The final nail in the coffin for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was the Rust Belt. Democratic states became Republican, and as the states were called, the reality of one of the most scandal-ridden and intense election seasons became clear: Pennsylvania for Trump, Ohio for Trump, Wisconsin for Trump, Iowa for Trump. Donald Trump, a political outsider, was elected 45th President of the United States, and it was white citizens who voted for him.
Despite what many political pundits are saying now that the vote is over, the race demographics of this election do matter; the statistics speak for themselves. White voters make up 69% of the electorate in the United States, and of these, 58% voted for Trump. Of the 31% of non-white voters, 74% voted for Clinton. The only white demographic where Clinton took a majority was among college-educated white women, and even then, the margin was small: 51% to Trump’s 49%. There is a clear division in voting patterns along racial lines, making it an important factor in analysing how and why Donald Trump achieved his surprise victory, and took the presidency.
It is clear to see that something resonated from Trump’s campaign among the white populations of the United States. American politics and culture is imbued in race, steeped in it. Race matters. It has been on the lips of everyone weighing in on the 2016 election; it is clear it mattered to the now-President, as Trump attacked the Gold Star parents of a Muslim soldier killed in Iraq, targeted Mexican immigrants and a Latino judge, and refused to disavow a Ku Klux Klan leader when he pledged support for Trump’s campaign. Despite long-standing legislation intended to equalise opportunity and rights for all Americans, political, social, and economic tensions remain between white and minority communities. Consider the 250 counties with the highest white populations in the US; 249 voted for Trump.
There is a growing resentment in the US among a subgroup of society that can be termed ‘forgotten whites’ – blue-collar, working-class white voters who feel alienated from the identity politics and contemporary liberalism that has dominated American politics for nearly a decade. These are communities where job prospects and industry have been in decline since the mid-twentieth century, only exacerbated by the 2008 financial crash; the concepts of privilege, inequality and oppression that political elites talk about seem far removed from their reality, and they feel powerless to change what has become the political, economic and social status quo. This feeling of powerlessness is hugely prevalent in those who voted for Trump. When polled by RAND, 86% of voters who agreed with the statement “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does” were voting for Trump.
It is these powerless, white voters who have come to view the Obama administration with deep resentment. Trump’s supporters would likely not refer to themselves as motivated by racial animus; in fact, the majority would most likely see themselves as colour blind, insistent that race no longer matters in America as long as you work hard and pay your taxes. Movements such as Black Lives matter seem anathema to a demographic that has always taught and been taught respect for law enforcement, most likely because law enforcement has, in general, always had respect for them. They see policies such as affirmative action as proof that the demographic discriminated against in modern America is white, male, Christian, and straight. Data taken by the Kaiser Family Foundation suggests that white voters do not view institutional biases or racism as influencing discrimination in the same way their Black and Hispanic counterparts do:
Kaiser Family Foundation research
2012 was the first time white voters saw a negative net change in voter turnout from the previous presidential election. Contrastingly, the response of non-white communities in the US to feelings of political injustices and alienation is not to become less involved with politics, but more so. Black Americans, and in particular, Black women, have the highest voter registration and turnout; the 2012 election, for example, saw a 70.1% turn out of female Black voters. Whereas Black Americans express their displeasure at the polls, the trend in recent year has been for white Americans to refrain from engaging in a political system that they see as skewed against them.
The crucial fact is, however, that despite the decrease in numbers, white votes matter. They have political might. White voters are who swung the election for Bill Clinton in 1992 when they made up 87% of the electorate, after his campaign made significant efforts to focus on welfare reform in order to appeal to the white vote. Donald Trump had a similar strategy: he appealed to those ‘forgotten’ voters who might previously have been Democrats, but who have become nominal Republicans after they see their fears about jobs, community, culture, race, and freedom reflected in Trump’s politics. The white working class craved a candidate who spoke their language, away from the elite halls of Washington D.C. There is an unfortunate irony in the fact that the voters who turned their backs on Hillary Clinton are the ones who put her husband in the White House.
The right to a democratic vote is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: every person has the right to “take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives… the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote all by equivalent free voting procedures” (art. 21). Allegations of voter intimidation excluded, the question in the United States is not the right to vote, but how that vote is used to procure one of two very different concepts of America. The silent majority, the forgotten white voters, are who propelled Trump to victory, expressing their will as a vision of America that is radically different to what it has been under the Obama administration. As political scientist David Cohen put it, this election season, and Trump’s shock success, will very likely be seen as “the revenge of the white working class voter.”