The ferocity of the 2020 presidential election in the United States is not about Donald Trump per se, but about what he represents: the racist structures of power that have persisted in America for centuries, though sometimes in mutated form. The long history of America’s state-sponsored racism will draw to an end in the coming generation, which is why Trump is so strikingly reactionary in his attempts to prolong it. Yet the damage that Trump’s brand of white nationalism could still cause to the US and the world if he wins a second term makes the election easily the most important in modern American history.
Racism was hard-wired into the US from the founding of the American colonies, with their economies built on the enslavement of Africans and the slaughter and dispossession of Native Americans. Slavery became so deeply enmeshed in American society that only a bloody civil war ended it, in contrast to most other countries, where the African slave trade and slave holding ended peacefully.
When the US Civil War ended, a brief period of African-American emancipation during the Reconstruction era (1865-76) gave way to a renewed system of racist repression so encompassing and systematic that it was, in effect, an American apartheid system. The legal racism of Jim Crow in the US South is well known, but the repression and segregation in the North and West, including segregated housing, flagrant job discrimination, poor or no schooling, and systemic failures of justice, were similarly noxious.
In his brilliant and eloquent book The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein examines how federal, state, and local governments, in collaboration with vigilante white violence, created and perpetuated African-American ghettos across the country, while underwriting and promoting the spread of segregated, all-white suburbs. Much overtly racist legislation was eventually eliminated by Congress or overturned by the federal courts by the end of the 1960s. Yet racism continued, reflected in police brutality, the mass incarceration of black young people starting in the 1970s, ongoing suppression of black votes, and pervasive employment discrimination. And most of America’s segregated suburbs remained nearly all white.
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s produced deep and lasting changes. Yet it also fueled a political backlash among white conservatives, especially in the South and Midwest. Working-class and evangelical whites who had long been part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition switched their allegiance to the Republican Party, which promised to resist further desegregation and to support policies promoted by social conservatives. This “Southern Strategy” helped to put Richard Nixon in the White House in 1968, and then Ronald Reagan in 1980. The same white, evangelical rural and suburban base helped to elect George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Trump.
Today, however, younger Americans are far more supportive of racial diversity – and are far more racially diverse themselves. They are also better educated. Because college campuses bring together Americans from a wide variety of backgrounds, they foster a lived environment of diversity, thereby nurturing greater racial tolerance.
According to a recent Pew Research Center opinion survey, young voters aged 18-29 are breaking 59% for Joe Biden to 29% for Trump, who also garners little support among college-educated voters. Voters with a Bachelor’s degree favor Biden over Trump by a margin of 57% to 37%. For voters with advanced degrees, Biden’s margin is even wider, 68% to 28%. Trump’s base is concentrated among older, white, and lesser-educated Protestants, many of whom moved to segregated suburbs decades ago precisely to avoid integration.
In 2016, the swing voters were white working-class voters in the Midwest who had lost jobs to automation and trade. Many had previously voted Democratic. Trump wooed them by promising to stop immigrants and minorities competing for their jobs and housing. He promised to restore vast numbers of manufacturing jobs by getting tough on China. That message sold.
This year, however, swing voters are likely to break for Biden. Trump’s disdain for public health has allowed COVID-19 to run amok. Together with the weak economy, the lack of jobs returning from China, the overall loss of manufacturing employment since the start of Trump’s presidency, and Biden’s convincing proposals to create millions of jobs by investing in clean and green infrastructure, Trump’s message no longer resonates with many of these voters.
With US demographics and cultural attitudes changing, older, white pro-segregation voters may recognize that this election is their last stand. Trump’s remaining stratagem is voter suppression, including dark threats of vigilante violence if he is defeated. He has repeatedly declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, and has ominously called on white supremacists to “stand back and stand by” pending the electoral results.
As his electoral defeat has become increasingly likely, Trump has ratcheted up his rhetoric to fever pitch. The chaos of an artificially contested vote count is Trump’s main shot at retaining power. The most heartening words from Trump during this whole campaign was his recent musing that if he loses, “Maybe I’ll have to leave the country.” More likely, after a lifetime of tax dodging and financial fraud, justice will catch up with him.
If Trump somehow holds on to power, the domestic and global consequences of an openly repressive racist US regime could be deadly. At home, unleashed and unhinged white supremacist groups could spur a descent into open violence. On the global stage, Trump’s evangelical base has a frenzied desire for a cold war with China, one that plays to these voters’ xenophobia, anti-Chinese racism, and historical ignorance.
All of this means that the coming weeks will be fraught with peril. America and the world will not be safe until Trump is gone.
Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.