Why Trump? Examining racism, gender and capitalism

Suvi Keskinen

Since the elections on November 9th that resulted in Donald Trump being chosen as the next President of the US, various explanations have been presented by commentators in newspapers, TV and social media. Many of them, at least in Finland, seem to centre on the role of the white working-class and discuss how people in areas that suffer from large scale industrial decline wanted political change. However, this is a very narrow and to some extent misleading analysis of the complex problematics leading to the victory of Trump the candidate who actually received over two million votes less than the competitor, Hillary Clinton. In the following, I will discuss how an analysis that addresses the intersections of racism, gender and the battle between nationalist and global capitalism can provide better answers to the rising support for Trump, and right-wing populists and white nationalists elsewhere.

First of all, it is important to remember that despite the victory Trump was elected by a clear minority of the US population. The turnout rate was 57,7 %, which means that 42,3 % of those with a voting right did not use it. When that 57,7, % is divided between Clinton, Trump and the free candidates, Trump is left representing approximately 28 % of the population, as is Clinton. While this is a large proportion of the population, it should not be interpreted as representing the whole country. Just like Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012, with not so different turnout rates, did not mean that the whole country was in favour of a black president. It is exactly the mobilisation of the groups dissatisfied with the previous results that played a crucial role in the election campaign.

Scholars and journalists have analysed the development of a broad range of far-right political activities, such as the Tea-party movement, Birtherism and the spread of white nationalist websites and social media platforms, which are often called the Alt-right. The central role of the Alt-right is shown in how Stephen Bannon, the leader of Breitbart News, was first chosen as the campaign manager of Trump and after the elections the chief strategist of the coming President.

Yet, skilful use of social media and Internet-based communication channels is only part of the answer to why the Trump campaign was successful. Even if the countless journalists would be right in their claim that the reason for voting for Trump was disappointment and mistrust towards ordinary politicians, the question remains why this mistrust took a racist and sexist form. Or, if you wish, how come the disappointed people chose Trump despite the crude racism and sexism he built his image on?

There are two answers to this. The first lies in the fact that the problem is not only the extreme right or the populist radical right.

The radical right campaigns are extensions of the ‘normal’ – radicalisations of what already exists in society: racial hierarchies and forms of racialised thinking that have a long history in western societies.

For those who thought we live in a colour-blind or post-racial era, these events should show that we are far from that, both in the US and Europe. If we want to understand and seek alternative futures we need to start by admitting that racism is deeply embedded in western societies and examine the normalities that make it possible to a large share of the population to think it is fine to protest by voting for a racist candidate – and again, for others this is not a protest, but a deliberate choice.

The second answer lies in the fact that this was also an act of defence. The two periods with Barack Obama, the first black president, have been too much for part of the white population: they have been interpreted as a sign of how the rights of people of colour and feminist and queer politics have expanded at the cost of the more traditionally minded white people. At a time when the share of the white population is demographically diminishing, there is a widespread anxiety that whiteness may soon not be the self-evident and invisible norm it used to be, which has boosted white identity politics.

The recent political events should be seen as efforts to reinstall the hegemony of whiteness, therefore also the rage behind some of the responses.

In contrast to what has been claimed, for many Trump voters this has been about a fear of change – a change that will mean losing one’s position and the privileges attached to it.

Therefore we need to question the hierarchies that the Trump (and other likeminded) campaign(s) play upon, instead of solely focusing on the working-class or ‘trying to understand the racists’. There is a tendency to follow the wave – by other political parties and journalists, but also ordinary people – as in making compromises and seeking to build bridges by letting the populists/racists get their voices heard. But what is needed is an analysis of how the racial, class and gender relations have developed and what their role is not only in the US presidential elections but also in Europe, the site of similar political tendencies and racial processes.


Race and class                                                                                    

The race and class question is much more complicated than the ‘white working-class stood for Trump’ claims that journalists have presented so far. Certainly a number of white working-class people voted for the Republican candidate this time, when in the previous elections they supported the Democrats and Obama. However, it was not only the white working-class but also large sections of white middle-class voters, especially men, who stood for Trump.

Studies that have examined right-wing populism across the Atlantic have come to the conclusion that the parties gain support from people with many kinds of class backgrounds, a large share being small proprietors and middle-class voters. The shared characteristics of these voters is not a specific class background, but an authoritarian, anti-immigration and conservative world view. Cas Mudde concludes that economic questions are secondary for the European populist parties and their electorates, and that the parties often combine elements of neoliberal and welfare statist demands in order to attract several voter groups.[1]

A central question is also who is and who is not included in the ‘working-class’. The working-class is not only white, nor is it only male.

The media portrayal of the working-class as the white industrial workers who lost or fear losing their jobs, is a grave mistake that bypasses the huge numbers of workers of colour, often in employment with low pay and precarious working conditions.

The low paid service sector employs especially women, non-white and migrant workers, some of whom are irregular migrants. The highly problematic understanding of the working-class and the poor as (solely) white characterises both journalism and large segments of the political left.

Moreover, why is it only when talking about the white working-class and its alleged centrality in white nationalism that class comes to matter in discussions on race/racism? Why is the role of the middle-class left untouched, although it is well know that many prominent right-wing populists (such as Jussi Halla-aho in Finland) are academically educated middle-class people? The white middle-class is often more skilled and sometimes subtle in its ways of reproducing the white nation and global order than the white working-class; thus, its members are better equipped to navigate against accusations of racism and find ways to normalise their views. Furthermore, the educated middle-class, journalists included, is largely blind to its role in upholding racialising practices and the benefits its members gain from structural racism.

