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Thomas Edsall on Donald Trump and the fears of the shrinking white majority

Why “make America great again” might resonate with anxieties about America’s majority minority future.

Efforts to explain the Donald Trump phenomenon have gone in several directions, and maybe there’s some explanatory power in many of its threads. But one has been emerging recently and was just given perhaps its most powerful exegesis by Thomas Edsall in the New York Times. It ran Wednesday under the headline “What Donald Trump understands about Republicans.”

Edsall is a hero of mine in the category of deep, often brave, usually data-driven analysis of political trends, including book-length works on the impact of race on politics and on the conservative plan to build an enduring majority.

In this latest piece, Edsall deploys a lot of poll results about attitudes of Americans, especially on race and immigration. But if I had to summarize Edsall’s explanation it would be this: Trump’s support is rooted in a segment of the white population – mostly older, working class and Republican – deeply afraid that the days of America as a predominantly white nation are ending, and they are freaked out by the thought.

Toward ‘majority minority’ status

First, you should know that there is truth in the idea that the days of the U.S. population having a white majority are ending. You’ve heard this many times, but the United States is clearly on a path to what is sometimes called “majority minority” status, which simply means that the white portion of the population of the United States will fall below 50 percent and there will be no majority group on a race/ethnic basis. Here’s some of Edsall’s numbers along those lines:

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“From 1970 to 2010, the Hispanic population of the United States grew fivefold, from 9.6 million to 50.5 million. From 2000 to 2010, the number of white children under 18 declined by 4.3 million while the number of Hispanic children grew by 4.8 million.

In 2013, white children became a minority, 47.7 percent of students ages 3 to 6.

If the 3- to 6-year-old cohort is already “majority minority,” and if the overall birthrate of nonwhite groups is higher than it is for whites (and it most definitely is) then the days of the white majority are numbered and the number is shrinking fast. This would be true even if Trump built a “really great wall” on the Mexican border and even if the estimated 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States were – as Trump proposes – deported. The wall-and-deport plan, even if it could be accomplished, would only postpone the date when whites cease to be a majority of the U.S. population.

Segments within GOP concerned

But the people who are having the hardest time accepting this idea are concentrated in several segments of the population from which the Republican Party draws its political strength, conservatives, white seniors, white born-again Christians and the white working class. Edsall provides plenty of poll data to back this up. For example, there’s a poll question that asks respondents to agree or disagree with this statement: “Today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”

Among Republicans, 61 percent agreed with this statement, compared to 37 percent of Democrats.

Edsall also cites a more recent Pew survey in June, which “found that when voters were given a choice between ‘immigrants burden the country by taking jobs, housing and health care’ and ‘immigrants strengthen the country through hard work and talents,’ a majority of those polled, 51-41, chose ‘strengthen the country.’ Republicans, however, disagreed, with 63 percent saying immigrants were a burden and 27 percent saying immigrants strengthened the country.”

Edsall isn’t saying, nor am I, that you have to be a racist to give these poll responses. Life is complicated. But it does make sense to me that if you hold these attitudes, and you hear a candidate promising to build a huge wall and (by some unspecified method) round up and deport illegal immigrants in order to “Make America Great Again,” you may believe that this is a candidate who understands your anxieties and is promising to address them.

Frustrations and the anti-Jeb ad

Edsall ties his analysis to the recent Trump ad attacking Jeb Bush for saying that unauthorized immigrants are not felons and came here as an “act of love.” The piece ends thus:

Trump’s vitriol expresses the degree to which the American debate over immigration has grown ugly, even hideous. At the same time, Trump’s followers are motivated, and enraged, by what they see as a breakdown of law and order and the erosion of norms and standards they believe should be upheld. They are frustrated by the poor performance of the public schools their children attend, by cities and suburbs they believe to be under siege, by a criminal justice system they perceive as dysfunctional, and by a government they view as incompetent.

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Earlier this week Trump added a new campaign commercial. It begins: “JEB BUSH’S THOUGHTS ON ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS” and displays a film clip of Bush saying “Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love.” Interspersed are three mug shots: “Francisco Sanchez: Charged with Murder,” “Santana Gaona: Convicted of Murder,” and “Brian Omar Hyde: Charged with Murdering Three People.”

“LOVE?” the next screen reads. “Forget Love. It’s Time to Get Tough!”

To voters who see the world this way, Trump offers the promise that he can restore a vanished America, that he can “make America great again,” as his campaign puts it. Trump clearly finds this endeavor personally gratifying, even as his odds of winning the nomination remain slim. To his followers, the letdown of defeat could be brutal, leaving them stranded, without a candidate who can successfully capture the intensity of their beliefs.