Columns

Rowland ’17: What Brown students get wrong about Trump

By
Opinions Editor
Wednesday, February 10, 2016

This is not the first column written about Donald Trump’s ascension in the polls, nor will it be the last. Despite his popularity most pollsters and pundits expect that Trump will fade once we get past the early primary states. But that argument has been over-analyzed, granted more than its fair share of time on the talk show circuit and the political headline parade.

My issue with Trump’s newfound political popularity is surprisingly under-addressed. Namely, why are liberals — including Brown students — so surprised by Trump’s path to popularity? There are many factors at play, including an unwillingness (or inability?) to recognize steady undercurrents of racism and xenophobia seeping into popular opinion, as well as a deep polarization that isolates us within our own respective political camps.

I’m tired of the pundits and peers that attribute Trump’s popularity to his brashness and aversion to “playing by the rules.” That personality describes Chris Christie just as well as it describes Trump. As a New Jerseyan, I should know. It’s tempting to explain away the success of his racist and xenophobic brand by arguing that the appeal of “The Donald” is less about content and more about charisma. But let’s be real, Trump’s ideas are viewed as legitimate policy solutions by a significant portion of the population. Trump is democracy in action.

An MSNBC poll from August revealed that, “The biggest differences between Trump supporters and other Republicans … can be found in their views on public policy issues.” Trump voters, for example, are 20 percentage points more likely than non-Trump Republicans to believe “immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care.” In December, “nearly two thirds of likely GOP primary voters said in a Bloomberg poll that they supported his proposal to block all Muslims from entering the (United States).” In response, I saw a slew of social media posts and opinions pieces condemning his words as un-American and undemocratic. But, the numbers show that his suggestion is disturbingly democratic. According to a 2015 poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, “a majority of Americans — 56 percent — believe Islam is ‘at odds with’ American values. … The results are even more extreme on a partisan level, with 76 percent of Republicans agreeing with that idea.”

Race and education play a statistically significant role in predicting these beliefs. Trump has outpaced his rivals in capturing the support of a full third of Republican voters with a high school education or less. As many pundits have pointed out, Trump’s surge relies on the less-educated Americans with whom his politics resonate. But he also has a broad pull among other demographics. A Civis Analytics poll of more than 11,000 Republican-leaning respondents shows, “Trump has broad support in the GOP, spanning all major demographic groups.” But the comparison the geographic dispersion evokes is troubling. Nate Cohn of the New York Times wrote that, “It is similar to a map of the tendency toward racism by region, according to measures like the prevalence of Google searches for racial slurs and racist jokes or scores on implicit association tests.

Trump supporters call themselves the “silent majority” — a nod to President Richard Nixon’s appeals to mostly white Americans to reclaim cultural values. While controversial, the phrase acknowledges a harrowing reality. A significant number of Americans feel that Trump’s ideas best address their sources of anger and frustration with the government. And by bucking the establishment, Trump has found a way to give the racist and xenophobic backlash a sense of mainstream legitimacy.

At Brown, we act surprised when we watch the TV in the Ratty and hear the next ridiculous thing Trump says. Are we that out of touch? The liberal uproar and borderline cliche bewilderment that occurs in response to Trump’s popularity indicates a willful blindness to fundamental divisions within the population. The disingenuousness of the disbelief is similar to the surprise expressed by many after the events of Ferguson — to which many black leaders replied, “we’ve been telling you this for years.”

Lainie Rowland can be reached at lainie_rowland@brown.edu.

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