From Nixon to Trump, Republicans have been appealing to white racial dislike. And, while 23% of white American adults think that it is bad to have a growing multicultural society, I argue that young white Americans are not falling for it and they are the hope.
“A nation is imagined, because the members will never know most of their fellow-members, or meet them,” political scientist, Benedict Anderson, wrote in the 80s. This imagined or figured world is the foundation for a nation’s policies and activism. We imagine a nation, create a figure of what it is and ought to be, and develop postures that bring the nation closer to the figured world we have created.
In the 1960’s in the U.S. there was white America and the people of color, and with them, hippies and progressive others. The first were presented by many conservatives as the Great America, the latter were the rebels, the non-wanted. This was the time when independent front-runner George Wallace ran for president with pro-segregation slogans and won 10 million of the popular votes. Nixon campaigned appealing to what he called “the silent Americans” – those not joining the civil rights protests; a population he described as being alarmed at the expansion of rights granted to populations of color. Nixon created a divisive culture of the alleged criminals protesting and the apparent white silent majority.
Reagan appealed to the same white America and adopted the slogan “let’s make America great again,” suggesting that America was great before the civil rights movement unsettled the dominating society of the previous decades. The white South became Republican and voted for Reagan. Reagan appealed to those opposing the Equal Rights Amendment as well. His “New Right” ended Affirmative Action – a bill facilitating quality education for populations of color, and threatened policies of the rights revolution and the Great Society that have served underprivileged populations. When Reagan left office in 1988, 31.6% of Blacks and 10.1% of whites lived in poverty, increasing the poverty gap between populations by 5 points.
Trump not only adopted Reagan’s slogan “make America great again,” he also bought its printing rights so that every supporter who buys a cap or a mug with the slogan pays the president for the honor to have it, and to have him as president, as Trump himself stated. He told a reporter that he divides people into “those with killer instincts or those without, and the ones that emerge are the ones with an instinct to win,” where he, Trump, is the ultimate winner, and everyone who opposes him or disagrees with him is a loser.
Like Nixon, Trump appealed to the White Power movement, who chant “Hail Trump.” He encourages them to “beat the hell out of them (protesters),” and offers to pay for their legal fees. And like Nixon, he uses law-enforcement and the military to overpower protesters as a societal “solution,” suggesting that the solution is to quiet “the losers” rather than to address the nature of the protests. Trump sees the wealthy as deserving of more wealth and the poor as undeserving because they have not known how to be “winners”. In 2018, those earning $40,000 -$60,000 paid the same tax-rate as the wealthiest 10% and significantly more than the wealthiest 400 individuals.
Trump thinks that he can continue to appeal to the white population. However, young white Americans – Gen Z – are not buying the divisive rhetoric; many have married or lived among other races; they pay to experience other cultures; they find the world and its pluralistic views at their fingertips. More importantly, they know that, while poor, they are not losers. Gen Z schoolteachers and university professors have replaced the binary history texts for multiple internet sources; there is not one but many narratives for the same story. It is a generation that has grown skeptical of leaders and of their cable networks and – as we saw – is capable of sabotaging Trump’s rally in Tulsa.
Lincoln’s pluralistic Republican Party is long gone. The Republican party of the 20th and 21st century has appealed to a growing white dominant group, but Trump marks the end of this era. The majority of the Gen Z have seen or experienced racial and economic inequality. Most of them belong to the 80% of Americans whose combined wealth equal that of the top 1%. In their figure world, the poor are not inferior or lazy, as Trump suggests, but are the oppressed; and their cause has become their own. In their figured world they stand together not with the 1% at the top, but with the 80% who have seen and had enough.
Elena Sada is a former New York City teacher and administrator. She is a professor and researcher at Eastern Connecticut State University.