If you were dropped in the United States in 1988 and knew nothing about how presidential campaigns work, you would have assumed from the infamous Willie Horton ad that George H.W. Bush would spend the four years of his presidency focused on ensuring that scary black men did not receive furloughs from prison before their sentences were up, lest they rampage across the land raping white women and terrorizing their husbands. But in fact, that was an issue Bush spent approximately zero time on in the Oval Office.
I bring up this historical reminder as a way of thinking about the upcoming presidency of Donald Trump. The president-elect waged a campaign centered more on identity politics than any in modern history. Can he carry out an identity politics presidency?
You may be a bit confused at my question, if you've been paying much attention to media discussions of late. "Identity politics," we're often told, is something that only has to do with racial minorities, religious minorities, or women — in other words, anyone but white men. We've also been informed that Hillary Clinton waged a relentless campaign of division by identity politics, pandering to people of color and females while telling white people to talk to the hand. This is, of course, ludicrous. There are ways in which all politics is identity politics, but there's little doubt that Trump's victory was built on stoking hatred, fear, and resentment of non-whites. In other words, it was a campaign perfectly suited for a party whose members had been fed a steady diet of white racial grievance for eight years, told endlessly to think of themselves as racial victims of a president supposedly out to extract vengeance upon them because of their skin color.
While there are many factors that determined the outcome of the election, Trump succeeded in bringing out white working-class voters in key areas of swing states. These voters thrilled to his talk of building walls along our border, keeping out Muslims, and generally restoring the societal hierarchies that prevailed a half-century ago. It wasn't some kind of random accident that Trump was endorsed by the KKK.
But is that just something that helps you get elected, or does it persist? In the last couple of weeks, Trump has been building a bridge to his presidency with a "Thank you tour" that consists of holding rallies in states he won, while ignoring the rest of the country. This has been the cause of almost no criticism in the press, which has spent much more time talking about how Democrats should be "reaching out" to those who didn't vote for them than it has asking the same question of the person who will actually be president.
And at those rallies — attended, as always, by nearly all-white audiences — Trump has made a special point of telling Christians that this is for them. "I want to see 'Merry Christmas.' Remember the expression 'Merry Christmas'?" he said in September to the Values Voter Summit, a confab of mostly evangelicals. "You don't see it anymore! You're going to see it if I get elected, I can tell you right now." And Trump has followed through: He has appeared on stage in front of a phalanx of Christmas trees, telling the crowd, to its glee, that it is once again safe to utter those previously forbidden words.
Those evangelical voters certainly voted their identity in this election, choosing Trump by the extraordinary margin of 80 percent to 16 percent, according to exit polls. They managed to overlook his rather inconsistent adherence to their values, understanding that it was less about who he was as a person than which side in the great culture war he was on. When he promised to Make America Great Again, they knew just what he was talking about.
But in a month, it won't just be about rallies — Trump will actually be making decisions and carrying out policies. There are some ways in which he can directly help his people. For instance, the Justice Department under Jeff Sessions is likely to become far less concerned about racial discrimination against minority groups, and may find ways to bring its resources to bear defending white people. Trump has promised to start rounding up undocumented immigrants, though he may find it impossible to rid every community of the scourge of diversity; those Trump voters who are deeply disturbed by seeing signs in Spanish will probably not get to see them torn down. Nevertheless, he could follow up on his promise to "defund sanctuary cities," which just happen to be places where a lot of Democrats live.
But Trump may find that other promises he made will hurt his voters more than he realizes. If he repeals the Affordable Care Act, some of the places that will suffer the most are also places where he got strong support. Kentucky, for instance, saw a huge reduction in its uninsured population thanks to its embrace of the ACA; Trump won the state by 30 points. How are folks there going to feel when Trump takes their insurance away? White working-class voters embraced Trump, but they also rely on many of the safety net programs that he and his Republican allies intend to slash. When they try to defund Planned Parenthood, they may find that white women who depend on the group for health services aren't that pleased.
I could urge Trump to be a president for all Americans, to bring people together instead of driving them apart. But we all know that's just not who he is. He'll continue to use rhetoric that casts white people and Christians as victims, and those who are otherwise as enemies. But while there are some ways he could try to lash out at the people or places that didn't support him, he isn't going to be able to deliver on much of what he promised the white voters who put him in the White House.
They can say "Merry Christmas" now, though. Just don't tell them that it was perfectly fine for them to say it even before Trump got elected.