Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


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

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:

“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.

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.

Comments (30)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/03/2015 - 09:27 am.

    Definition of ‘white’

    A few generations ago Italians, Jews and southern Europeans in general were not considered ‘white’ by WASPs (neither were Irish — figure it out).
    I suspect that in another few generations many people of Hispanic origin will also be considered ‘white’ (many already classify themselves as such), with or without Anglicized surnames.
    So the United States will always be a ‘white’ nation because that’s our dominant culture, and assimilation does still happen. It just takes a couple of generations.
    And a reminder:
    If you are not a Native American, you are an illegal immigrant, or a descendant of one.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/03/2015 - 10:06 am.

    Never trust a zealot

    Much truth to this, I think, and – as one of those elderly white males who’s personally, if not politically, conservative – I think I do understand the anxiety.

    That said, unless we figure out a way to freeze time, change is – and has been, since the nation was founded – a constant. We cannot help but be products of our particular time on the planet, and there aren’t many people who gleefully look forward to the disappearance of customs and traditions with which they grew up and became accustomed to. I’d guess that, if it’s repeated often enough, many of these same people may become consciously aware of their cultural and political anxieties, and their sources, but at the moment, I’m just a little skeptical of how genuinely or consciously aware many Trump supporters are of the trends that Edsall emphasizes.

    In line with Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” it occurs to me that many a Trump supporter is cheering him on, not because of any real analysis of what Trump is saying, or thoughtful consideration of how the few policies Trump has proposed might affect their own lives, but more because of the gut feeling that anxiety usually produces, and Trump’s ability (with plenty of help from national media) to tap into those anxieties. Leaving media exposure out of it for the moment, it’s the same recipe that demagogues have used in this country from its earliest days. Play on the fears of the populace.

    One of the problems with that, of course, is that, to quote Frank Herbert in “Dune,” “Fear is the mind-killer.” People who are afraid often take actions and/or support policies that actively work against their own best interests. Kansas is a current example, where Governor Brownback’s election, stoked by those very same kinds of anxieties, has led to economic disaster. Before all is said and done, we may find that Scott Walker’s Wisconsin is not far behind Kansas in a kind of perverse Midwestern/Republican race to the bottom.

    A genuine belief in democratic government and majority rule ought to mean that you still believe in it even when you’re no longer the majority. If Edsall is, in fact, on to something with his analysis, he may accidentally be revealing a significant flaw in the democratic model as practiced here. Are Trump’s supporters providing evidence that “democracy” in the U.S. is only intended for a white, conservative, working class? I won’t be around to see it, but in half a century, my grandchildren will be members of the “majority minority,” and if I were still here, I’d find it interesting to see how they and their fellow-citizens react and respond to situations where they no longer can control the terms of the political debate, or the outcome of the policies put into place.

  3. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 09/03/2015 - 01:10 pm.

    Motivated Voters?

    What Edsall also knows is that scared voters are motivated voters. And motivated voters make their way to polling places.

    Also, can we say that while “whites” won’t be a true majority — i.e. 50%+1 — they will still comprise the largest demographic racial group? Lumping all non-whites together in one big number has always struck me as a rhetorical stretch.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/03/2015 - 03:52 pm.

    What Thomas B. Edsall understands about republicans

    Not much.

    It’s true that the republican party has become the party that most white men have gravitated too. White men have started most of the companies, have created most of the jobs, have fought the wars and pay most of the taxes. As a demographic white men have the most to lose from an anti-capitalist government that resents the military and refuses to protect the borders or enforce the laws. A free-market capitalist society depends on a law-abiding citizenry that respects private property and a government that protects a citizen’s constitutional rights.

    It has nothing to do any of the thinly veiled racist reasons that Edsall suggests.

    Otherwise, how would it explain Dr. Ben Carson polling second to Trump and beating Trump in a head-to-head poll. How would it explain Carly Fiorina? How would it explain two Hispanics in the top 10 of candidates?

    On September 16th, the CNN-sponsored debate will have on stage the most racially and gender diverse slate of candidates for president of any major party in history. I thought that’s what liberals liked! Look who the democrats are running in comparison.

    Thomas Edsall wrote another column about a year ago titled, “The Demise of the White Democratic Voter” where he laments that fact that white people are fleeing the democrat party in record numbers. The problem isn’t race, it’s ideology.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/03/2015 - 04:10 pm.

      Ever Wonder . . .

      Has it occurred to you to wonder why it is that “White men have started most of the companies, have created most of the jobs, . . . and pay most of the taxes.”? Could it have anything to do with not-so-vestigial racism and sexism?

