Learning from the ascendancy of Trump’s nativist and anti-immigrant rhetoric

“For decades, the America-blaming left has been relentlessly pushing a vision of America that casts our history, culture, traditions, and founding documents in the most negative possible light,” wrote former U.S. Pres. Donald J. Trump in an op-ed for Real Clear Politics.

This claim was part of a larger commentary by Trump intended to decry critical race theory being taught in schools, which is a concept that acknowledges and addresses the way that U.S. institutions are deeply rooted in oppression, and especially in racism.

Although Trump frequently denounces critical race theory, his entire candidacy and time as president is an example of what the theory works to address––the way that history can repeat itself if not addressed and acknowledged.

Trump ran on a unique set of promises, using nativist rhetoric and a distinct personality to quickly garner the support of millions of Americans. Although his supporters came from different demographics, they were overwhelmingly white, Southern, and lower-class. Part of their allegiance was gained by the campaign’s promises of economic growth, though his presidential policies did not reflect that.

As he promised job growth, better wages and more opportunities for American businesses, one of the motifs throughout his candidacy was to provoke and fracture U.S. ties with China. During his term as president, Trump waged a trade war against China, ultimately harming lower-income American merchants.

Trump placed high priority on tax breaks and protections for large corporations rather than protecting smaller businesses and the economic needs of working-class individuals. In one instance, he implemented the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which never “trickled down,” or improved economic situations for the working class, as he promised.

Such actions persisted throughout the Trump presidency and raise an interesting question: If Trump’s economic policy hurt the lower and middle classes, and favored large corporations, why would his millions of supporters vote against their own interests?

Much of this explanation boils down to racism––as it invariably does throughout U.S. history.

Part of how Trump gained initial traction was his ability to differentiate himself from other candidates, claiming that he wasn’t a politician, but a businessman, and that his interests were rooted in serving the American people. Many Northerners were put off by his history of racist, sexist, and xenophobic remarks and actions. However, his promises caught the attention of one particular demographic: poor, white Americans, living in largely Southern rural areas who say they feel forgotten about in national politics.

His supporters were––and are––deeply cognizant of their own economic position, but lacked critical class consciousness as it applied to the whole population. Critical class consciousness is an understanding of one’s economic position––not just as it pertains to the individual, but as it pertains to an entire social class. This lack of consciousness led them to be more susceptible to Trump’s anti-immigrant sentiments and nativist priorities. Trump successfully convinced his fanbase that their economic struggles were caused by illegal immigrants entering the country, and that the way to solve it would be to “build a wall” and focus on stricter border control.

Although this class consciousness is a necessity, it isn’t an accessible reality for many southerners who don’t have access to education or have the opportunities to study economic theory. This lack of consciousness, however, is what allowed Trump’s ideology to take hold so prominently in the South.

This notion captivated his supporters, giving them a tangible reason and ready solution for their struggles, a scapegoat for their economic situation. By doing this, Trump took accountability away from large and powerful corporations, and forced it into the arms of immigrants who have historically supported this country’s economic needs.

It was this nativist rhetoric that excused him from four years worth of inexcusable actions in the eyes of his fans.

While this was in the past, it is telling of the need for class consciousness. If Trump supporters had a more nuanced understanding of U.S. history and how capitalism has created the conditions in which many of them are living (rather than immigrants), then we would be able to unite against a common enemy, which isn’t ourselves, but capitalism.

Since the beginning, the U.S. government has been making poor white Southerners protect the meager bones thrown to them, hoarded from the people of color only one caste below them who are starving, while the powerful feast upon the spoils of both of the disenfranchised groups’ underpaid labor.

This historical trend manifested itself in Trump’s ideology, proving that when not addressed, history can repeat itself, proving the need for concepts like critical race theory.