The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump won by championing alienated white and Christian voters. But will that ever work again?

(Bryan R. Smith/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
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President Trump’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was both unsurprising — given the campaign he ran — and politically perilous. It also highlights a divide that goes deeper even than immigration, one we can see in vivid detail in a couple of new surveys that were just released.

While Republicans have long been the party for those who want to conserve the past and Democrats the party for those who are more inclined to embrace change and progress, Trump has driven a gigantic wedge through that divide. Seldom have we seen a president whose message to voters is so clearly, “If you can’t stand what our country has become, I’m your man.” This is only secondarily about policies and programs; mostly it’s about culture. And it’s possible that 2016 was the last time the GOP can be successful with that kind of appeal, at least in the near future.

Let’s start with the new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll. It asked questions about topics such as immigration (81 percent of Democrats say it strengthens the United States, compared with only 44 percent of Republicans). It also asked this question:

Over the past few years there has been a debate about changes in American society and the country becoming more diverse and tolerant of different lifestyles, gender roles, languages, cultures and experiences. Which of the following statements comes closer to your point of view about these changes:
I feel comfortable with these changes because what makes the country special is taking the very best from people of different experiences and backgrounds and creating a country that thrives in its diversity.
I feel uneasy with these changes because what makes the country special is our uniquely American experience, speaking English, and a shared background that brings us all together.

There might be some of what pollsters call “social desirability bias” operating here, in that people want to seem open-minded and confident so they would be more likely to answer that they’re comfortable with the changes even if they’re actually uneasy. But even so, the results are stark:


53-point gap

between Clinton voters and Trump voters.

Liberals often mock the idea that Trump voters were expressing “economic anxiety” by voting for him when so much of it was about race. But it’s all part of a complex package. Trump’s campaign was intensely xenophobic, from the pledges to build the wall and ban Muslims from entering the country to the incessant retellings of the story of an undocumented immigrant who killed a young white girl (whom Trump would regularly describe as “beautiful,” as though that made it even worse).

The Democrat's new platform is a raw deal for minorities, says Global Opinions editor Karen Attiah. (Video: Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome, Karen Attiah/The Washington Post)

But stoking anger at immigration wasn’t the whole story — it fit into a larger argument about an America that Trump voters felt had been lost. Their economic opportunities are more limited, their communities aren’t as vibrant as they once were, and the dominant culture embraces a set of cosmopolitan and socially liberal values they find alienating. Not only that, they feel, not without reason, that the culture sends them a message that their values are outdated, small-minded and in many cases simply wrong.

Now add in the fact that patterns of immigration have changed in the last decade or two, where Spanish-speaking immigrants are moving beyond the places they’ve always been (California, Texas, New York) and moving into areas that hadn’t had large numbers of these immigrants before. For some people, that change has been jarring — they see signs going up in Spanish, they see people who don’t look like them in communities that used to be nearly all-white, and it seems like one more symptom of change they don’t like.

Combine that with the kind of alienation older people in particular are always prone to feel from a culture that is in fact leaving them behind, for the simple reason that they’re getting older and cultures change. Their music is no longer what’s popular, current fashion trends seem stupid to them, they don’t feel comfortable navigating this new multicultural environment, and they long for a time when they were young and on top of the world.

Then along comes Trump, telling them that all those trends can be reversed. That’s what “Make America Great Again” was about: turning back the clock to the time you look back on fondly, when it all made sense. You and people like you were in charge, creating the culture, making the future.

Now let’s look at another poll, from the Public Religion Research Institute. Their survey of Americans’ religious beliefs shows that we’ve passed a remarkable milestone:

The American religious landscape is undergoing a dramatic transformation. White Christians, once the dominant religious group in the U.S., now account for fewer than half of all adults living in the country. Today, fewer than half of all states are majority white Christian. As recently as 2007, 39 states had majority white Christian populations.

That trend will only continue, because there’s a straight-line correlation between age cohorts and the dominance of white Christians. Nearly two-thirds of those over 65 are white Christians, but only a quarter of adults under 30 are. This goes a long way to explain Trump’s broad and seemingly immovable support from white evangelicals, despite the fact that he himself has led a libertine lifestyle they might have been expected to recoil from and that he is plainly uninterested in his own faith. But his explicit promises to elevate whites and Christians above the other people encroaching on their dominant position (“You will be saying Merry Christmas again very soon,” he told Pat Robertson) were just what conservative evangelicals wanted to hear.

Whatever you think of their reaction, just like the broader group of Trump voters, white evangelicals are right in their assessment that their hegemonic cultural position has been eroded. It’s not just that their proportion of the population is dwindling, though it is. It’s also that the assumption that their culture is the culture no longer holds. Now they have to accommodate themselves to a diverse society, in the way everyone else used to have to accommodate to them. They really have lost something, whether you think they should ever have had it in the first place.

Despite being in the minority, all these alienated voters were able to push Trump to victory in 2016, which often reminds me of a conversation I had with a pollster a few months before the election. We were talking about Trump, the Hispanic vote and the future of the GOP, and I brought up the comparison with Proposition 187 (I’m not the only one thinking about it lately). The restrictive measure in California in 1994, promoted by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, solidified their image as an anti-immigrant party and consigned them to semi-permanent minority status in the state. When I suggested that the Republican contest to see who could be the most anti-immigrant (which Trump eventually won in a rout) could be as damaging to the national party, the pollster said, “Well, don’t forget, Prop 187 passed and Pete Wilson got reelected.” The white backlash was temporarily successful, even if it ultimately did them in.

There are no guarantees about what will happen in 2020 and beyond, or how the GOP will adapt. But for now they are the party of people who don’t like what their country has become. One thing we can say for sure is that change won’t stop. And that could end up being the GOP’s biggest problem.