      “A free-market capitalist society depends on a law-abiding citizenry that respects private property and a government that protects a citizen’s constitutional rights.” And only white men care about that?

      “Otherwise, how would it explain Dr. Ben Carson polling second to Trump and beating Trump in a head-to-head poll. How would it explain Carly Fiorina?” Tokenism? I notice conservatives are always quick to trumpet the race of their supporters, but are equally quick to accuse liberals of “playing the race card.”

      “On September 16th, the CNN-sponsored debate will have on stage the most racially and gender diverse slate of candidates for president of any major party in history. I thought that’s what liberals liked!” No, we actually care about policy, and not in going to such lengths to prove we aren’t racist. What was that old line about protesting too much?

      You comment about white men fighting the wars, by the way, is demonstrably false: White men start the wars, but all races fight them. In fact, the US military is now less white than the general population.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/03/2015 - 04:38 pm.

        Think again

        “Many of the Pentagon’s elite commando units, including the Navy SEALs, are overwhelmingly led and manned by white officers and enlisted troops, a concern at the highest levels of the military where officials have stressed the need to create more diverse forces to handle future threats. Black officers and enlisted troops are scarce in some special operations units in highest demand, according to data provided by the Pentagon to USA TODAY. For instance, eight of 753 SEAL officers are black, or 1%.

        Gen. Joseph Votel, SOCOM’s commander … stressed the need for diverse commando units, which operate in almost 90 countries. The average enlisted special operator is 29, married with two children and has deployed four to 10 times, Votel told the audience. What he didn’t say is that most of them are white.”

        I served in the submarine service for 8 years. Out of hundreds of shipmates during that time, 2 were black.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/03/2015 - 04:51 pm.

    My thanks

    …once again, to RB Holbrook.

    I do like diversity, so I will diverge (but only slightly) regarding the alleged diversity of the Republican panel in the upcoming CNN “debate,” but as Holbrook suggests, I also care about policy, and what I’ve heard so far from the Republican field is largely a combination of sophistry and demagoguery.

    I’d also add to Holbrook’s comment about “tokenism” that both Mr. Carson and Ms. Fiorina qualify as lesser-scale demagogues. Ms. Fiorina is more the corporate CEO-style of demagogue, meaning she’s more inclined toward the Medieval model of government based on absolute rule and “divine right,” but what she’s spouting is demagoguery, nonetheless. Beyond that, however, “tokenism” is an excellent and accurate choice of words.

    Holbrook’s last paragraph about the military is right on the mark.

  6. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/03/2015 - 05:42 pm.

    The Republican Party has no control over who is or is not running for their presidential nomination. Neither does the Democratic party control their candidates, or in any way “chose” them at this point.

    The press is manipulating the primary campaign for both parties. Most significantly, by touting Trump All the Time and all but denying, through silence, that Bernie Sanders is even there. They’re giving Trump oodles of free TV and newspaper and magazine coverage so he doesn’t have to compete with the billionaire-sponsored rest of the GOP crowd. And they create and sustain empty “scandals” for Clinton. They ignore issues whenever they can.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 09/05/2015 - 09:43 am.

      You’ve said a mouthful here, and I would add…

      …that the marginalization of Bernie Sanders can be found abundant right here at MinnPost !!

      We might well sum it up this way: it is the trivialization of the most important election in the U.S.

      The worst hypocrisy of the media class is the phoney-baloney that their sensationalism is only giving the people what they want !! In fact, it is nearly all that is presented to the people in mass media.

      Here is a definition of sensationalism:

      “(especially in journalism) the use of exciting or shocking stories or language at the expense of accuracy, in order to provoke public interest or excitement.”

      I appreciate this column, and I’m not decrying Eric Black’s work in general, but in the case of the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, he has done more than his share in marginalizing him as a candidate.

  7. Submitted by John Appelen on 09/04/2015 - 08:09 am.


    I find this obsession by the Left regarding race interesting. Personally I think this is all about Capitalism versus Socialism and where the USA should operate in between the 2 extremes. And about law and order. I don’t think many people care about race at all.

    One group believes strongly in personal property rights. The other believes government should control a large part of “Americas” wealth. One group thinks people need to live with the consequences of their choices, one groups thinks people deserve good food, clothing, healthcare, housing, etc just because they are standing on American soil. And both groups want to care for the truly needy, they just disagree with what that means.

    As to the law and order. One group wants to enforce our borders so we know who is living amongst us and to ensure people are not rewarded for budging in line in front of legal process following immigrants. The other group wants to keep the borders soft and reward people who are brave enough to violate them with citizenship.

