‘Activate” is the most ominous word I encountered in three new books examining the forces behind the 2016 presidential election.
“The information voters acquire during a campaign can ‘activate’ — or make more salient — their preexisting values, beliefs, and opinions,” political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck write in “Identity Crisis,” a vital new work on the political culture of the Trump era. “That is exactly how Trump won support: he activated long-standing sentiments” surrounding race, immigration and religion. In “The Forgotten,” journalist Ben Bradlee Jr. details how contempt for Washington, a perceived loss of dignity and fear of immigrants helped Trump win over white voters in a key Pennsylvania county. “Trump was able to activate, own, and even weaponize the resentments that Luzerne residents had,” Bradlee writes. And in “Cyberwar,” communications scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson argues that Russian trolls’ efforts to “activate the Trump vote” were designed to increase animosity toward Latin American immigrants and Muslims as well as deepen worries about civil unrest.
Military units are activated. Cancer cells are activated. Explosives are activated, too.
Donald Trump is hardly responsible for the existence of white supremacy, misogyny, nativism or anti-Semitism in America, but his politics enables and thrives on their resurgence. Trump’s 2016 campaign encouraged citizens to indulge some of their most retrograde instincts, a tactic that succeeded so well it is now back for the midterm races:Left-wing “globalist” billionaires threaten America, we are told, any protesters are invariably “paid professionals” and immigrants seek not a better life for themselves but a worse one for you. No wonder the administration has announced plans to deploy thousands of U.S. troops to the southern border to repel what the president calls a migrant “invasion,” even while he muses about ending birthright citizenship via executive order — all just days before the elections.
Trump says the coming vote is about “Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order . . . You know what I’m talking about.” Yes, I believe we do. Tuesday’s vote is not just a referendum on the Trump presidency but on the values that Trump has activated — on whether Trump’s America is simply America now.
Every presidential election produces a glut of books attempting to chronicle what it took, how the winner was sold or made, or just what happened. The authors of “Identity Crisis” dismiss some of the common explanations for the 2016 outcome, such as the economic misfortune of the white working class, the Clinton campaign’s strategic shortcomings and Russian interference. Drawing on numerous electoral surveys, Sides, Tesler and Vavreck conclude that white voters’ financial and job concerns, while real, flowed from their cultural and racial resentments. “Instead of a pure economic anxiety,” the authors write, “what mattered was racialized economics.” Translation: Support for Trump was less about fearing you’d lose your job and more about fearing you’d lose your job to those lazy, entitled people who are different from you. This “spillover of racialization” into multiple arenas, they write, was an essential feature of the presidential campaign.
In 2016, Americans’ long-standing divisions over race, ethnicity and religion overlapped more closely than in the past with voters’ partisan identities. White Americans who expressed favorable views of black Americans, Muslims and immigrants were increasingly Democrats, the authors note, while those expressing less favorable attitudes were increasingly Republicans. Both of the 2016 nominees — not only Trump — centered the contest on this split. Rather than focus on economic policy or the size of government, Hillary Clinton and Trump “made the campaign about . . . whether the country’s increasing ethnic, racial, and religious diversity was a strength or a threat.” That’s what “Stronger Together” vs. “Make America Great Again” was all about.
And it wasn’t just the domestic political campaigns. The Russian cyberattack against the U.S. electoral system demonstrated Moscow’s keen understanding of America’s cultural and racial fault lines. In “Cyberwar,” her account of Russia’s impact on the 2016 contest, Jamieson emphasizes “the mutually reinforcing nature” of the Trump campaign’s themes and efforts by Russian trolls to heighten America’s social tensions. “With a focus on constituencies whom Donald Trump needed to mobilize,” Jamieson writes, “Russian messages stoked fears of the multicultural, multiracial, ecumenical culture that Clinton Democrats championed.”
Jamieson does not make a case for collusion between the Republican candidate and Moscow, though she notes slyly that “the trolls’ understanding of Trump’s communication needs was sound.” More consequential, in her view, was the hacking of emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee. At critical moments during the 2016 race, the hacked material shifted the political debate and press coverage against Clinton and in favor of Trump, and Jamieson chastises the news media for its unwitting “complicity” with Russian efforts. The final two debates between Clinton and Trump included damaging questions about leaked excerpts from the Democratic nominee’s paid speeches — questions that were possible only because of Russian cybertheft. “Too often,” Jamieson laments, “the press served as a conveyor belt of stolen content instead of a gatekeeper.”
