Stop laugh­ing at Don­ald Trump

The bil­lion­aire speaks for a very large share of the elec­torate, says de­mog­ra­pher Wil­liam H. Frey

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - out­look@wash­ Wil­liam H. Frey, a se­nior fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion and a pop­u­la­tion stud­ies pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Michigan, is the au­thor of “Di­ver­sity Ex­plo­sion: How New Racial De­mo­graph­ics Are Re­mak­ing Amer­ica.”

He may not have a shot at be­com­ing pres­i­dent, but Don­ald Trump has al­ready suc­ceeded in unit­ing Amer­ica — one na­tion, awash in snark. Pun­dits from the left and the right have de­clared open sea­son on the Don­ald. As long­time Demo­cratic strate­gist Paul Be­gala told The Washington Post, “I am a per­son of faith — and the Don­ald’s en­try into this race can only be at­trib­uted to the fact that the good Lord is a Demo­crat with a sense of hu­mor.” Or, as con­ser­va­tive colum­nist Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News: “This is the strong­est field of Repub­li­can can­di­dates in 35 years. You could pick a dozen of them at ran­dom and have the strong­est Cab­i­net Amer­ica’s had in our life­time, and in­stead all of our time is spent dis­cussing this rodeo clown.”

But writ­ing Trump off is dan­ger­ous. The bil­lion­aire may play the buf­foon, but he is an im­por­tant one— one whom Amer­i­cans ap­pear to adore. A USA To­day-Suf­folk Univer­sity poll re­leased Tues­day shows him lead­ing all Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls. And while es­tab­lish­ment can­di­dates in both par­ties might want to ig­nore him, or ex­press a milder ver­sion of his anti-immigration opin­ions, an enor­mous num­ber of vot­ers clearly like his views. Pre­tend­ing they don’t al­lows Trump and other immigration fire­brands, such as Rick San­to­rum and Ted Cruz, to re­sus­ci­tate a cen­tury-old na­tivism that could stick around be­yond this elec­tion. Given that the United States is un­der­go­ing a de­mo­graphic di­ver­sity ex­plo­sion, our work­force— our very fu­ture— is tied to peo­ple Trump is ral­ly­ing sup­port against.

Trump’s mes­sage is a call to 1950s Amer­i­can great­ness and a sim­mer­ing, mad-as-hell pop­ulism that blames Chi­nese im­ports, freeload­ing Saudis and Mex­i­can im­mi­grants (and Mexico) for the na­tion’s ills. It ap­peals to a vein of the U.S. elec­torate that will re­main a sig­nif­i­cant vot­ing bloc for sev­eral elec­tion cy­cles to come: older whites. Trump calls his sup­port­ers the “silent ma­jor­ity,” the same name Richard Nixon used to mar­shal sup­port from a white, mid­dle-class, mid­dle-aged pop­u­la­tion that felt un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated and feared the dra­matic so­cial change wrought by ac­tivist, an­ti­war youths and the civil rights move­ment.

Public opin­ion polls and re­cent elec­tion re­sults re­flect sim­i­lar views among older whites to­day. Pew Re­search Cen­ter data from 2012 showed that more than half of white baby boomers and se­niors be­lieved that in­creas­ing num­bers of new­com­ers from other coun­tries rep­re­sented a threat to tra­di­tional Amer­i­can val­ues. They were less likely than mi­nori­ties and younger whites to hold a pos­i­tive opin­ion of the grow­ing num­bers of His­pan­ics and Asians in the United States. These views trans­late into neg­a­tive at­ti­tudes to­ward gov­ern­ment pro­grams they see as not ben­e­fit­ting their own chil­dren and grand­chil­dren. A 2013 Pew sur­vey showed that, given the choice be­tween a larger gov­ern­ment that of­fered more ser­vices and a smaller gov­ern­ment that of­fered fewer, less than a quar­ter of white baby boomers fa­vored larger gov­ern­ment, com­pared with 7 in 10 mi­nori­ties of the Gen X and mil­len­nial gen­er­a­tions.

