Sometimes, the dumbest explanation also comes with solid scientific backing.
On the morning of November 9, half of the country woke with the sickening realization that by underestimating Donald Trump, they’d been blind to the legitimate anger of a “silent majority.”
Reporters descended on formerly flyover states, mining country and farming towns to talk to the people who were willing to dismiss a campaign full of race baiting and “locker room talk,” as long as the candidate would address the loss of American manufacturing to globalization, jobs to immigrants, cities to “carnage.”
Surely Trump supporters had been moved by deep, long-ignored pains.
Or maybe they’re just racist.
According to a University of Minnesota study recently published in Research & Politics, there’s good evidence to back up the earliest of theories about Trump’s victory.
U of M Professors Christopher Federico and Howard Lavine, along with Colgate University’s Matthew Luttig, wanted to see how voters’ favorability of Trump matched up with their implicit views on race.
They took a sample of more than 700 white voters, and asked each a series of questions about their feelings toward people who receive government housing assistance. Attached to each survey was a subtle picture of either a middle-class black or white man looking scruffy and bummed in front of a foreclosure sign.
The results showed that the more voters identified with Trump, the more they tended to blame welfare recipients for their own poverty when the lead photo showed a black man. That didn’t hold true for the Trump supporters shown the picture of the white man, and it wasn’t true for Republicans who didn’t like Trump.
“It wasn’t just a function of partisanship, of Democrats versus Republicans,” said U Prof. Howard Lavine. “A lot of the dynamics that we investigate simply boil down just to that. And so it’s important in this kind of work to show that it was attitudes toward Trump in particular, not just identifying as a Republican, that made the difference.”
Not since the 1968 presidential election had race been so overtly politicized, Lavine believes. At that time, integration was the big upset to the status quo of white nationalism, as pro-segregation candidate George Wallace seized on the violent aspects of the Civil Rights movement to exploit fears of social unrest among white, middle class voters. Richard Nixon, who eventually won, reined in Wallace’s explicitly racial hysteria and began talking about white plight in the more genteel form of states’ rights and law and order.
Trump’s campaign messaging, which included calling Mexicans rapists, and promises to build a border wall and cut legal immigration by half, was racial in a more indirect way than Wallace’s, Lavine said. But it still managed to make people mad at each other. One successful way to do that, his study found, was through visuals.
“It’s hard to disrupt the activation of racial resentment if you’re not aware it’s happening,” Lavine said. “One way to disrupt that process is to call it out publicly as racial.”