    I think both side will happily accept support from people of every sex, race, nationality, etc. This is a philosophy fight, not a race war. Though the Liberals keep stirring the race pot in hopes to maintain support for their cause.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/04/2015 - 09:19 am.

      Framing the Issues

      Gosh, I can’t imagine which side you intend to take. Could it be the one that “believes strongly in personal property rights,” that “thinks people need to live with the consequences of their choices,” and that “wants to enforce our borders so we know who is living amongst us and to ensure people are not rewarded for budging in line in front of legal process following immigrants?” It surely could not be the scoundrels who believe “government should control a large part of ‘Americas [sic]’ wealth,” who think that “people deserve good food, clothing, healthcare, housing, etc just because they are standing on American soil,” and who want “to keep the borders soft and reward people who are brave enough to violate them with citizenship.” No, no judgment or dramatic oversimplification there.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/04/2015 - 10:54 am.

        No Difference

        I think my simplistic summary makes more sense than Edsall’s and the folks who are obsessed with Racism’s simplistic summary.

        Oh those terrible racist GOP folks… Gimme a break… A Black man is number 2 in the polls. And a guy from Cuba is one of the GOP’s top movers and shakers.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/04/2015 - 01:06 pm.

          Number 2 in the Polls

          Dr. Carson is a very successful man, and is the exception used to “prove” that racism is dead. He pronounces the correct Republican shibboleths and doesn’t bring up race. Therefore, no one accuses him of being a secret Muslim, no one questions his birth, and in what I presume is deference to his very impressive record, no one is demanding to see his college transcripts. He is useful to refute charges of racism (in South Africa, they call it the “Rent-a-Black” phenomenon).

          His standing in the Republican polls does not erase the Republican Party’s retreat from its historic commitment to racial justice. Let’s blow racial dog whistles all over the country–as long as we don’t say the “N” word, we’re cool. The Voting Rights Act? We don’t need that–look at the successful doctor! Racism is dead, and we support this guy to prove it!

          “And a guy from Cuba is one of the GOP’s top movers and shakers.” Do you mean Marco Rubio? He’s from Florida, and he is hardly what one would call a “mover and shaker.” His movement of late has been kind of shaky, but I don’t think that’s what you meant.

          By the way, you talked about the fellow who is second in the polls. Who is running first in the Republican polls? What is his–or her–stand on racial issues? I have no doubt it’s quite enlightened.

        • Submitted by jason myron on 09/04/2015 - 01:10 pm.

          It’s always interesting to me

          that the people who have never faced any sort of discrimination in their lives, automatically assume that it’s not an issue for anyone else. Just another Pleasant Valley Sunday when you live in the cul de sac.

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/10/2015 - 12:24 pm.


            You are correct that I have been very fortunate. However I have enough acquaintances from different circumstances that have told me about their challenges and results.

            A Black Ethiopian friend of mine was lost and driving around a beat up old civic in Ramsey one night. Surprise!!! He got pulled over and asked by an officer what he was doing. He politely explained the situation and the officer gave him directions. I agree that people do practice discriminating behaviors, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. That is unless we would prefer that our officers look the other way when something or someone looks out of place.


  8. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/04/2015 - 09:27 am.

    Dream world

    Racism is fading, but it’s not gone yet.
    You can control for all the variables you can find, but people make decisions colored by race.
    If you want a distinction, it’s between people who think that government IS the people (“of the people, by the people, and for the people”
    and people who believe that government is some separate entity imposed on us by someone else (Russians? Aliens?).

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/04/2015 - 11:04 am.


      I think our government is somewhere between that imposed entity (ie China) and a small town government where everyone gets a vote.

      At some point it seems that government can hit a critical mass where the bureaucrats, employees and politicians start representing their own best interests and not those of the people. Besides if 49.5% want one thing and 50.5% want another, it is hard to say it is the government of the whole people.

      It may be bumpy and contentious but I still think it is a great system. And that this is not a racism / xenophobia issue, it is just people with different beliefs trying to run a very very very large organization.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/04/2015 - 12:26 pm.

        It seems to be very hard for Republicans to accept that they live in a democracy where there are other sides to issues and sometimes that their viewpoint does not prevail in determining the policy direction.

        As for “imposed government” please provide an example of a bill or a law that was passed without some public constituency pushing for it.

        Every law that has been passed, even the one you don’t like, had a constituency behind it.

        Pollution? People didn’t like having their air or water poisoned whereas the people doing the poisoning didn’t want to stop doing so because of costs associated with cleaner processes.

        Work safety? People didn’t like having friends or family crippled or killed by unsafe working conditions whereas there have always been replacement workers for the fallen.

