. On average, wages have fallen by 6.5 per cent since 2007. The 20 richest people now own more wealth than the bottom half of the American population combined (that is, around 152 million people!).

With the White House bailing out the big banks after the crash, there has been growing dissatisfaction and rage at the political system. Obama’s eight-year period as President has seen a continuation of the bailout strategy, opening up a space for right-wing opponents of the Democrats to capitalise on Obama’s failure.

Looking to this recent history, we can start to see why Trump has been able to rally angry white workers so successfully.

In proclaiming that he will “make America great again” he is acknowledging falling living standards, the hardships being faced by people, and promising something better. Contrasting this with his main Republican opponent Ted Cruz’s slogan “Courageous conservatives”, we can see how Trump is appealing specifically to class concerns that are not being picked up by his rivals.

However, unlike traditional Republicans who reliably act in the interests of business and free trade, Trump is also willing to break with support for free trade policies and openly promote protectionism. As he stated recently: “You have to bring in jobs, you have to take the jobs back from China, you have to take the jobs back from Mexico”.

Trump’s absurd proposal to build a wall between Mexico and the US must be seen in this context. Trump’s approach is to convince people that it is immigrants and other minorities who are taking American jobs. He explicitly attacks Mexicans as rapists; using racism to direct people’s anger at minority groups rather than big business.

Trump’s appeal to the working class is reflected in a number of other unexpected positions, such as his stand on healthcare. He has stated: “Everybody’s got to be covered. This is an un-Republican thing for me to say…I am going to take care of everybody. I don’t care if it costs me votes or not. Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now”.

Trump’s healthcare promises are no more than a vague populist claim. But this idea of “taking care of everybody” is central to Trump’s campaign.


The class basis of Trump’s popularity is further supported by a recent study by the RAND Corporation which concluded that, “Trump supporters form a powerful populist coalition”. They found that Trump performs well with Republican voters who both agree that: immigrants are a threat and that women who complain about harassment cause problems, as well as those who support taxing the rich and who support labour unions.

Another particularly unhelpful evaluation of Trump is the idea that he is a fascist. Although he is willing to encourage a certain violence at his meetings, Trump isn’t forming a violent para-military street movement of the kind that distinguishes fascists from other right-wing figures.

He is making his case within the boundaries of a democratic process. We need to understand Trump as another sign of the far right within Republican Party, as a populist.

Just as it was wrong to label Pauline Hanson supporters as simply racists, it does not help to understand Trump supporters as ignorant fools being duped by a demagogue.

He has been able to tap into sections of the working class who have been hit hardest by the economic crisis.

If Trump wins the Republican nomination and if Hillary Clinton is his opponent, the Democrats will try to draw Bernie Sanders supporters and the left back by arguing for a vote for the Democrats as “the lesser evil” to “stop Trump”.

But the kind of left-wing arguments coming from Sanders are a much more effective way to win people away from Trump than anything being pushed by Clinton.

A class analysis helps us to understand why many who might have voted for Bernie Sanders may look to Trump if Clinton is the nominee.

There is currently a reasonable cross-over between Sanders and Trump supporters, with roughly 20 per cent of Democrat voters recently surveyed saying they would switch to voting for Trump if Clinton is the candidate. For these voters it is “Sanders no. 1, Trump no. 2”. There are also stories of people wearing Sanders t-shirts being thrown out of Trump rallies, but having pro-Trump members of the crowd giving them the thumbs up.

Analyses show that this crossover is largest amongst white, low income voters. In other words, Sanders and Trump both appeal to working class concerns, in part because they present themselves as being against the usual political elites. This shows that the discontent can be pulled in two directions.

The difference is that while Trump uses scapegoating and draws people to the right, Sanders is arguing for solidarity, drawing people to the left.

The Republican Party elite are concerned to stop Trump because he is a loose cannon who does not always follow the usual Republican script. Trump’s argument for an end to US free trade deals—i.e. bringing manufacturing back to the USA—would potentially affect major companies like Apple, and relationships with countries like China and Japan.

However Trump’s future as the Republican candidate is not secured. Rival nominees Ted Cruz and John Kasich are still in the race, and the split vote means that Trump may not reach 1237 promised delegates needed to guarantee nomination in the first ballot at the Republican Convention.

Under Republican voting rules, delegates are technically able to vote for any candidate they like in the second round, even if they were elected to support Trump. Some in the party are hoping they can use this to reject Trump, and decide to run a candidate who hasn’t even appeared in the primaries.

Whether or not Trump is the candidate, his ideas have already garnered a lot of attention and airtime across the world. This means something to an Australia context—if Trump’s views continue to get a major platform, this will add to the confidence of the kind of right-wing sentiment we have already seen expressed here by right-wing sections of the Liberal Party.

We also need to understand how Trump has used racism to pull sections of the working class to support the right, because that is a tactic also frequently used in Australian politics.

For example, in the politics around refugees understanding how racism is used as a scapegoating tool is essential for challenging Liberal slogans like “stop the boats”.

These arguments cannot be won by appealing to humanitarian concerns alone: they must also be formulated to address the class concerns for which they are being used.

It is not enough to say “refugees are people too”, rather we need arguments like, “refugees don’t take jobs: Malcolm Turnbull does”. Trump is another example of the dangers of politicians who use racist ideas and appeals intertwined with working class concerns.

Without an understanding of the class basis of Trump, the danger is that the left will just be pulled to support the corporate-funded Clinton Democrat election campaign.

What is really needed is a socialist approach, which looks to movements like Black Lives Matter, the recent Chicago teachers’ strikes and fast food workers’ fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage, independent of the dead end politics of the Democratic Party.


Solidarity meetings

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