Suppose that you were asked to assess the state of American society under Donald Trump, the essence of our problems and divisions, without any access to the president’s own words or the media coverage thereof. Suppose, instead, that you had to cobble together your assessment based only on the way the electorate and the culture has responded to his ascent and presidency – by looking at the changes wrought in our partisan landscape, the new sociological and political fissures that have opened, and the protests and mass movements, social trends and cultural expressions have defined his strange first year in office.
I suspect this exercise might lead to the conclusion that both race and class, the two tangled areas that so many commentators – myself included – have written about endlessly for the last two years, are less important to our moment than the scale of the media attention paid to them suggests, and that divisions and anxieties around sex and gender are where the essential cultural action of the Trump era really lies.
This possibility seems like a deliberate provocation in a week when Trump’s outburst about countries that resemble outhouses has made the president’s racism a headline topic for the umpteenth time. And I’m not denying the reality of that racism, which has been apparent since Trump embraced birtherism and which plainly informs his views on immigration more than the commitment to merit-based migration policy that his minders and managers have been trying to advance.
But the same week that reminded us of Trump’s bigotry also brought a striking analysis of how Americans are reacting to his presidency, generated by a large and deep survey conducted by SurveyMonkey and written up for The Atlantic by Ron Brownstein. To some extent the survey shows what smaller polls have also shown: Trump’s coalition depends on working-class whites, evangelicals and older white men; he’s opposed by minorities and women and the young; and he has lost ground just about everywhere since his election last November.
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But the way he’s lost ground is interesting. The press coverage often makes it seem as if Trump is using racial provocations to hold his white blue-collar base while assuming the minorities will never vote for him, and indeed I suspect that – to the extent his provocations have any cunning behind them – he may think about them in those terms. Yet racial polarization in the electorate hasn’t actually increased over the last year: Relative to where he stood last November, Trump has lost white support, including working-class-white support, while either holding his own or actually gaining ground with blacks and Hispanics.
His lost support has been heavily concentrated among the female of the species. “From February through December,” writes Brownstein, “Trump’s approval rating fell more with middle-aged blue-collar white women than any other group.” Meanwhile among minorities he’s made gains or held his own by appealing primarily to men, while remaining extraordinarily unpopular with black and Hispanic women. “In every age group,” Brownstein notes, “and at every level of education, about twice as many African-American men as women gave Trump positive marks,” and “among Hispanic men older than 50, Trump’s approval – strikingly – exceeded 40 percent.”
Relative to where American politics stood before his rise, Trump’s campaign polarized America more by class and gender than it did by race. And then, by jettisoning much of the populist economic agenda he campaigned on, Trump’s actual presidency has made class less important and gender more essential to understanding how Americans divide.
This doesn’t mean that race isn’t enduringly important to these divisions; the fact that a minority of minority men seem more blasé about his bigotry than you might expect does not mean that Trump is actually building a pan-racial coalition. But if you’re looking at what Trump has directly changed, who seems distinctively offended and energized by his provocations, white-brown-black differences aren’t where the action is; instead, it’s with the large female backlash that may be poised to swamp the male backlash that helped make him president.
The last year has offered ample confirmation of this point. The heart of the anti-Trump resistance movement is middle-aged white women, while the Black Lives Matter movement has receded despite Trump’s own attempts to elevate it via his campaign against Colin Kaepernick. In terms of the numbers involved, the white nationalist-antifa collisions have been sideshows compared with the Women’s March and its various imitators. And in the culture, the clearest Trump-driven convulsion has been the #MeToo movement, which intersects with race and class but is fundamentally about the relations between the sexes.
There are various conclusions one could draw from this reality. Someone focused on building anti-Trump solidarity might argue that one defining effect of Trump’s rise has been to make more white women feel the sense of marginalization and disempowerment that minorities already feel – which is why the female reaction is so much more notable than the reaction among groups more inured to prejudice.
Alternatively, someone focused on the primacy of race might complain that white women have effectively hijacked anti-Trumpism, using their positions of influence in the media and elsewhere to turn what should be a “Get Out!” moment into a “Handmaid’s Tale” moment, depriving Black Lives Matter, immigrants’ rights groups and other like-minded movements of media oxygen in order to focus on their own more intimate sufferings at the hands of Trump-like elite men.
My own suggestion would be that the surprising gender-over-race dynamic might also reflect some underappreciated social shifts that could modestly depolarize racial issues even as the war over the sexes gets a little worse.
In particular, on two of the issues that drove racial polarization in the late Obama years – the justice system’s seeming racial bias, which spurred so much minority activism, and elite support for ever-increasing immigration, which spurred populist backlash on the right – the underlying numbers have actually been moving in the direction desired by both sides’ activists.
Mass incarceration isn’t just in retreat (with prison populations falling 13 percent from their 2007-08 peak), it’s retreated in a very race-specific way: Imprisonment rates for black men plunged by 24 percent in 2000s even as the white imprisonment rate slightly rose. Meanwhile, the immigration rate, legal and illegal, has also fallen quite dramatically since 2005. Neither issue is about to disappear, but it’s still notable that trends feeding black disillusionment and white-identity politics were improving in the years leading up to Trump … even as trends related to sex, marriage and family continued to show a growing social divide between the sexes, with fewer marriages, fewer children and less sex all around. If “less sex” just means “less for Harvey Weinstein,” of course, that’s good news for everyone else. But what’s being exposed in the Trump era is more than just a few pigs and their crimes. Something is badly out of joint with male-female relations, our ability to woo and be wooed, our capacity to successfully and happily pair off.
It may be too much to hope that recent racial polarization has been driven by trends that are destined to improve. (We don’t know, for instance, what’s happening with the crime rate after the late-Obama-era spike.) But at the very least our race problems might not, the presidency’s bigotry notwithstanding, be necessarily getting worse. Even Trump’s recent “what, me, racist?” tweet noting an all-time-low in the black unemployment rate was not wrong: These are the best economic times for African-Americans in a decade.
But there is strong evidence that our problems with sex and gender and male-female relations are worsening – which is why it’s understandable that they’re at the heart of how the country has reacted to the Trump presidency, and fitting that this year of public protests and intimate revelations have thrown them into sharp relief.