It is fit­ting that Ari­zona was the site of Trump’s big­gest splash so far. Last week­end, he held court there with an en­thu­si­as­tic throng of mostly older sup­port­ers af­ter an in­tro­duc­tion by Mari­copa County Sher­iff Joe Arpaio, a renowed immigration hard-liner. Ari­zona leads the na­tion in an emerg­ing gen­er­a­tion gap that re­flects both cul­ture and race. Be­cause of its con­tin­ued draw of mostly white se­niors from other parts of the coun­try and its sharp gain in youth­ful im­mi­grants and U.S.-born mi­nori­ties over the past 20 years, the state’s over-65 pop­u­la­tion is far whiter than its child pop­u­la­tion (82 per­cent vs. 41 per­cent white). It has, in many­ways, be­come ground zero for the pol­i­tics of fear, fa­mous for tamp­ing down eth­nic stud­ies in public schools and pass­ing strict immigration mea­sures, such as the lawthat re­quires po­lice to as­cer­tain immigration sta­tus when they have “rea­son­able sus­pi­cion” that a per­son is in the coun­try il­le­gally. ( When the bill was pro­posed, it was fa­vored by 65 per­cent of whites but only 21 per­cent of His­pan­ics; 62 per­cent of those ages 55 and over but only 45 per­cent of those un­der age 35.)

As mi­nori­ties grow as a share of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion — they are ex­pected to rep­re­sent more than half of Amer­i­cans by 2044— so will the po­ten­tial for the pol­i­tics of fear. Most of the states that have sued the pres­i­dent over his re­cent ex­ec­u­tive or­der of­fer­ing pro­tec­tions to some un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants are those with rel­a­tively small but climb­ing im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tions, such as Ne­braska and West Vir­ginia.

Democrats can­not make the pol­i­tics of fear go away sim­ply by court­ing the young-adult and mi­nor­ity vot­ing blocs. While it is true that the su­per­size turnout and sup­port of those groups helped elect Pres­i­dent Obama twice, the white por­tion of the elec­torate, which votes strongly Repub­li­can, un­der­per­formed in sup­port of John McCain in 2008, and white turnout was down in 2012. Rhetoric play­ing to the fears of older Amer­i­cans could change that pat­tern and draw more white vot­ers to the polls in 2016.

While racial mi­nori­ties now ac­count for 95 per­cent of U.S. pop­u­la­tion growth and rep­re­sent 38 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, as re­ported by the Cen­sus Bureau last month, there is a sharp lag in di­ver­sity be­tween the over­all pop­u­la­tion and the por­tion that turns out on Elec­tion Day. A dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of His­pan­ics and Asians are ei­ther too young to vote, are not cit­i­zens or are not reg­is­tered, qual­i­ties that will not change for sev­eral more elec­tion cy­cles. Even in 2012, with strong mi­nor­ity turnout, whites made up 74 per­cent of all vot­ers. And within the white vot­ing bloc, it is the older elec­torate — those most greatly fear­ing change — that will be gain­ing as baby boomers con­tinue to age. By my cal­cu­la­tion, the num­ber of (mostly white) el­i­gi­ble vot­ers over age 45 will be 26 per­cent larger in 2024 than those un­der age 45. This dis­par­ity will be fur­ther widened by the higher turnout of older white vot­ers, who may not de­ter­mine fu­ture elec­tions but will con­tinue to have a strong voice.

Repub­li­cans es­pe­cially need to stop laugh­ing. Their up­com­ing de­bates should chal­lenge, not ig­nore, the un­fo­cused fears of immigration and na­tional di­ver­sity raised by Trump and like-minded can­di­dates, and in­stead present a more nu­anced and re­al­is­tic view of the fu­ture, in which the na­tional econ­omy will de­pend on in­vest­ment in to­day’s chil­dren and racial mi­nori­ties. While they are not yet the force on Elec­tion Day that they will be in the fore­see­able fu­ture, racial mi­nori­ties will rep­re­sent all of the growth in our la­bor force for the next 20 years, and their suc­cess will trans­late into eco­nomic pros­per­ity and fu­ture con­tri­bu­tions to So­cial Se­cu­rity and Medi­care. Trump hap­pily ap­peals to older, more con­ser­va­tive white baby boomers and se­niors, but he could do them a fa­vor by show­ing them the role that our di­verse younger gen­er­a­tions — many with im­mi­grant roots — will play in our fu­ture. Vil­i­fy­ing them can­not be a last­ing po­lit­i­cal strat­egy for to­mor­row. And it can­not be a work­ing na­tional phi­los­o­phy to­day.

Trump’s mes­sage ap­peals to a vein of the U.S. elec­torate that will re­main a sig­nif­i­cant vot­ing bloc for sev­eral elec­tion cy­cles to come: older whites.


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