As I’ve been grappling with the events that rocked Charlottesville, I’ve been thinking a lot about the “6 Books that Help Explain Trump’s Win” from the New York Times. In explaining the motivations of Trump voters, the media have often stressed the working-class roots of Trump’s support. The New York Times’ list tilts heavily towards this class thesis with books like Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Isenberg’s White Trash. This theory holds that the new global economy and its shift away from blue-collar jobs has left behind Trump voters economically disadvantaged. Yet empirically, we know this isn’t true. The Washington Post pointed out Trump garnered much of his support from middle and upper class voters. According to FiveThirtyEight, education rather than income was the best indicator of voter preference. Additionally, the marchers this weekend had plenty of money for guns, body armor, and Tiki torches. Class, then, doesn’t explain Charlottesville.
Under the guise of protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, these marchers came to protect white supremacy. They couched their racism in appeals to “culture” and “heritage.” Protestor Peter Cvjetanovic explained
I came to this march for the message that white European culture has a right to be here just like every other culture… However I do believe that the replacement of the statue will be the slow replacement of white heritage within the United States and the people who fought and defended and built their homeland. Robert E Lee is a great example of that.
Cvjetanovic’s words echo the Deep Story outlined by Arlie Hochschild in her interactions with members of the Louisiana Tea Party. They see themselves waiting patiently in line for the American dream only to see others—African-Americans, women, Jews, homosexuals, immigrants—unfairly cut in front of them. The line-cutters, Hochschild’s Tea Partiers and those like Cvjetanovic think, don’t deserve it. They’re getting an unfair advantage and along the way they’re undermining everything we believe in. As Cvjetanovic admits, they believe in white supremacy.
John Judis’s definition of right-wing populism also is instructive to understanding Charlottesville. Right-wing populism, Judis argues, condemns the class of elites for being undemocratic and out of touch with American values. As importantly, it identifies and attacks those getting special treatment from elites. Who’s getting special treatment according to those gathered at Charlottesville? Take a look at their banners and the Nazi and Confederate flags and the answer becomes obvious. African-Americans, Jews, Muslims, women, LGBTQ Americans, and anyone who isn’t white (and predominately male—though we should not overlook white women’s roles in upholding white supremacy).
This morning, a friend of mine asked me this morning why people marching with the Confederate flag would march alongside those bearing the Nazi flag. Those symbols, he pointed out, had vastly different connotations and came from different places and time periods. Their ideologies, it seemed, were not really compatible. I told him to think about what these groups have in common. They share a love of Cvjetanovic’s “white heritage.” They lay the blame for the decline of white heritage in the similar places. They don’t apportion the blame in the same ways, but it’s close enough.
They also feel emboldened by a President who has stoked the flames of white resentment and until a few hours ago, refused to condemn white supremacy. Throughout Trump’s presidential campaign and presidency, he has viciously attacked Mexicans, immigrants, women, Muslims, LGBTQ, and other Americans. He has blamed them for America’s economic and social problems and decried the special treatment he felt they received from the Obama administration. He has packed with white supremacists and Nazi sympathizers from Steve Bannon to Stephen Miller to “Dr.” Sebastian Gorka. Trump won the endorsement of former KKK leader David Duke and then refused to renounce Duke’s views. Unsurprisingly, Duke attended the Charlottesville rally and declared, “This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in.” In Charlottesville, marchers wore MAGA hats and believed that Trump “said he loves us all.”
White racial resentment has always been a crucial component of Trump and his supporters. If we want to understand Charlottesville, we would do well to keep that in mind.