The Trump administration is preparing to have the Justice Department’s civil rights division investigate and possibly sue universities over affirmative action programs that the administration believes discriminate against white people.
This initiative fits a pattern. Since his inauguration, Trump has been hard to pin down on many issues — for example, he demanded the repeal of Obamacare and then called the House Republican health-care bill “mean” — but he has remained steadfast on one thing: his particular brand of identity politics.
And now, with this new initiative, he is once again addressing, and perhaps stoking, the grievances of the white voters who are integral to his base of support.
A sense of victimhood among whites was ascendant even before Trump’s candidacy. As sociologist Arlie Hochschild documented in her extensive conversations with rural whites in Louisiana, there was a pervasive sense that the beneficiaries of affirmative action, immigrants and refugees were “stealing their place in line,” cutting ahead “at the expense of white men and their wives.” In Hochschild’s phrase, these people felt like “strangers in their own land.”
This sentiment showed up in polls as well. In 2011-2012, 38 percent of Republicans thought that there was at least a moderate amount of discrimination against whites, according to American National Election Study surveys. That figure jumped to 47 percent in the ANES study in January 2016. Similarly, an October 2015 Public Religion Research Institute poll found that nearly two-thirds of Republicans thought that “discrimination against whites has become as big of a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”
These views were crucial to Trump’s rise. In March 2016, the political scientist Michael Tesler and I showed the importance of “white identity” during the Republican primary. Trump did particularly well among whites who strongly identified as white, who thought whites suffered from discrimination, who thought whites were losing out on jobs to minorities, and who thought it was important for whites to work together to change laws that were unfair to whites.
Indeed, in further analysis that we’ve done, a strong sense of white identity has emerged as one of the most potent — if not the most potent — predictors of support for Trump in the primary. Support for Trump depended far less on personal economic anxiety — “I’m afraid of losing my job” — than on a distinctly racialized anxiety: “I think minorities are taking jobs from people like me.”
This graph below illustrates this, and, to my mind, it is crucial to understanding Trump’s rise. It shows that Trump did only a little bit better among Republicans concerned about losing their job compared to those with no such concern, as measured in January 2016 YouGov polls. But he did much better among those who thought whites were losing jobs to minorities.
Other analyses from early 2016 reached a similar conclusion. For example, my Post colleagues Scott Clement and Max Ehrenfreund also found that concerns about whites “losing out” were common among Trump supporters — and these concerns, much more than personal financial struggles, were associated with support for Trump.
This continued in the general election, too. For example, the large majority of Hillary Clinton voters said that blacks, Latinos and Muslims suffered a lot of discrimination but only 10 percent said that of whites. In contrast, 45 percent of Trump voters said that whites suffered a lot of discrimination, but only about 20 percent said that of Latinos or blacks.
Moreover, the perception that whites are discriminated against was more strongly related to how people voted in 2016 than in how they voted in 2012.
Of course, it remains to be seen what this Trump administration initiative amounts to, and what effect it might have. But on a purely symbolic level, it clearly signals to core Trump supporters that their grievances are being taken seriously.
They may feel like strangers in their own land, but they are not strangers to this president.