The non-racist appeal of Donald Trump is underwritten by the criminal justice system

In the run-up to the election, there was a narrative that Trump’s appeal was confined to a narrow base of the Tea Party, which was opposed to the broad-base of the Clinton support.  In the aftermath of the result, a tension between Bill Clinton and the campaign chief came to light, with Bill arguing to push to target the white, uneducated vote but which were written off by the campaign manager as a waste of time. This coupled with Hilary’s ‘deplorables’ comment draws into focus the limits of Clinton’s base. Trump, whilst losing the popular vote,  was successful in reaching out beyond his supposed base in order to secure the Presidency. What explains his success in reaching beyond his supposed base of white supremacists?

Two dominate explanations have appeared to explain his success, on the one hand, he tapped into the economic anxieties, on the other, he tapped into the rich vein of racism. Mehdi Hasan draws attention to a tendency amongst some commentators to explain away racist incidents as a displaced representative of economic anxieties. In this, they share the mistake of classical Marxists, who see racism as epiphenomena – its the economy stoopid! To the extent that explanations which fail to account for racism as an independent variable, Mehdi is right to criticize.

The so-called ‘soft racism’, those individuals who on the surface tolerate minorities but harbour resentment towards them was a key to his support. On this point, I agree with Zizek, who argues that one of the many striking things about the election was a change in what is and is not acceptable to say in public discourse. There was a certain segment of the American population who, vicariously, approves some of the things that he says but who have the option to be able to maintain face by condemning  some of the more directly abusive, white supremacist supporters. Zizek draws attention to the fact that political identification probably occurs in this scenario. Trump by giving voice to my repressed views overcomes a sense of alienation that I might otherwise have harboured against a billionaire candidate who lives on another planet. Conversely, the sense of alienation that some feel towards Hillary and other champion’s of diversity stems from the fact that they feel ‘oppressed’, by having to repress thoughts and feelings which conflict with political correctness.

Trump as a ‘radical law and order’ candidate represents an intensification of an electoral strategy which has pedigree on the side of both parties. One of the major boons won in the Civil Rights movement was the social stigma attached to racism. Reagan manufactured consent by outsourcing racism to the criminal justice system, with the result as we all know of the explosion of incarceration levels of young black men. In so doing they took them out of labor and voting pools. Bill Clinton continued this trend, introducing mandatory minimum sentences, continuing to encourage the war on drugs by providing additional funding for police who prioritize   drug crime etc… when Bill argued with Hillary’s campaign manager about targeting white votes in key battleground states, let us be in no doubt what this would mean in practice.

The fact that Trump attracted more minority voters than Mitt Romey, I think suggests that his anti-establishment appeal is more than that of racism alone. Minorities are more likely to be a victim of crime and are also susceptible to law and order message, albeit in a different sense. Appeals to Nationalism potentially broaden his appeal, albeit in an ambiguous way. For there is a deliberate courting of those who link nationality with that of race, this is done in a way that is more extreme than what has happened in recent history. Where previously coded messages, ‘law and order’, were aimed at so-called ‘soft racism’, now they are also aimed at more explicitly the ‘hard racism’ of overtly white supremacists.

The best analysis I have read which attempts to take on board racism as an independent variable along with that of economic factors is by Adam Kotsko. Trump voters…

“They are contesting the way that specifically economic benefits are parcelled out on racial and national grounds… Trump supporters do not want the state to preserve the level playing field within its own economy and be open to international competition from without. They want the state to directly pick economic winners and losers on racial and national grounds.”


“Under neoliberalism, national and sub-national groupings are very explicitly placed in competition with each other. Free trade produces a “level playing field” so that cheap Chinese labor can compete directly with expensive American labor, for instance. Within each country, a formal colorblindness prevents reserving jobs for particular racial groups, at least de jure if not always de facto, leading to a similar “level playing field.”

In conclusion, the argument that I am making shares superficial  similarities with those who claim that ‘economic anxieties’ underpin Trump’s appeal, in the sense that I also try to consider economic factors. Where I differ is that I view race relations as being baked in with that of economic factors when trying to explain the form of consent that is manufactured in an election. Colourblindness started off as a way to weasel around the Constitutions protections against discrimination After the Civil Rights movement colourblindess was the result of the stigma attached to racism. Whilst white nationalists have become more visible as the result of the campaign and Trump’s subsequent election, I claim that their prominence can be attributed to their  effective use of new media, more than the breadth of their support. Relatively marginal parts of Trump’s coalition are magnified given how close the election was. I claim that the bulk of his support consist of ‘colour indifferent’, those who do not think of themselves as racist but are vulnerable to coded messages surrounding law and order. That is not to say that with a new permissive environment that composition of his base of support can change.



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