Why have blue-collar white Americans fled the Republican mainstream for its wing-nut wing? In a New York Times article last week, political writer Nicholas Confessore acknowledges the view that "xenophobia and racism," an angry reaction to the perceived withering of U.S. power, propelled workers into Donald Trump's arms. But Confessore has another explanation: They felt economically betrayed.
GOP leaders turned their backs on widespread economic distress while pressing for policies that enriched fat-cat donors, industry lobbyists and wealthy lawmakers themselves, he writes. Support for immigration reform, which party analysts understood as critical to winning future elections, struck the blue-collar electorate as one more slap in the face: a traitorous plan to hand American jobs to foreigners.
Then into this grumbling crowd strode the populist protectionist Trump, a third-generation billionaire whose lifestyle resembles Joe the Plumber's after winning Powerball. Finally, workers thought, a man who speaks for the masses!
It's a neat narrative, but it gets a lot wrong.
The story of how Trump crashed the Republicans' party isn't about recent economic betrayal. Sure, the GOP has ignored the workers' plight since the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009. But when did it ever give a shit about the workers' plight?
Nor is the story only about Trump's racism and xenophobia drawing white workers to him.
It's not about a bait and switch, either, using racist fear to distract white workers from their economic woes and the Republicans' role in creating them.
The bigger story is how the GOP combined white racism with economic anxiety — portraying workers of color as threats to white workers — to persuade the white working class to vote against its own interests. This is an old story, of which the 2016 election is one more twisted passage.
A few recent chapters, in reverse order:
The 1960s: The GOP deployed white racist rage at the Voting Rights Act to pull segregationist Democrats out of their party. What came to be called the Southern Strategy won five southern states for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and five for Richard Nixon in 1968. When the Supreme Court disarmed the Voting Rights Act in 2013, legalizing the disenfranchisement of poor voters of color, the Southern Strategy got a new burst of energy.
The 1950s: J. Edgar Hoover used anti-Semitic and anticommunist xenophobia to split the labor movement in two — left and right. Arguably, the purges of leftist leaders and members cripple labor to this day.
The 1930s: Before both of the above, the party synergized the two strategies, wooing the South and destroying the unions. Business leaders forged alliances with Deep South white supremacists, including the Ku Klux Klan. Fomenting white fear that black workers would get their jobs, they set white and black against each other to prevent both from exercising the rights granted by the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. These were the original "right-to-work" laws, which divided and conquered unions by allowing members to opt out of paying dues.
This mix of racism and antiunion policy is still fuel in the Republican tank. As Roger Bybee tells it on AlterNet, Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker drew on the same racialized strategies to expand right-to-work laws and bust the public-sector unions in his state. He portrayed teachers and state employees as overpaid elites who benefited from other taxpayers' sacrifices. It was not incidental that, because of affirmative action, government jobs and the unions that protect them have disproportionately helped minorities climb into the middle class.
In spite of massive protests by union members and supporters in 2011, Walker signed the law gutting public-sector workers' collective-bargaining rights. He was reelected; teachers' union memberships declined by half, and state workers' by 70 percent. And Walker was catapulted to a GOP presidential contender.
"We took the power away from the big-government special interests and put it firmly in the hands of the hardworking taxpayers," Walker told Iowa Republicans in 2015, summarizing the lie — the exact opposite of the truth — that the party sells to working people. He suggested that his victory over "100,000 protesters" prepared him to be the commander-in-chief who would defeat ISIS.
Racism and xenophobia don't always work for the GOP, however. That was spectacularly true in 2012, when the party's hard line against "amnesty" for "illegal" immigrants helped Barack Obama sweep the Hispanic vote. After Mitt Romney's rout — the fifth popular-vote loss in the foregoing six elections — the party released a frank report anatomizing what was going wrong.
"The perception that the GOP does not care about people is doing great harm to the Party and its candidates, especially at the federal level," the document states. It was in part an oblique reference to the party's last presidential candidate's dismissal of half the American voters — the infamous 47 percent — as parasites on the government.
Among the people failing to feel Republican love were minorities and immigrants, a fast-growing portion of the electorate. The party had better "embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform," the report warned, or risk shrinkage to its "core constituencies only." That is, white people.
Immigration "reform" — at least the sort Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would sign off on — could have been a win-win for the GOP's real constituency, capital. It could have drawn conservative Latinos and, at the same time, rationalized employers' control over the flow of cheap migrant labor. After all, President Obama's deportation crusade has been a royal pain for business, especially agriculture, with enforcement agents crashing the gates or holding back workers just when the peaches or tomatoes were ready for picking.
When Trump barged in with his loud-mouthed immigrant bashing, the Republicans' opportunity evaporated. Mexicans and their children and children's children will not soon forget being called "rapists."
Still, the other candidates couldn't help but notice that racism was working its old charm. It was energizing the rabble while deflecting blame for the white worker's stagnant wages onto the brown worker. Other president wannabes clamored to out-bash both the Donald and each other.
Of course, Trump is no team player. He has done the work of blaming the brown worker, but he hasn't covered for the real culprits. Instead, he tells working- and middle-class voters what they already knew: The party of the plutocrats is not on their side.
The GOP establishment stood aside while the orange-haired front-runner spewed filth about women, Muslims, Mexicans and people with disabilities. But talk about betrayal! Even hinting that the party did not have the little guy's welfare at heart was too much. How would the Republican Party's (false) image ever be rehabilitated?
It caught a lucky break: That old friend of business, the KKK, showed up. Former Klan leader David Duke endorsed Trump, and Trump declined to renounce him. The GOP instinctively knew what to do: Use white racism — this time against itself, jujitsu style. The patriarchs went on camera to perform their high dudgeon, the "Party of Lincoln" defending its honor against the racist Donald Trump.
"This party doesn't prey on people's prejudices," declared Paul Ryan. "We believe all people are created equal in the eyes of God and our government." He declined to renounce Trump by name.
Then the Speaker of the House went back to work on the budget, screwing working people of all races, creeds and national origins, equal in the eyes of government.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Racism Redux"