Trump's America and Our Country's History of "Whitelash"

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Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump take a photograph together while they wait for a town hall meeting on March 14, 2016 in Tampa , Florida.
Photo Credit: 
AFP Photo/Brian Blanco

Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States. For many Americans, this never seemed possible. It seemed unthinkable that a political outsider, who spent much of his campaign insulting large swaths of Americans, could win the election. Even the pollsters and the media predicted a Clinton victory. But a Donald Trump victory should not be so surprising. While many Americans connected to Trump’s populist economic platform and anti-establishment message, they also rejected decades of globalization and multiculturalism. Trump’s victory was a repudiation of the Obama administration and a “whitelash against a black president” and our changing country. A Trump victory should not be so surprising because America has a history of backsliding on racial progress.

"This was many things. This was a rebellion against the elites, true. It was a complete reinvention of politics and polls, it's true. But it was also something else. We've talked about everything but race tonight. We've talked about income, we've talked about class, we've talked about region. We haven't talked about race. This was a whitelash. This was a whitelash against a changing country. It was a whitelash against a black president in part. "

- Van Jones, CNN political commentator A History of "Whitelash"

After the Civil War, Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill of 1866, the first federal law to grant citizenship and affirm that all citizens are equally protected by the law. In the following year, Black men were given the right to vote and hold elected office. In 1868, the fourteenth amendment of the constitution was ratified, granting citizenship and equal protection under the law for all Black men and women. In reaction to these breakthrough developments of racial progress, the Ku Klux Klan formed in 1866 with the purpose of obstructing black progress. By 1870, the clan extended into almost every southern state and became a vehicle for white southern resistance.

Years later, in 1877, the Republicans and Democrats made an informal deal to settle the disputed 1876 presidential election. The Compromise of 1877, also known as the Great Betrayal, resulted in the national government pulling the last federal troops out of the south and brought in Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes effectively ended the federal role as defender of black civil rights. Whites in the south regained political control and southern states passed new laws and constitutions to disenfranchise African Americans by creating barriers to voter registration. These “Jim Crow” laws segregated whites and blacks in education, housing, and the use of public and private facilities as well as denied blacks the right to vote. 

In the 1960’s, Lyndon B. Johnson passed the most expansive civil rights legislation since Reconstruction – the Civil Rights Acts of 1963 and 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. He also nominated Thurgood Marshall who would be the first African American Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Throughout this time, civil unrest increased across the nation. Race riots broke out in many larger cities, where there was a large population and concentration of minorities. Protestors, even those practicing nonviolence, were often met with violence and arrest. 

In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the National Conference on New Politics:

“There has never been a solid, unified and determined thrust to make justice a reality for Afro-Americans. The step backward has a new name today, it is called white backlash, but the white backlash is nothing new. It is the surfacing of old prejudices, hostilities and ambivalences that have always been there. It was caused neither by the cry of black power nor by the unfortunate recent wave of riots in our cities. The white backlash of today is rooted in the same problem that has characterized America ever since the black man landed in chains on the shores of this nation."

Tapping into the country’s anxiety over crime and disorder, Richard Nixon campaigned on a message of law and order. This style of dog-whistle politics, racially-coded language, played on the racial fears of many southern whites who associated the rise in crime with African American riots. Ronald Reagan campaigned on similarly coded rhetoric, making attacks on the “welfare” state and promising to protect “states’ rights.” He created the “Welfare Queen,” a Cadillac-driving mother on the South Side of Chicago who fraudulently collected welfare payments. He told stories of “strapping young bucks” – a derogatory Southern euphemism for black men – who used food stamps to buy T-bone steaks.

Decades later, in 2008, the United States elected the first African American President. Soon after Barack Obama’s election, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported 200 hate-related incidents. During his first four years, implicit and explicit anti-Black attitudes among Americans increased. The “birtherism” conspiracy – that Obama is foreign-born and thus an illegitimate president – became a movement. An era of multiculturalism and immigration eroded White Americans' status as the majority.

Enter Donald Trump, who campaigned with a language of white grievance and fear – calling into question President Obama’s citizenship and religion, promising to deport immigrants and ban Muslims from the United States, and vowing to bring back “law and order” in the inner-cities. Millions of white Americans put him in the White House.

Today, white anxiety has propelled many far-right populist parties in the West. In France Marine le Pen of the National Front is now the second favorite in the upcoming French election. Le Pen has campaigned on a platform promising an end to “Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism” and to drastically reduce immigration. Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, leads a right-wing coalition with a strong anti-immigrant stance. He has said that accepting Muslim refugees would mean importing terrorism, crime, anti-Semitism and homophobia. In June of this year, Britain voted to leave the European Union as a rejection of the governing political class and a response to increasing immigration.

Western societies have undergone rapid social change due to globalization and increased migration, including greater tolerance for diversity and more egalitarian attitudes. These shifts in values have threatened those who fear becoming marginalized. Globalization and free trade have also widened economic inequality and damaged working-class communities. Parties like the National Front and leaders like Donald Trump have given a voice to those who fear cultural change and who feel threatened by the slow erosion of their privilege. Across the West, feelings of fragility and insecurity have triggered a backlash against anyone perceived as an outsider - including immigrants, Muslims, and the "elites."

White identity politics is on the rise across the Western hemisphere. Racial progress, cultural shifts, and a changing economic landscape have paved the way for Donald Trump and the like to rally those who feel left behind. 

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