"We're at a crossroads right now," former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said last September. "Are we going to take the Reagan approach, the hopeful optimistic approach, the approach that says that, you come to our country legally, you pursue your dreams with a vengeance, you create opportunities for all of us? Or the Donald Trump approach? The approach that says that everything is bad, that everything is coming to an end?"
Republican voters long ago gave Bush his answer. The party convention in Cleveland this week is merely an opportunity to confirm it in new and excruciating ways.
"There is no next election," former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said Monday night from the convention podium, though whether he was announcing the end of America or the start of the Trump dictatorship was unclear. "This is it."
What was clear, once again, is that white conservatives believe they are owed more — so much more — from the nation that they alternately love and detest, and which some believe they — and they alone — have built. The list of scapegoats who are tearing down their construction, and denying them their just deserts, is the working catechism of the Trump campaign.
Many Trump voters fit the profile of the white male with limited education and declining prospects. But those voters are not wearing funny hats and demanding jail time for Hillary Clinton in Cleveland. The national convention attracts party people who can afford to travel to a distant city for four or five days of parties and political rallies. (According to the Washington Post, organizers expect as much as $250 million in spending.) Many in the arena are quite well off. In addition to affluence, they possess social and political capital in their respective communities.
On the whole, Trump voters are economically better off than most Americans. That's not surprising — they are white and old, two demographic keys to relative prosperity. Median household net worth for whites in 2013 was $141,000, compared with $11,000 for blacks. Black unemployment is typically around twice the rate of white unemployment. The black poverty rate is two-and-a-half times that of whites.
Yet it's the well-off whites in Cleveland who ooze self-pity. For an essay on the strong support Trump is generating from college-educated white men, political scientist Howard Rosenthal told Thomas Edsall of the New York Times:
"The past 50 years have witnessed a very substantial redistribution from white males to minorities and women. I supported and now believe in the public policies that accomplished this redistribution. But redistribution it is."
Power has been flowing more equitably around American society — to women, nonwhites, gays and lesbians, immigrants. Enhancing the fairness of American society has, paradoxically, led some of the beneficiaries of a previously stacked deck to conclude that the American dream is now suffocating from the attention of so many new aspirants.
Trump supporters are gratified that he says out loud what so many have been thinking. And what they've been thinking is how unfair this all is to white conservatives like themselves. Many fear they will become victims of discrimination by the coming nonwhite majority. Meanwhile, they entertain thoughts about actual racism that are nothing short of delusional.
Recently, blacks and Hispanics have generally been more optimistic about their futures and the future of the American Dream. In a large-sample poll last year, less than half of white respondents agreed that America's "best days" are ahead of it. Among blacks, 80 percent said so. Similarly, a 2013 poll found 86 percent of blacks satisfied with their lives overall.
While these Americans continue to have faith in the American creed, and believe that hard work may yet yield a brighter future, Trump supporters are despondent, hurt and more than a little angry.
This is the national crossroads that Jeb Bush accurately perceived. One road looks relatively sunny and broad, carrying heavy traffic from all parts of society. The other road is narrow, purposefully white and headed nowhere in particular. More road rage lies ahead in Cleveland.
- Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View.
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