The US 2016 presidential election campaign involves a fundamental issue influencing American society for a long time: the steady erosion of Anglo-Saxon protestant white male tutelage in the United States.
Donald Trump, the US presidential candidate from Republican Party, is considered as the last symbol and hope of reclaiming white America from the influx of non-whites who, in the last five decades, seem to have transformed the demographic and racial landscape of America.
The Islamophobia, xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric of Trump reflects a mindset which has its roots in early American history. An apartheid type system which legally enforced a policy of racial segregation between whites and non-whites prevailed in the United States for two centuries. Even the abolishment of slavery by President Abraham Lincoln following the American civil war during 1860s failed to eradicate discrimination against non-whites. Till 1965 when African-Americans got voting rights and immigration laws were relaxed, white American tutelage in the US remained supreme.
In the last 50 years, the demographic, racial and religious transformation of the United States not only led to more cultural diversity in America but also deepened anger among white males who witnessed the gradual erosion of their power. Trump is perhaps the last chance on the part of neoconservatives and their allies in the Republican Party to reclaim white America and restore its dominance to what it was before 1965.
What really draws in the US presidential candidate’s supporters is his implicit promise to restore white privilege
What is the ‘Trump Card’ and how it has shaped a mindset which feels threatened and insecure from the perceived influx of non-white and the growth of the Muslim population in America? Will it be possible for white Americans to reverse the tide of multiculturalism and drastically cut immigration from non-white countries, particularly those from the Muslim world? These are the questions which are raised particularly in the US election campaign and will shape American society in the years to come.
Nostalgia for a white America
Notwithstanding the surge in the number of the non-white population, two-third of the United States is still of European heritage. Americans having their roots in English, Irish, Scottish, French, German, Italian, Dutch and Scandinavian inheritance are still a majority in the United States. But the sharp rise in Hispanic and Muslim population from North Africa, Middle East and South Asia in particular is a source of alarm for right-wing Americans. Islam is considered to be the fastest growing religion in the United States.
As Samuel Huntington, a Harvard University professor and author of his book, Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order is considered as an alarmist warning the erosion of American values and cultural ethos. He vividly defined the racial divide in the US in his work, Who are We: The Challenges of American National Identity, that in the recent past the influx of immigrants fail to assimilate themselves in the Anglo-Protestant culture which augmented the predicament of white population of America based on the notion that people living in their midst having diverse racial and cultural background will pose a threat to them.
Although the African-American population in the US is only around 12 per cent with another 22 per cent composed of Hispanics, Asians and Middle Easterners, it is expected that by the year 2050 the non-white population will surpass the white population, thus changing the demographic and racial complexion of America.
The shift in US demography in the coming 30 years is considered as a nightmare for those Americans whose ancestors annihilated Native Americans several centuries ago and brought slaves from Africa. Now, after five centuries, white Americans see their future in jeopardy because of the looming erosion of white population in the United States. It is not only the threat of the marginalisation of white American culture but also the weakening of political power and the taking away of jobs by the non-whites.
As a third generation American, having German and Scottish roots, Trump represent those white Americans who assumed a privileged position by establishing their hold over business, politics, bureaucracy, military and technology. Representing the white elites of America who accumulated power and privileges all the way since the founding of United States on July 4, 1776 till today, Trump presents a crude image of ultra-right groups about immigrants from non-white countries, particularly Hispanics from Mexico and Muslims from Africa, Middle East and Asia.
The ‘appeal’ of Trump
When Barack Obama was elected as the first mixed race non-white president of the United States in 2008, a feeling of shock and despair emerged among the right-wing white community about how a person having African roots could assume the highest office of their country. Obama and his family, who are of African heritage, occupying the White House was unacceptable to them but they were unable to displace him in the 2012 elections because of Obama’s popular and charismatic appeal to a wide swath of American voters. But they wanted to make sure that in the upcoming 2016 presidential elections, the White House must be reclaimed by a man who can help prevent further erosion of what they saw as “white American Christian values.”
The ‘Trump Card’ has an appeal among those who are bent on raising anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim slogans in order to seek electoral support from the right-wing white American community.
Three major realities tend to form the core of ‘Trump Card’. The first is the disillusionment which one can observe among sections of the white middle-class population, particularly those who are without a college degree. For them, it has been a double jeopardy because of the erosion of employment opportunities in manufacturing in view of China’s emergence as the world’s leading producer of manufacturing items, and their competition with the immigrant populations for jobs. Trump provides them with hope to restore their status by pledging to aggressively deal with China on trade matters; deporting 10 million undocumented immigrants; erecting a wall on the US-Mexican border and imposing a ban on the arrival of Muslim immigrants.
