Nor were these insurrectionists typically from deep-red counties. Some 52 percent are from blue counties that Biden comfortably won. But by far the most interesting characteristic common to the insurrectionists’ backgrounds has to do with changes in their local demographics: Counties with the most significant declines in the non-Hispanic White population are the most likely to produce insurrectionists who now face charges.
There has already been a good deal of social media response to Pape’s study of the, “Duh, it’s racism, not economic anxiety” variety. But while this result may not be surprising, it is a vivid illustration of the forces that helped propel Donald Trump to the presidency and still hold the Republican Party in their grip.
It’s also a reminder to Democrats of what they can and can’t accomplish with subtle alterations to their messaging.
Of course, the people who were arrested in connection with the events of Jan. 6 are hardly a representative sample of Trump supporters. But they are an extreme representation of important larger phenomena. The forces that acted on them also act on people who are less crazy and violent.
Many at the Capitol seem to have experienced the kind of cultural change that the entire conservative world — including both ambitious politicians and an entrenched right-wing media — is intent on not just drawing attention to but also focusing on as a source of resentment and fear.
Looking back, it seemed almost destined that the Trump era would culminate in a violent right-wing insurrection.
We’ve known for some time that many Trump supporters felt a deep cultural anxiety, the sense that the world is changing in ways they don’t like and can’t control, and is leaving them behind. To a great degree, they’re right: Popular culture is far more diverse now than it was 20 or 30 years ago, and in many ways it reflects liberal values. If you think it’s an abomination for people of the same gender to marry, TV is going to make you feel very uncomfortable (as will your own kids’ opinions, in all likelihood).
And if you’re a White person living in a town that is steadily becoming less White, just like the country as a whole? Many such people will welcome that diversity, but some will see it as a threat to their status.
Status is complicated. It comes not only from your income, the prestige of your occupation or the esteem of your neighbors. It can also come from the feeling that you and people like you are in charge. And sometimes you don’t even notice it until it’s threatened, which is part of how cultural hegemony operates. If you start hearing people speaking Spanish in your local grocery store, the universality of English might suddenly become a political issue for you.
As someone who spent a lifetime chasing status, Trump understood that the feeling of status threat could be turned into a powerful political weapon. For instance: The point of insisting Mexico would pay for his border wall wasn’t that we needed the money, but that we’d regain status and potency by dominating and humiliating that country. Vote for Trump and that status and potency would be restored, he suggested.
It is almost impossible to overstate the role that the conservative media plays in creating and sustaining the feeling that White people’s status is under threat — and that the appropriate response is resentment and fear. The encroachments of liberalism are a daily drumbeat on Fox News and conservative talk radio, as is the message that everything you cherish is on the verge of collapse. You may have thought a “Happy Holidays” sign at the department store was just a seasonal decoration, but Fox will tell you it’s actually part of a war to outlaw your religion, so you’d darn well better get mad.
After the past couple of decades, we should understand that there’s almost nothing Democrats can do to diffuse those feelings of cultural displacement. Fox is gonna Fox, and politicians like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) are going to see culture war rabble-rousing as their key to rising within the GOP.
The degree to which Democrats “reach out” to guys in Midwestern diners or try to show them “respect” by paying homage to their cultural markers won’t make a difference. President Barack Obama spent years trying to demonstrate respect, but in the end his Blackness was an affront that too many on the right just couldn’t forgive. And Trump didn’t show his voters respect; he could barely contain his contempt for them. He told them he’d be a vehicle for their rage. That’s what they loved.
That rage still burns, because the forces of societal change that feed it continue inexorably, and some people will always try to profit from it, politically or financially. That’s true even if conservatives find it harder to loathe President Biden than they did Obama or Hillary Clinton.
And sometimes, even if — or especially when — Democrats assemble electoral majorities, that rage is going to burst out in violence. Again.