The lessons to learn from Trump voters

Story highlights

  • Peniel Joseph: Trump voters -- with their myths and realities -- have lessons to teach America
  • We ignore these lessons "at the peril of both our national character and political destiny," Joseph says

Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently "Stokely: A Life." The views expressed here are his.

(CNN)Supporters of either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton view America as a Rorschach test, one wherein the same image elicits wildly contrasting depictions of the state of the nation, the health of our republic and the beating heart of democracy. Clinton's multiracial groups of supporters are attempting to maintain and grow the Obama Coalition, an unprecedentedly racially diverse group of voters that twice elected Barack Obama to the White House.

At the same time, the Trump campaign's overt hostility to the very idea of racial equality or diversity has inspired outrage, hand wringing, and disgust, not the least of which has emanated from Clinton herself, who famously characterized at least a portion of Trump's supporters as a "basket of deplorables." These Trump supporters, overwhelming white, male and working-class, have taken the brunt of criticism from both liberals and conservatives, who have been appalled, for admittedly different reasons, by the boorish behavior on display at political rallies teeming with an edge of racial violence, overt misogyny and anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim fervor. Violence, in the form of bullying female journalists, threatening Clinton with indictment, jail, impeachment and assassination and physical assaults on anti-Trump protesters have become a hallmark of this mean political season.
Peniel Joseph
But these details, the foundation of so much criticism and conversation for weeks and months, obscure an important reality. Portrayals of the majority of Trump voters as a part of a misbegotten white working class -- dreaming of a return to Eisenhower America's competitive advantage over the rest of the world, with benefits disproportionately doled out to white men with relatively little education -- have obscured the larger story of this election season: the fact that many quiet supporters of the Republican presidential nominee have very little in common with the working class caricatures most often featured in the national press. Almost half of Trump voters in the Republican primaries had college degrees, for instance.
    It's a convenient assumption that Trump's brand of bigotry primarily appealed to uneducated whites living in racially segregated rural areas -- swaths of post-industrial sections of the Midwest that became casualties of the shift from smokestack and factory labor to a globalized economy that values highly educated engineers more than steel workers. But it isn't true.
    One part of the narrative is true, however. Trump's support has been overwhelmingly white, with blacks polling in the single digits and Latinos in the 20s. It is also true that white men and women without college degrees overwhelmingly favor Trump. Yet one third of white women with college degrees and 40% of college-educated white men also support the candidate whose "Make America Great Again" tagline has evolved into as much of a threat as a campaign slogan. And while rural voters are positively euphoric in support of the real estate magnate, the suburban electorate is not far behind: 44% of them expressing support, along with 28% of urban voters.
    What are we to make of this large and diverse group of white voters expressing support for a candidate many critics have derided as nothing less than a prophet of hate and division whose campaign has threatened to rend the very fabric of the republic?
    Whether Trump wins or loses, at least three observations are important to make. These lessons, derived more from the behavior of the "quiet" Trump voter than from those whose angry bluster fills the airwaves, teach us important lessons about ourselves as a country, ones that we would do well not to ignore in the months and years to come
    First, Trump's campaign tapped into political furies that transcend a single political cycle and go beyond one slice of the American electorate. His campaign has galvanized diverse groups of millions of white Americans, from a range of educational, geographic and economic circumstances and backgrounds. Many of them were drawn to his criticism of Washington corruption, his caustic attacks on Hillary Clinton and his bombastic "tell it like it is" denigration of our nation's racial, ethnic and religious diversity. For these voters, Trump is not so much an anachronistic ghost of a racist past as a truth-teller, unafraid of being politically incorrect.
    Second, the "lesser of two evils" argument is not a compelling enough reason to inspire millions of Americans to be politically engaged. Hillary Clinton's long history of public service deserves substantive praise and criticism, yet the public narrative shaped by right wing critics, mainstream media and the candidate's own numerous unforced errors (and occasional egregious mistakes) obscured this understanding of Clinton as a politician and a person. While Trump basked in his role as a purveyor of innuendo and master of chaos, Clinton remained too often a distant figure, unable to emotionally connect with many of the very constituencies she claimed to be passionately fighting for.
    Third, and most crucially, race matters. A lot. Trump's candidacy played on on the double-consciousness of racial anxiety in American society. On one side, we have the historic fear, demonization and criminalization of black bodies, reflected in Trump's repeated use of the coded phrases "Chicago," "law and order" and "inner city": metaphors meant to imply a coming racial apocalypse. Equally important, Trump capitalized on white economic anxiety across the board, realizing in a way that the neo-liberals in Washington have not, the marginalization of college-educated and white working class in an economy whose benefits have been overwhelmingly hoarded by the less than 1%.
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    If "Black Lives Matter" captured the zeitgeist of grassroots movements for racial and economic justice in the Age of Obama, "Make America Great Again" uncovered the rage, anxiety, and bitterness of white Americans gripped by fears of declining economic mobility, fatigued by national discussion of police shootings of blacks and unsure of whom to blame. In a world where blacks and whites increasingly live, go to school, work and die in segregated communities, worlds apart, this was perhaps the easiest part of Trump's rise.
    For better or worse, the reverberations of millions of white voters' support for a Trump candidacy will continue for American democracy, long after next Tuesday's election. We ignore the consequences of these impulses at the peril of both our national character and political destiny.