Trump has gone to the extent of pledging that after assuming power he will fire ‘hijab’-wearing Muslim women in government offices. How far such measures can restore what Trump and his supporters call “American values” and are even possible in a society which is now highly diversified culturally and religiously is a moot point. While visiting Pennsylvania on June 28, he also vowed to declare what he termed “American economic independence” because of “evils of free trade and the wave of globalisation wiping out the middle class.”
The second factor in the Trump Card is the general sense of insecurity that looms large among white Americans about their fragile demographic edge if the non-white population continues to increase. Population growth of Latinos and Asians, including Muslims, is perceived as a major threat to white American culture’s dominance and way of life. It is expected that in November 2016 US elections, 27 million Hispanics will be eligible to vote which may have an impact on election results.
What Trump and others are advocating — ‘preserving core white American values’ — reflects the mindset of those who think that they need to reclaim America before it is too late and their country is taken over by people having different cultures and religions. The general perception among right-wing whites about Afro-Americans and Hispanics is that they are lazy, unreliable and violent people. As far as the Muslims are concerned, they are considered a direct threat to white Christian civilisation and way of life. Ideas propagated by white supremacists and some of their Republican allies that Muslims should be put in camps in the same way that Japanese-origin Americans were interned during the World War II cannot be taken lightly because there are large elements in American society that are sympathetic to such extreme notions about Muslims.
The third factor in the Trump Card relates to President Barack Obama’s African-American roots. Although Obama has consistently advocated racial harmony, a segment of the white American population still argues that he benefited the blacks at the expense of the whites. The ‘Trump Card’ exploits this dislike of Obama among some white Americans by raising questions about his place of birth and his alleged Muslim heritage in order to seek support for Trump’s candidacy in the November presidential elections.
What will likely happen in the upcoming elections
Trump is not only making his presence felt in the ‘bible belt’ of the US — the deeply conservative south eastern states — but also in the so-called former confederate states — those who sided with slave owners in the American Civil War. Out of 11 former confederate states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia — Trump won the Republican primaries in 10. Texas was the only confederate state not to go Trump’s way. In all these states, Trump has focused on reclaiming the white American tutelage through anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric. It is yet to be seen to what extent the ‘Trump Card’ will help the Republican Party recapture White House and reverse the process of multiculturalism in the United States.
Certainly, America is different than what it was in 1965. Symbols of racial discrimination such as segregation in educational institutions, public transport, parks and restaurants have been dismantled. Likewise, changes in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 which promoted skilled immigrants from different parts of the world also resulted in a shift in American demography. Earlier, the immigration policy launched in the 1920s had set criteria for immigration only from European countries, while restricting immigration from Asia and Africa.
From July onwards, when the final nominations for the presidential candidates from the Democratic and Republican parties will be finalised, till the first of November, the Trump camp will do its utmost to cement its support base among white Americans, particularly in the mid-West and in ‘swing states’. But Hilary Clinton, who also belongs to the white American community, will focus on exposing Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim agenda along with broadening her support base among African-Americans and Latinos. Given the fact that she is the first strong female presidential candidate in the recent American history, she also expects to receive support from female voters.
Furthermore, states with sizeable electoral votes such as California (55), New York (29), Texas (38) Florida (29) Pennsylvania (20) and Illinois (20) will have a major impact on US elections as always. Such ‘big’ states count a lot towards securing the 272 electoral votes (out of 538) needed for an electoral victory. Knowing that New York and California have a history of voting for the Democratic party, Trump will certainly try to get sizeable electoral votes in states where his support base the white community will show up in large numbers to vote for him. Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric may, however, cost him Florida where there is large Hispanic population.
Certainly, the results of the November 2016 American presidential elections will have serious and far reaching implications on the United States and the world at large. If Trump reaches White House defeating Clinton, the scenario which will emerge from that possibility is not difficult to gauge.
Can America afford to have a president who has clear plans to implement his agenda about reclaiming white America at the expense of immigrants and non-whites? Recent racial riots in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas give a clear indication that America is fast moving in the direction of racial and ethnic polarisation. The paradigm shift in American political rhetoric following the issues raised by Trump will result in a deepening of racial violence and intolerance within the US thus seriously putting into question American leadership capabilities at the global level.
(The writer is Professor of International Relations and Dean Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Karachi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 31st, 2016