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CNN’s Fareed Zakaria recently made the case that Trump won the election because of four C’s: capitalism, culture, class, and communication. More specifically, the current president took advantage of the ways that white working-class Americans (especially those with less formal education) were structurally connected with these four C’s. Trump maximized his political power by accentuating and exaggerating the divide between multi-skilled white working-class Americans and all other Americans, including those who may live in cities, have more degrees, and/or hold higher-paid professional jobs. This political maneuver bolstered the more rural white working-class grouping that had been feeling historically maligned since the 1980s, when American working families felt the impact of declining real wages, banks’ and corporations’ takeover of small and medium-sized farms, the decline of white men’s manufacturing jobs, struggles related to working multiple jobs, and increases in job-training and college costs due to decreased subsidies from the state and business.
According to Zakaria, Republican and some Democratic working-class whites connected to the four C’s in the particular ways, which were very different from urban professional families’ connections to the C’s. In terms of their relation to capitalism, white working-class voters objected to U.S. capitalists who relied on the labor of immigrants. Even though recent immigrants worked in different occupations than white working people did, some working-class whites said that immigrant workers were replacing them. Fighting immigration and anyone who appeared to be a recent post-1970s immigrant became a hallmark of political identity for some members of the white working class. These working-class families also objected to policies and companies that sent manufacturing and retail jobs overseas, a process that started by the mid-1970s when many labor-intensive U.S. manufacturing jobs were outsourced and more U.S. jobs became organized as part of the low-paid retail sector.
On the front of culture, white work-class voters liked seeing a candidate who was ready to fight the educated establishment, including the Republican establishment. It suddenly became “okay” and even somewhat glamorous to have less formal education, own guns, oppose Latino and Muslim immigration, reject scientists’ research on global warming, speak about “white power for Christians,” and demand nationalist economic policies.
Of course, class and class identity were deeply embedded in white working-class Republicans’ responses to capitalism and culture. This was a group that had faced relative economic deprivation, the decline of white male power in the labor force, and the reality that more working-class women had to do wage work outside the home. At the same time, many rural, small town, and suburban working-class whites believed they saw affirmative action working to the benefit of African Americans, Latinos and other people of color, some whose Latino and Asian family members had been incorporated in the United States in the last 10, 50, 100, or 150 years. The old idea from the 1790s that that only “native white immigrants” could become full U.S. citizens continued to impact some working-class whites’ ideology. This racial bias pushed aside the possibilities of Republican and some Democratic working-class whites aligning with old and new immigrants of color and with African Americans and Native Americans, two groups that the U. S. government was slow to define as full-bodied, constitutionally protected Americans in the same way that Euro-American immigrants were.
The fourth C, communication, provided the means for Trump to reach Republican working-class whites. According to Zakaria, “The Apprentice” laid the groundwork for the connection with white working-class Americans. Simultaneously, the communication of nationalist and sometimes racist ideas via television, the internet, and social media further enhanced the prestige of less educated whites, who now could articulate their views in a way that was discussed every day on the national news.
The relationships between moderate to conservative working-class whites and Zakaria’s four C’s also built tangible connections with members of racist and fascist groups, who increasingly expressed themselves in the public square. For this reason and others, racism now is associated with our current president.
But did it have to be this way? Would it have been possible to have had a Trump-led non-racist, populist, nationalist movement that helped working Americans of all racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds? Perhaps. But this is not how history was played out. Trump appealed to white working-class voters by quietly and sometimes overtly saying that he was for them, and not for brown-skinned immigrants, Muslims, black working people, and professional women who sought equality. After all, until the 2016 election was almost over, it was Trump who argued that President Obama wasn’t a U.S. citizen and that he wasn’t qualified to be President.
Would it be possible for another candidate to lead a strong, viable nationalist movement that would be for all Americans and even for all residents? We probably won’t see it happen because U.S. nationalism is a politics of the past. Nationalism and isolationism don’t work for countries like the United States that are global powers. After all, U.S. power came from doing trade with and organizing production in poorer countries that became cumulatively more disadvantaged as they did business with the U.S. government and as they dealt with U.S. banks and corporations. This destabilized the world, ultimately putting the United States in peril if it ever ends its weakly funded programs to “help” other countries. In this sense, nationalism was put forward by Trump’s campaign as a false hope, one that enabled him to get elected. Voters were sold a bill of goods. They were ready to buy it because so many people just vote on one issue, and not on the total package. Nationalism, even if includes all Americans, is not a viable path for the United States to follow. The economic benefits of global capitalism, which greatly benefited working-class whites between 1945 and 1975, have come to an end. We’ll need to find a new way forward, one that doesn’t include the United States as the world’s hegemonic leader. In the end, all Americans will need to work together and solve the problems facing the world that we share with everyone else.