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On Trump and his support among voters with heightened white identity

Among those whose answers to four questions indicated that their race was highly central to their view of themselves, 81 percent favored Trump for the Republican nomination.

Supporters wave flags during the visit of President Donald Trump in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, on Saturday.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

In a late August New York Times column (that I read belatedly over the weekend) the brilliant Thomas Edsall pulled together the growing tools by which surveys measure the centrality of whiteness to the identity of white Americans, and related that factor to the likelihood that white voters voted for Donald Trump last year.

Past efforts to measure this have suggested that white Americans do not view their whiteness as that big an element of their identity, but a group of political scientists wondered whether the shrinking share of whites in the population and the recent experience of having the first nonwhite president might have changed that. Apparently so.

Perhaps the findings won’t surprise you, but the degree of the correlation between a heightened white identity and support for Donald Trump struck me as impressive (bordering on jaw-dropping).

Edsall also shows, with quotes from Trump’s frightening speech at that Phoenix rally of weeks ago, how Trump’s dog whistles may activate the white identity of his supporters and their enthusiasm for him and encourage them to believe that while others are out to de-white-ify the country, he is not.

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I fear that first paragraph got a little complicated, so please allow me to take it one step at a time.

Three respected political scientists developed a battery of four questions designed to measure how much a white American’s whiteness is central to his or her sense of identity. The questions were about  how much the respondents feel whites are being discriminated against, the likelihood that whites are losing jobs to nonwhites, the importance of white identity, and the importance of whites working together to change laws unfair to whites.

The questions were designed to measure and correlate the answers with support for Trump. The degree of the correlation they found is pretty staggering.

Of those white Republicans whose answers suggested that their identity, in their own minds, has little to do with their race, only 2 percent were Trump supporters. But among those whose answers indicated that their race was highly central to their view of themselves, 81 percent favored Trump for the Republican nomination (and, presumably, for president).

In addition to those two extremes, looking at those whose answers suggested that their identity focused more or less on being white, there is an almost perfect slope from 2 percent to 81 percent. If I’m reading this correctly, this whiteness quotient captured, almost perfectly, the likelihood that a white Republican favored Trump.

If you would like to see the correlation, click through to the Edsall column here. It’s about a third of the way down, it’s the only bar chart in there, and, personally, I was stunned by the power of the correlation. The more your answers to the four questions suggested you view politics through the prism of your whiteness, the more likely you were to be a Trump supporter, even back when there were many other Republicans in the contest.

Edsall argues that those with a heightened sense of white identity correlate with those who feel the benefits of whiteness in America are shrinking, or even that being white has become a disadvantage. One of the authors of the research, UCLA Political Scientist Lynn Vavreck, told Edsall that Trump broke new ground in directing his campaign at whites who feel aggrieved by what they perceive as the declining status of whites in America.

Edsall believes that Trump also broke new ground in portraying whiteness as under attack, that this was an important element of his success, and that Trump is still working on ways to emit this dog whistle and to conjoin it with both his war against the news media and, in one recent case, his effort to defend his highly criticized handling of the riot in Charlottesville last month.

Bringing all of those together, in Trump’s outrageous Phoenix rally, he wove together (and Edsall describes this more detail) his attack on the media with his pushback against the widespread criticism of his comments in the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests.

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In Phoenix, before a crowd of Trump enthusiasts, he used selective quotations from his various efforts to express himself post-Charlottesville, to the media’s alleged lies, omissions and unfair treatment of his comments, and, in one dog whistle, his complaint that among its crimes, the dishonest news media “are trying to take away our history and our heritage.”

To repeat, Trump told the audience that the media, whom he regularly calls dishonest and biased, “are trying to take away our history and our heritage.”


That particular allegation, that journalists “are trying to take away our history and our heritage,” which the Phoenix crowd loved, made little sense to me until I read the Edsall column. Now I sorta get it.