by Michael Suk-Young Chwe
If only whites could vote, or only men could vote, Donald Trump would be elected president. The people we rely upon to save democracy are exactly those people whom the United States historically excluded: women and people of color.
Women and people of color have been fighting all these years not just for inclusion in U.S. democracy, but for democracy itself, it turns out. Trump’s candidacy is evidence that the project of Western liberal democracy is not self-sustaining; the ethnic and gender group that claims to have originated it has been unable to maintain consensus around its ideals, and must be bailed out by newcomers who actually take those ideals seriously. Women and people of color have been reluctantly invited to a storied and elegant social engagement, only to have to clean up after the hosts trashing the place.
Only since 2008 has our country’s choice of president differed from the choice of a majority or near-majority of white voters. In 1976 Jimmy Carter won 47 percent of the white vote compared with Gerald Ford’s 52 percent, and in 1992 Bill Clinton won 39 percent of the white vote compared with George H. W. Bush’s 40 percent (the remaining 20 percent of the white vote went to Ross Perot). In all other elections from 1972 to 2004, the candidate who won the white vote won the presidency. However, in 2008 Obama won 43 percent of the white vote compared with McCain’s 55 percent, and in 2012 Obama won only 39 percent of the white vote compared with Romney’s 59 percent.
White men have consistently voted Republican since 1972. When has their favored candidate lost? In 1976, 47 percent of white men voted for Carter and 51 percent voted for Ford, a 4 point “gap.” In 1992, Clinton won 37 percent of the white male vote compared to Bush’s 40 percent, a 3 point gap. In 1996, Clinton won 38 percent of the white male vote compared to Dole’s 49 percent, a much larger 11 point gap. In 2008, Obama won 41 percent of the white male vote compared to McCain’s 57 percent, a 16 point gap. In 2012, Obama won only 35 percent of the white male vote compared to Romney’s 62 percent, a 27 point gap. If only white men could vote, Romney would have been elected in a landslide. But the US elected Obama. As the population of color grows, and the power of women only increases, white men become less important.
How will whites, especially white men, adapt to the new demographic reality: gracefully, petulantly, or destructively? Even ostensibly liberal whites (for example Academy Awards voters, who are overwhelmingly white and male) will have to make changes far outside their previous experience. For example, the relatively liberal Bernie Sanders campaign never tried very hard to reach black voters and focused on working-class whites, an error which should have been obvious. Perhaps the U.S. avoids confronting global warming because of deeply-ingrained American consumer habits. But the U.S. has been led by white men longer than it has been a consumer society.
In a democracy, your goal is to get more votes than your opponents. So if you must offend one group in order to ingratiate yourself to another group, you should try to offend a small group. When Romney famously remarked in a private fundraiser that he was not going to “worry about” 47 percent of the U.S .electorate, what surprised me was not his callousness but his apparent belief that 47 percent was a small number. Maybe you can write off 10 percent of the population, but if you write off 47 percent, you have to win almost all of the 53 percent remaining to win a majority.
Trump insults very large groups such as women, Latinos, and veterans; indeed there are few groups whom Trump has not personally offended, including Republican voters. It is as if Trump does not realize that he should be trying to get votes, not express dominance over other people. His behavior is more consistent with an authoritarian strongman operating in pre-democratic times, or a vindictive mob boss seeking to defend territory in an autarkic free-for-all, not a candidate seeking to win an election. Perhaps Trump supporters, who tend to have authoritarian personality traits, also don’t really believe that we are operating in a democracy.
Much has been said about how Trump supporters are racist, anti-immigrant, and Islamophobic, but it is possible to be racist or anti-immigrant and still support basic democratic values such as the rule of law, freedom of expression, and equal protection, and basic norms of civil society such as politeness, mutual respect, and avoiding threats of violence. What particularly delighted Trump supporters, and distinguished Trump from other Republican candidates such as Ted Cruz who took equally bigoted positions, was Trump’s demonstrated willingness to violate democratic values and basic norms of civil society. Evidently for Trump supporters, the “racial and gender order,” enforced by the authoritarian tactics of bullying, harassment, intimidation, and violence, is more important than democratic values. Trump has endorsed violence against protestors at his rallies, tried to intimidate the news media, called for his opponent to be jailed, and most recently stated that he will not necessarily respect the outcome of the election. Each statement crosses a new “red line” but should not be surprising; violating democratic norms is the essence of Trump’s brand and what attracts his supporters. Among Republican voters, 84 percent say that listening to Trump brag about sexually assaulting women does not change their support for him.
Elizabeth Warren has said that Trump is the “natural consequence” of Republican extremism. But this does not go back far enough. Democracy and protection of basic human rights are valued by people who seek protection from persecution. Perhaps the roughly 40 percent of U.S. voters who support Trump are willing to sacrifice democratic values because they never expect to be in need of the protection that democratic values provide; they have always been part of the ruling coalition, and believe they always will be. Trump is struggling among Mormons, who are normally solidly Republican but have a fear and real history of being persecuted, and is struggling among white Catholics for partly the same reason. Part of Trump’s weakness with women voters is that women understand being victimized by men in a way that men do not.
Another possibility is that Trump supporters fear being outside the ruling coalition so much that they feel they must resort to authoritarian means to preserve their ruling coalition. In other words, if they truly believed in the strength of democratic values and institutions, they would not fear becoming a numerical minority. But perhaps they never believed in the first place.
