Despite four years of media demonization of Donald Trump, despite the media’s support for Joe Biden—suppressing all potentially harmful information, including not asking him to present his positions on contested issues such as fracking, charter schools, or Iran, let alone his son’s corruption—and despite Trump’s own flaws as a person and candidate, the president nearly won reelection. One would think that this close result would chasten the professional and managerial class, encouraging it to think more deeply about why so much of the electorate rejected its vision for America’s future.
Instead, as Glenn Reynolds has documented, many remain deeply contemptuous of Trump and his voters—especially white voters. Commentators insist that racism motivated support for Trump. Some, including Charles Blow, rationalize Trump’s winning the highest minority-vote share of a Republican presidential candidate since 1960 as an identification of the oppressed with their oppressors. We’re told incessantly that the nation suffers from deep-rooted structural racism, and that all whites are racist. So how do we distinguish white working-class racism of the sort that votes for Trump from the racism of elite urban white professionals, who by and large voted for Biden?
By any measure, it is white professionals who have the greatest impact on black and Latino Americans. It is college-educated teachers who enforce supposedly racist academic and behavioral standards, resulting in low grades and high suspension rates for black and Latino students. White professionals are the directors at museums and leaders in the media that are, we are told, restricting the advancement of blacks and Latinos in the creative professions. They are the mayors and governors of cities whose police supposedly murder black men in cold blood. They are the parents who invest in their kids and grandkids to get ahead in the meritocratic system that dictates successful advancement. They are the deans of admission at elite schools who we’re told refuse to admit nonwhite students or hire nonwhite scientists. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat stated, “By any reasonable measure . . . the white liberals most invested in anti-racism have more white privilege themselves than the heirs of rural fundamentalists and immigrant Catholics who currently vote for Trump.”
We can measure white working-class racism, the elite narrative goes, by the way working-class whites vote to protect white supremacy. This thesis runs aground, however, when one considers white working-class support for black Republican Senate candidates in Michigan and South Carolina. In Michigan, Republican John James, who is black, appears to have lost to Democrat Gary Peters, white, by about 80,000 votes. James decisively won among white working-class voters. If Detroit’s votes were removed, James would have won by 225,000; if Ann Arbor’s were taken out as well, he would have won by over 300,000.
This voting pattern reveals that, for faculty and students associated with an elite university, and for black Michiganders, identity politics stops when it comes to black Republicans. In both Ann Arbor and Detroit, the vote total for Joe Biden and for Peters matched—suggesting that for both groups, virtually all Biden voters also voted against James.
Virtually all Trump voters also voted for James, as was apparent in the seven white industrial Michigan counties that border Ohio: Trump received 63.3 percent of the vote for president in these counties, while James received 63.2 percent of the Senate vote. This was also true for the nine northern counties along the Straits of Mackinac: 62.4 percent for Trump, 61.7 percent for James.
Voting patterns in South Carolina contradict the view that white voters are motivated to preserve white supremacy. In 2016, Republican senator Tim Scott, who is black, won with 60.4 percent of the vote, compared with Trump’s winning percentage of 54.9 percent—a 5.5 percentage-point Scott advantage. In the seven most heavily African-American counties—average 62.7 percent black—the Scott vote outpaced the Trump vote by 2.8 percentage points. By contrast, in the eight least-black counties—average 14.5 percent black—the Scott vote outpaced the Trump vote by 5.3 percentage points. This suggests that white voters, much more than black voters, crossed party lines to vote for Scott.
White working-class Americans may hold some racist beliefs. Liberals point to measures constructed in the last few years—the racial-resentment and racism indices—both of which I have shown to be deeply flawed. White voting patterns do raise the question, however, of liberal unwillingness to understand why so many people—including many Latinos and blacks—voted for Trump.
The answers are not complicated. The drumbeat of the last few years has been to blame all whites, especially low-status whites, for insufficient black advancement, and to accuse them of promoting white supremacy. Elite opinion has settled on a narrative of racial resentment that puts all the blame for America’s social problems on unenlightened white people. This constant stigmatization has played in important role in motivating so many voters to support Trump—and in costing the Democrats seats in the House and probably their chance to take control of the Senate.
One hopes that Joe Biden—assuming that his election is eventually certified, and he takes office as president—will not promote this ignorant narrative and will instead govern from the center. There may well be sufficient appetite in the nation for less rancor and more bipartisanship.
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