The debate over whether the Russians tilted the election is not settled in these books: Jamieson offers a detailed and compelling case that they could have done so, particularly through the magnified impact of the hacked materials, while Sides, Tesler and Vavreck counter that the effect of online ads tends to be limited, and that the Russians simply added misleading and polarizing content into a political system that was already suffused with it. Less controversial should be the realization that the Russians exploited some of the best of America — its respect for free markets and free speech, its tradition of an open and competitive press, its communications technologies — to bring out some of its worst. And that their tactics were consistent with those of the Trump campaign.
‘After the election, much the same way that Jane Goodall studies chimpanzees in the wild, social scientists and out-of-touch Democrats launched anthropologic-like surveys on the white working class,” Bradlee writes in his introduction. Of course, journalists did much the same, and “The Forgotten” fits comfortably in this canon.
Bradlee spends time in Luzerne County, Pa., a former coal region now caught in a “postindustrial malaise,” with its majority-white towns experiencing rapid growth in their Hispanic populations. Luzerne County provided Trump with nearly 60 percent of his slim winning margin in Pennsylvania, and Bradlee profiles a dozen residents fitting suitable narrative categories: Trump Men, Trump Women, the Veteran, the White Nationalist, the Christian and the like.
In his conversations, Bradlee constantly hears that people simply wanted Trump to “shake things up” — one of the Trump Men even jokes that he wondered if he was casting “a vote for Armageddon.” Yet the president’s supporters also echo his campaign rhetoric: too much illegal immigration and voter fraud, too many idle, undeserving people getting benefits denied to the hard-working. A Trump Woman and real estate investor complains that minorities are “running wild” because Barack Obama didn’t keep them in line. She quickly adds that her brother’s wife is multiracial, “so I’m not a racist.” Some fret about Trump’s language, but a pub owner shrugs it off. “Isn’t that what America is now?” he asks. “Everything is crude, lewd, and all on social media.” And when a hair salon manager tells Bradlee that she is “working [her] ass off to get by” even as African Americans and Muslims come to town “getting all kinds of benefits I never got,” you see the “racialized economics” thesis articulated by Sides, Tesler and Vavreck holding up quite well.
It’s all rather recognizable if you’ve read any of the many journalistic forays into Trump Country. When one of Bradlee’s characters sounded familiar — a former Democrat and labor organizer who voted for Trump — I realized I’d already met him in Salena Zito and Brad Todd’s “The Great Revolt,” a similar book published this year. What makes “The Forgotten” memorable is not the white-working-class cliches or cross-cultural animosity, but how our national divides are reflected within individual families. A grandson and grandmother trade accusations over text messages. “Congratulations, you’ve damaged America. I hope it was worth it,” he writes. “I’ve saved America and I am very proud . . . Learn how to be grateful,” she responds. An evangelical marriage spirals downward because the husband is repulsed by Trump while the wife believes that God chose this president. Trump’s election “has torn, ripped at, and tried to squash anything we built,” she admits. “We were, and still can be, in serious trouble if we talk about Trump.”
For some Trump opponents, the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller serves as a device in a Samuel Beckett-style drama: They wait and wait for Mueller’s report to appear, believing that it will justify their sacrifices, restore their hope, set everything right. But we already know what the response will be: “I don’t think there’s anything to it,” a Trump Woman tells Bradlee. “If they find something, they will have made it up.”
In “Cyberwar,” Jamieson concludes her dissection of Russia’s electoral attack by listing all the enablers who unwittingly helped make it happen. It’s basically everyone: the breathless news media, the credulous citizenry, the polarizing — and pusillanimous — elected officials in Washington. Bradlee ends “The Forgotten” warning that Trump is pushing us back to “the old separate-but-equal ethos.” He urges the Democratic Party to “develop more of a heartland sensibility” and nominate someone with “blue-collar cred.”
But the authors of “Identity Crisis” see no incentives for such a move. They argue that Democrats are likelier to win by advocating for racial and ethnic minorities than by trying to woo back white Obama supporters who flipped to Trump, while Republicans have had more success rallying their base over immigration and the national anthem rather than tax cuts or health care. The “centrality of identity,” they write, has become the defining feature of American life.
These impulses and instincts have always been with us, and, properly understood, identity can dignify as much as it divides. But the spillovers of racialization and the politicizing of difference now mean that shootings at synagogues and baseball fields are assessed by their politics as much as their victims, that mail bombs receive dismissive scare quotes if their senders and targets are inconvenient, and that the president of the United States attempts to make this midterm vote a referendum on nationalism and exclusion, on the threats beyond rather than the rot within.
It is easy to activate, but much harder to defuse — if we even wanted to try.