What we are seeing in the widespread support for Trump is not just right-wing extremism but a deep, almost fatal, weakness in the Western democratic project. Despite constant promulgation of democratic values in its civic, educational, and cultural institutions, the majority of the largest ethnic and gender group in one of the world’s most powerful democracies are willing to dispose of those values when their historical dominance is slightly threatened. In a country founded on the ideals of welcoming immigrants and religious tolerance, with even a national holiday celebrating these values, the majority of the members of the largest ethnic group support a candidate who calls immigrants murderers and rapists.
This weakness has always existed, but Trump’s candidacy has revealed it more fully and shockingly. Trump has taken more extreme positions than any major candidate has taken before, not on the left-right spectrum, but on the desirability and legitimacy of democracy itself, and we observe roughly 40 percent of America in support. A person’s preferences over two outcomes can be observed only when she chooses among those outcomes. For the first time in modern history, Americans have been offered a clear choice between democracy and authoritarianism, and 40 percent are choosing authoritarianism. Not all of this 40 percent are Trump enthusiasts; for example, some might support Trump out of Republican party loyalty. But in some sense the existence of reluctant Trump supporters is even more alarming: a reluctant supporter is willing to vote for authoritarian values and tactics despite revulsion for Trump, and might become enthusiastic if a more polished authoritarian comes along.
Until Obama’s election, the conflict between democratic institutions and the “racial and gender order” was less apparent because the outcomes of national elections were consistent with overall white and male dominance. It is often said that the first test of a fledgling democracy is when the first peaceful transfer of power takes place. If we think of this transfer as occurring from one ethnic and gender group to another, democracy in the United States and in most western European nations has not yet passed its first real test. Instead of willingly giving up power to multiracial and multi-gender coalitions, a majority of whites and males support a candidate who wants to upend the democratic process.
It is sometimes claimed that people not in the Western cultural tradition are not “ready” for democracy. But the opposite is true. The majority of the ethnic and cultural descendants of Western Europe in one of the largest democracies are demonstrating their willingness to abandon democracy in an attempt to preserve their ethnic and gender authority. If a majority of Asians, Latinos, or African Americans, or a majority of women, supported an openly insurrectionist leader, this would be considered a national emergency.
What will Trump supporters do once Trump loses? By 2065, white men are projected to be between 20 and 25 percent of the US population, and by then would presumably realize the futility of an electoral strategy centered around themselves. But in the medium term, the 40 percent of the population who are Trump supporters will maintain power, especially in regions such as the southern and mountain states. Our federal system, which gives less populous states like Nebraska and Wyoming disproportionate representation and allows state legislatures to create congressional districts, creates safe seats for Republicans but makes the party unresponsive to national demographic trends. Republicans will not build multiethnic coalitions or appeal broadly to women and thus will not win the presidency, but they will maintain seats in Congress and lose them only slowly. Hence they will continue to use tactics of obstruction at the federal level and maintain “white enclaves” in certain states which will last even as the percentage of whites in the nation as a whole declines.
After the Civil War, the federal government found it too costly to enforce the rights of African Americans in southern states, and tolerated lynching, Jim Crow, poll taxes, and literacy tests. Only more than a century later, when the civil rights movement forced the issue, did the federal government intervene. In the coming decades, will the federal government find it too costly to intervene and “pacify” the enclaves of Trump supporters?
What will people who oppose Trump do once he loses? Most of us will feel like a bad dream is finally over and things will go back to “normal.” But “normal” no longer exists. We used to see people like the armed white supremacists who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon as pathetic idiots, but now it is clear that circumstances exist in which 40 percent of the U.S. population would support people who are equally pathetic and idiotic, and much more dangerous. It is now obvious to everyone, including would-be demagogues, that these 40 percent are mobilizable, and that white male authoritarianism can attract much more than a fringe. Even before Trump, white nationalists enjoyed enough congressional support to force the dismantling of the branch of the Department of Homeland Security that monitored their activities. After Trump loses, will there be enough political will, for example among moderate Democrats, to confront the hatred and violence his campaign has legitimized?
The Republican party, which could have gone in the direction of multiethnic coalitions after its 2013 “autopsy report,” has gone in the opposite direction, and cannot really change course given its now close and radioactive (to women and people of color) association with Trump. Hence a large chunk of the U.S. political system is “locked in” to white male authoritarianism at least for a few decades.
Some recommend trying to understand and sympathize with Trump supporters, who feel like something is being taken away from them and have low education in an economy which increasingly rewards only smarts and favors “female” over “male” personality traits. This is of course necessary, but this sympathy and understanding is more expedient than fairly given; have you ever heard anyone advocating sympathy for the “Asian working class” or “Black working class?”
We need to think about how we can make whites, especially white men, feel that they can continue to be valued and respected members of society. The end of apartheid is a reasonable analogy: famously, Nelson Mandela appeared in full uniform for the 1995 world rugby final won by the South African team, lending his support to a sport and team that symbolized apartheid. For many, this gesture did more to unite post-apartheid South Africa than any other event. Perhaps Obama can go to Branson.
The danger to democracy itself from Trump supporters is real and must be confronted. It is the greatest danger to democracy since World War II, even perhaps since the Civil War, and completely internal. If we had done a better and earlier job with confronting, as opposed to accommodating, white and male privilege, and convincing people that what they feel is being taken away is something that they never should have felt they had in the first place, we might not have reached this situation. Combating white and male privilege is now not only about justice but also about steering democracy away from self-destruction. As it is, we made our society just inclusive enough to save it.
Michael Suk-Young Chwe is professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge and Jane Austen, Game Theorist (both Princeton).