        Election laws? People didn’t like that elections were detemined by money and power, wheras money and power wanted control.

        On and on.

        Go on an pretend that the world would be just hunky-dory without those pesky laws you don’t like.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/04/2015 - 02:12 pm.

          I agree

          There is always a constituency behind change. ( ie sometimes citizens, sometime employee unions, sometimes businesses, sometime bureaucrats, etc) That is why the marginal tax rates on upper income earners are lower than they were in the past, welfare has more stringent work requirements, there is no single payer healthcare system, illegal immigrants are deported and not pardoned, drug users are convicted/jailed, etc.

          On and on.

          Go on an pretend that the world would be just hunky-dory without those pesky laws you don’t like.

          My point again: This not about Race, this is about different beliefs as to what is best for America. By the way, I like some of the laws you listed, I just don’t think we need to be adding to the list indefinitely. (ie too much of a good thing)

          • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/04/2015 - 05:41 pm.

            You the one who used the word “imposed”.

            It is a two way street, but the use of phrases like that and the refusal to compromise entirely misuse the ideals of democracy.

            • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/04/2015 - 11:02 pm.

              In Between

              I said we were somewhere between the extremes. Imposed government and a true small community democracy.I did not say I support an imposed govt. In fact I would move more control and money back to the States. (ie smaller communities = better representation)

              The Conservatives have been compromising for ~100 years. That is how our total cost of gov’t went from ~7% of GDP to ~36% of GDP. The problem is that there seems to be no limit to how far to the Left the Democrats want to pull the country.

              The question then, who is compromising in good faith? The people who give in for decades or the people who keep asking for more over and over? Personally I am happy the GOP is striving to stop the slide to the Left.

      • Submitted by jason myron on 09/04/2015 - 01:15 pm.

        Tell that to the Trump supporters

        that were caught openly on camera telling a Univison reporter to “get out our country.” Or the parents and relatives of all of the unarmed people who have been shot and killed by “law enforcement.” Anyone that doesn’t think the GOP has an tremendous issue with xenophobia and racism is being completely naive or willfully obtuse. My God…the GOP is defending the confederate flag…the “Party of Lincoln.”
        It’s just incredible…

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/04/2015 - 02:19 pm.

          Hey Look… There is a story that supports my point of view…

          I have said that there are bad/foolish Liberals and bad/foolish Conservatives. No surprise there.

          How about all the Black on Black violence, officers killed by civilians, Liberals calling people racists / xenophobes / bigots / etc? And sometimes a flag is just a piece of historical memorabilia….

        • Submitted by cory johnson on 09/05/2015 - 07:54 am.

          Speaking of willfully obtuse…

          Let’s discuss the tiresome use of labels like racist and xenophobic when talking about illegal immigration. Neither of those is accurate just because I don’t want an unchecked flood of unskilled, uneducated people into this country. We have enough legal citizens who are lacking in marketable skills and education (of both parties). Building a wall isn’t the answer. But neither is pretending this isn’t a real problem that is draining resources at all level of government.

  9. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 09/10/2015 - 07:37 pm.

    I take it that you’re for harsh employer sanctions, then?

    How about this?

    Employers are fined the equivalent of the current minimum wage for each hour that they employ each undocumented worker, so if they hire 100 workers for a full year, they are fined for 2080 hours x 100. If the feds have to seize their assets to collect, too bad. The government can sell the business to someone who promises to hire only legal residents of the U.S.

    Would you be in favor of that? Or are you in favor only of getting rid of those Others?

    You can’t work from the supply side alone (not in general economics, not in immigration) The countries that send most of the illegal immigrants have large populations of desperate people. They will keep coming as long as there are employers willing to hire them.

    The countries that supply the immigrants are secretly in favor of illegal border crossings, because the exodus serves as a safety valve and has done so since at least the 1940s. It means that they don’t have to solve their own unemployment problems and can keep up their corrupt ways.

    I do not blame the immigrants for trying to escape absolutely wretched poverty. Let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose the minimum wage in Canada was $30 an hour. (It isn’t, but let’s just suppose.) Suppose that unemployment was at Great Depression levels and had been for decades. Suppose that cynical Canadian employers let it be known that they would hire illegal American immigrants for $20 an hour. What do you think would happen?

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/10/2015 - 09:34 pm.


      Yes I am fine with severe fines for employing illegal immigrants if you are fine with deporting all the illegal immigrants that are located. Deal?

      “What do you think would happen?” Well it depends if Canada has an open border like the USA, or an effective security and enforcement system. Please remember that banks have a lot of money in their safes, yet people do not walk in and take handfuls of $20’s.

Leave a Reply