Class is about power differences, thus it should not come as a surprise that white working-class people may want to put white middle-class people in their place. Having seen the middle-class look down on them and segregate themselves in wealthy neighbourhoods, some working-class members may well be mistrustful or bear grudge towards educated middle-class people.

Having said this, we also need to examine how some parts of the white working-class have sought to secure their positions through distinctions and strategies that exclude non-white and migrant groups. There is an established field of studies that shows how racial divisions have been part of class politics for a long time, not the least in the US. Scholars like Robert Miles have argued that racial categorisations were a way to divide the working-class and to ensure the continued functioning of the capitalist system[ii]. In Sweden, Diana Mulinari and Anders Neergaard have evidenced how trade union leaders and activists often discuss migrants as a source of cheap labour and present them as threatening the cohesion of the working-class struggle, especially when migrant activists put questions of racism on the agenda.[iii]


Gender politics and coalitions

Hierarchies of class, race and gender play into each other, but can also be in tension with each other. A critical perspective thus needs to grasp the interplay of power relations. That Obama was able to mobilise a broad coalition of supporters across class, race and gender divisions was an achievement. Such coalitions require a lot of background work but also a candidate that is able to embody the promises of new politics. If Hillary Clinton was not the totally wrong choice – she did after all gain a majority of the votes – it is clear that she was not the best person to embody coalitional progressive politics. A somewhat similar case can be found in Finland, which shows the dilemmas of working across differences.

In the 1994 Presidential elections, many talked about the chance to elect the first female president and Elisabeth Rehn succeeded to make it to the second round, together with Martti Ahtisaari. While some feminist groups supported her for gender causes, others were sceptical. A few years earlier, Rehn had campaigned with the slogan ‘the woman from the right’ (kvinnan från höger) and as the Defence Minister she represented politics that many feminists did not want to support, not to talk about the conservative male voters who were not ready to elect a female president. Neither the gender, nor the class mobilisation succeeded in Rehn’s case; yet, her candidacy certainly paved the way for future female politicians.

Six years later, Tarja Halonen was chosen as the first female president with a back-up of coalitional politics, building on class, gender, sexuality and international questions. There are of course several differences to the US elections, the most obvious being that race was not made explicit in the Finnish campaigns.

The responses to Clinton’s defeat also exemplify how gender and race play a central role in politics. Jemima Repo and Johanna Kantola have written excellently on how the white masculine norm and gender questions were part of the US election process. Therefore, I will only raise one question here: why are so many liberal and leftist men so furious over Hillary Clinton and the fact that she was chosen as the presidential candidate? After the elections, I have heard and watched online how several white men speak about Bernie Sanders as the saviour: how he would have won and been able to provide a proper challenge to Trump. While they may be right in their argument that Clinton did not represent a change to neoliberal politics, it is difficult to bypass the devaluing and even misogynistic forms that this disappointment takes. Looking back to the times when white men ruled across the political spectrum will not provide the answers needed to solve today’s problems, neither will it help to win the elections. Coalitional politics that seeks to forward social justice has to deal with hierarchies, and the contempt of the more privileged, not only in relation to class but also gender, race and sexuality.


Let’s talk about capitalism

Last but not least, an analysis that wants to make sense of the success of Trump and the waves of right-wing populism in Europe needs to focus on the relation between nationalist capitalism and global capitalism in neoliberal times. By this distinction I am not implying that there would be two different kinds of capitalism that are detached from each other, but refer to different emphasis and arrangements within the capitalist world order.

One of the central answers to why Trump was able to gain so much support is that he spoke for, or at least was seen as a someone representing, nationalist capitalism instead of enhancing free trade agreements and other forms of unrestricted global capitalism. Nationalist capitalism means no radical change of economic structures and the power relations they uphold, but can provide some forms of restrictions to unhindered global capitalism and security for those included in the national(ist) community.

Not only right-wing populists but also some parts of the left have argued for national strategies when faced with the expansion of the EU and the negative societal effects of neoliberal globalisation[iv].

The dilemma for the leftist alternative is then, how to avoid the nationalist trap and develop strategies and politics that will not be based on racialised and nationalist exclusions.

Another challenge is to develop transnational politics and modes of governance, involving for example trade unions and civil society organisations, so as to provide other options to neoliberal globalisation than nationalist capitalism.

Economically declining areas, both rural and industrial, have provided a basis for right-wing populism also in Finland. In many countries, metropolitan urban areas have become centres of new economies, whereas other parts of the country have been left behind. The nationally adopted neoliberal policies strengthen this development, since there is little interest in steering instruments that would make the changes easier for people who live in declining areas or work in jobs that are under threat. Wealth and prospects are not evenly distributed within the metropolitan areas either, but involve classed and racialised processes.

Providing a global perspective to matters of political economy and capitalist crises would make it evident that while the wealth of the global North is still based on the exploitation of the global South, the US and Europe are no longer as central to the world economy as they used to be. Perhaps ‘make America great again’ refers to a recognition of the changing position of (what is understood as) the West and an attempt to shift back the power relations.

The postcolonial and decolonial perspectives provide understandings of the historical background of today’s global inequalities in relation to economic, cultural, and epistemological processes. Moreover, these perspectives urge for changes now – to acknowledge white Western-ness as a global position of privilege and to seek for solutions that would take into account the perspective of the majority of people in the world.

The author is a former shipyard worker and current Academy Research Fellow at the University of Turku.

1 Mudde, Cas (2007) Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 132-137.

2 Miles, Robert (1989) Racism. London:Routledge.

3 Mulinari, Diana & Neergaard, Anders (2010) ’Black Skull’ Consciousness: The New Swedish Working Class. Race & Class 46(3): 55–72.

4 In Finland for example Heikki Patomäki has elaborated such perspectives.