Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reviewing the New York Times’ “6 Books to Understand Trump’s Win.” Published on November 9, 2016, the list purports to help readers “understand the political, economic, regional and social shifts” that led to Donald Trump’s election. By publishing the list the day after the election, the Times doomed itself from the start. There are too many factors (racial, social, economic, cultural, global, political) to parse out a single definite cause. Nor did the Times know how the future Trump presidency would play out. Attempting to judge the historical impact of an event as it’s still occurring is impossible. As a result, the Times’ effort to explain the election tells us less about what really happened and more about what the Times thought happened. The newspaper’s reporting, editorial focus, and attitudes towards the candidates and their supporters shaped its response to the election itself. By focusing on the economic anxieties of the white working class, the Times’ list ignored the pivotal role that race played in Trump’s election. They also refused to recognize that race and class are inseparable in American history, hindering their efforts to contextualize Trump’s subsequent presidency.
Race, not white working class anxieties, explains Trump’s electoral victory. If he garnered so much support from lower class whites, then why was the median income of the average Trump voter in the primaries was higher than any other candidate? Does economic anxiety explain Trump’s attacks on Mexicans as rapists and criminals? Does it explain why he has described black urban centers like Chicago and Detroit as hellscapes plagued by gangs of murderous African-Americans? Does it explain the march in Charlottesville or Trump’s response to it? Those white men marching in their polo shirts and carrying tiki torches chanting “Jews will not replace us” weren’t putting their economic anxieties on display. They were proudly displaying their belief in white racial supremacy. There’s no need for complex intellectual justification. If you chant a racist slogan or march under a racist symbol, then you’re a racist.
It’s hard for the Times’ list to tackle the issue of race when it only has books from white authors. And two of the books—Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Isenberg’s White Trash—go out of their way to brush aside racial questions. Isenberg’s desire is somewhat defensible as she argues that class inequalities are a structural feature rather than bug of American history. I would argue, however, that including race into her analysis would’ve strengthened rather than hindered her argument. Vance, however, has no such excuse. He chose to focus solely on poor whites because claiming that blacks are poor because they don’t work hard enough would invite charges of racism and hinder his ability to be taken seriously as a hillbilly prophet by the Times and other media organizations. By focusing on poor whites, he gets to spout right-wing propaganda while avoiding race entirely.
The Times’ list, however, isn’t entirely useless. Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land and Judis’ Populist Explosion help us understand the Trump phenomenon on the individual and societal levels. Hochschild’s empathetic exploration of the feelings of members of the Louisiana Tea Party allows us to see beyond a rational explanation for our behavior. She demonstrates how emotions guide the actions and beliefs of these individuals. She correctly recognizes that not all behaviors or beliefs have rational causes and understanding requires setting rationality aside. Judis contextualizes Trump’s authoritarian and populist appeals in the context of recent American and world history. He identifies a thread of right-wing populism that has become ascendant over the past generation. Yet his analysis is incomplete, especially since recent elections in Europe have seen a pushback against other Trump-like politicians.
As I wrote above, there’s no simple explanation for the rise of Donald Trump. No one book (or list of six) can delve into the myriad of forces that coalesced to elect Trump to the presidency. However, I can offer a few suggestions that I think will help start to answer some of them.
“The Real Story Of 2016: What reporters — and lots of data geeks, too — missed about the election, and what they’re still getting wrong” By Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight
Silver explores the media’s flaws in covering and shaping the election as well as their attempts to retcon their failure to predict the outcome.
“The First White President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This is Coates at his best, deconstructing the historical power of whiteness and the starring role it played in electing Trump.
Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America by John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Varek
Sides and Varek’s earlier book, The Gamble, identified the real factors that shaped the 2012 election and they had nothing to do with “binders full of women” or the “47% tape” or Obama’s poor performance in the first debate. Instead they focused on structural issues like economy, increased political polarization, and relative appeal of both candidates to explain the outcome of the election. Identity Crisis won’t come out until February, but it promises to be better than anything in the mold of Game Change.
“Trump Syllabus 2.0” by N. D. B. Connolly and Keisha N. Blain
This list, curated by two historians, was a response to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that attempted to explain Trump through the works of almost exclusively white writers. Connolly and Blain’s revision does a much better job contextualizing Trump’s rise and focusing on right-wing populism, white supremacy, mass incarceration, immigration, sexism, Islamophobia, and transphobia.