You know how people say “inner city” or “urban” or “low-income” instead of Black because they don’t want to seem racist by mentioning race? This debate over whether Trump supporters are motivated by economic anxiety or racism reminds me of that.*
The debate seems to divide class leftists from race leftists. Some class leftists want to emphasize the economic anxieties of racist Whites (with which they are sympathetic), and the race leftists want to emphasize the racism of economically anxious Whites (which they want to expose). In the regular liberal media, at the same time, there is the common tendency to treat class anxiety as rational and material while any racial motivations are by definition irrational and emotional (which makes “I don’t see race” a moral high ground.)
But Whites losing their race privilege is a real, material concern. And losing class privilege motivates ugly hatred and animosity too. What if “China” threatens your jobs, and your emotional response is to support a dictator who opposes imports and immigration (which will do nothing for you economically)? What if a Black president and anti-discrimination laws threaten your privileged access to relatively high status social recognition, and your rational response is to support school segregation and oppose affirmative action (which might actually protect your privileged status)?
Of course, defense of both class or race privilege can be emotional and ugly and vitriolic, and they always are coming from the mouths of Trump supporters. And you could reasonably argue that all people would be better off embracing a more open and inclusive politics even if it cost them some ill-gotten gain. But those defenses can also be rational and material, and the privileges they protect may need to be forcefully degraded rather than just reasoned away.
Why should Trump supporters motivated by economic anxiety be any more deserving of respect than those motivated by racial anxiety? That’s the politics of our time; don’t treat it as fixed or essential.
Now, you wouldn’t excuse rich bankers supporting a dictator because they had anxiety about their economic position, even though they might really have a lot of economic anxiety. So Why would you excuse White working-class people from supporting a dictator because of their economic anxieties? Is it because they’re actually poor or economically insecure? Well, they’re poorer and more economically insecure than the people having this conversation, but not compared with actual poor people in this country or — shudder — in most of the world that disgusts them.
It is an empirical question whether the anxieties around race are more or less rational than the anxieties around economics for White working-class Americans. Losing your race privilege might mean getting worse service from schools and emergency services and police, and not seeing your people in high status and visible cultural positions, and not hearing your music all the time, and so on and on. These are all the things minorities want. Of course I don’t feel sorry for people losing them like I do for people who never had them, but the issues are the same. You can’t say minorities are rational for demanding these things and then say Whites are irrational for trying to hold onto them. You could (and should) argue it’s not a zero-sum game, of course, but that’s an empirical question and a matter to be worked out through politics and cultural change.
People who support Trump definitely are anxious about losing things of value as the world changes, and their response is deplorable and must be opposed — regardless of the relative mix of economic and racial components in their minds.
* Not doing a full lit review, but to get a sense of it, read and follow the links in pieces by Dylan Matthews, Mike Konczal, Derek Thompson, or Michael Tesler, Brian Beutler, and there must be some other White men I’m missing. Feel free to recommend readings you prefer in the comments.