The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll—which shows a yawning cultural divide between Trump voters and Republicans on the one hand and everyone else on the other on everything from gay marriage to immigration—doesn’t tell us much that we didn’t know, but it does tell us something we should remember. The United States is not one country but two; and like many Western democracies, our two halves are cleaving apart.
The fault lines will be familiar to anyone who has observed Europe as its rural and urban populations speed to opposite societal poles, and as influxes of non-white immigrants and refugees, driven by war or increasingly by climate change, combine with globalization and a free-moving labor force to alter the social compact. In the recent French presidential election, the divide was described as between the “metropolitans”—the urban, modern France that favored Emmanuel Macron and the “peripherals”—the rural, aging France that clung to the far-right Marine Le Pen.
The U.S. version pits what Stephen Miller and the Bannonites derisively call the “cosmopolitan elites”—but which actually includes both white urbanites and majorities of every non-white and non-Christian ethnic group at all socioeconomic levels—versus the nearly all-white-Christian Trump coterie—rural, suburban and exurban. It’s “high output” America—the fewer than 500 counties Hillary Clinton carried, which account for 64 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product—versus “low output America”—the more than 2,600 Trump counties, which nonetheless contribute just a third of nation’s economic output. And as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in his blunt and brilliant new essay, it’s a fault line Trump and the Bannonites have also openly cleaved around white identity politics.
Nomenclature aside, the United States and Europe face the same foundational questions: how to reconcile this shrinking population that clings to retrogression but that even in its diminished state wields significant political power, with the needs and preferences of the nation’s majority. Not to mention with reality.
This group, which the Public Religion Research Institute identified in its latest massive survey that made news for showing a shrinking white Christian population in the United States, vehemently opposes cultural modernity, religious pluralism and secularism, multiculturalism, police reform, women’s equality, economic globalism, international trade, and especially immigration.
But the plain truth is that their aims cannot actually be achieved. Despite their anxieties over immigration, the influx of younger, productive workers is a necessity. Immigrants pay taxes that replenish our Social Security coffers. Their skilled labor feeds the burgeoning high-tech industries that flourish in large coastal economies like California and smaller ones like North Carolina’s research triangle. They fill out the rosters in fields where Americans are lacking, like nursing and teaching high school math and science, not to mention the backbreaking work of feeding this country. Historically, various ethnic groups have cycled through the business end of our agricultural production systems—which first utilized indentured Europeans, then enslaved Africans, then a series of groups from South and Central America and the Caribbean, drawn into the American labor pool by armed force, annexation, or financial compulsion. As each group moves up the economic ladder, they are replaced by new groups.
Historically, those who have cycled out of the lowest rungs of our economy have not been driven back into the fields or factories, as some on the far right seem to think will happen if their party manages to force Latino immigrants out of the United States en masse. Deporting that Google worker or Texas EMT will not result in an out-of-work coal miner being shuttled cross-country to take their place. That kind of cross-regional, cross-industry worker replacement doesn’t actually happen in the real world. All that would happen is companies would lose valuable workers in whom they have invested, which is one reason companies are joining 15 states and the District of Columbia in fighting back by suing the Trump administration over its DACA order. Well that, and basic human decency.
Other Trumpists cling to the belief that they won’t have to move at all—that somehow the U.S. economy will go back in time, to an era when black smoke belched out of factories and coal fueled America’s future (a history of unionized work that has its own fraught racial history). But the United States has long since slipped out of the industrial age. Unions, other than police unions, have lost significant power. The future of our economy is renewable energy and information technology, not coal, oil, and steel. Donald Trump can’t change that, no matter what fables he sells his followers.
Even the culture wars ended a long time ago. Like interracial marriage and desegregation of public spaces (though not yet schools or housing), same-sex marriage, women’s reproductive freedom including access to birth control and abortion, and growing secularism, particularly among the young, are a fact. The world will not go back to the way it was, no matter how loudly Trumpists scream or how viciously they fight. This insurgency the Christian right is waging, with their thrice-married, amoral apostate president at the vanguard, is doomed to fail.
Even then though, Trumpist Americans will remain. They have existed in our country and culture from the beginning, and they aren’t going away. Their minds cannot be changed. They cannot be bought off with free college or economic dangles, since it is not economics that drive them. And Trump’s election proved that their numbers and political potency can be plussed up via white ethnic solidarity in the voting booth including those on the higher economic rungs.
So the question is, how do we live under one roof, and how do we reckon with their demands, including sharp reductions in non-white immigration, onerous tariffs and an end to multilateral trade agreements and erecting a wall across the Southern border, which would tank the economy if put in place? Then there are their other wants, which most Americans find deeply troubling, like dropping the wall between (Christian) church and state, restricting women’s freedom to decide whether to have children, protecting those who wish to discriminate against gay, lesbian, and transgender people, unleashing law enforcement in communities of color, and bringing firearms into every conceivable public space.
To try and achieve these things, the Trumpists have made common cause with the plutocratic-libertarian wing of the Republican Party, which seeks to get as close as possible to rescinding federal personal and corporate income taxes, privatization of or even ending the social safety net and ceasing most government regulation of business.
Both of these wings of the American right know that their desires do not represent a majority view, and so they have also embraced draconian restrictions on the right to vote and anti-democratic legislative tactics at the state and federal level to try and maintain what amounts to minority rule. And history’s lesson is that minority rule doesn’t last.
Robert Jones, the PRRI researcher whose work documents the decline of white, Christian America, posits that this dying cohort is due some gallows sympathy. Some on the Democratic and far left want to try and win them over with populist economics and a de-emphasis on demands for racial equity and civil rights—a view that vulnerable communities on the firing line for Trump’s retributive white nationalist politics rightly find unacceptable.
But whether your bearing toward them is empathy or outrage, or some combination of the two, this cohort predated Trump and they will outlast him.
The American majority is going to have to reckon with them.