Understanding white voters’ attraction to Trump and the GOP, it may not be what we think…

Vince Rizzo
8 min readMar 25, 2023

Trump’s hold on the electorate and specifically white voters has been a quandary, costing us friends and loved ones. A recent opinion column offers a different perspective for us to consider.

Conservatism on the Ropes

As I have written here before, conservatism as currently practiced is in a race against time. The value of holding on to the past in an ever-evolving world is mordantly unsustainable. The best case for conservatism is in its moderating effect on the instability that can arise from unrestrained change. It is the “whoa, boy” effect best employed to grudgingly hold on to the present — not wrestle it back to the past. While even some Republicans would agree that Donald Trump would have trouble spelling “ideology,” the conservative wing of his party seemingly headed by Ron DeSantis has adopted a “back to the future” attack on modernity. The GOP culture wars are essentially a rollback of Constitutional and human rights that had been recognized in law and by the culture for more than a half-century. As the GOP’s Marty McFly, DeSantis has reinterpreted conservatism to accommodate a GOP base gone amuck.

The MAGA-infused Republican Party that has evolved with Trump’s domination of the party’s apparatus has little connection to traditional conservatism. Trump’s ability to co-opt the right indicates the weakness of their movement and its loss of core principles. The GOP tries mightily to conflate its signature ideology with Trumpism. Their attempts fail because of the lack of a cognate. There is no bridge that connects the two.

Recently, the twice-impeached and now disgraced ex-president called for his followers to rally. In a transparently self-serving rant he simultaneously plays both victim and scourge:

“These four horrible radical left Democrat investigations of your all time, favorite president — me — is just a continuation of the most disgusting witch hunts in the history of our country… It’s an absolute disgrace. Whether it’s the Mar-a-Lago raid, the unselect-Committee hoax, the perfect Georgia phone call that was absolutely perfect, or the Stormy ‘horseface’ Daniels extortion plot… They’re all sick and it’s fake news.”

Mr. Trump vowed to “defeat” the investigations and claimed that he was “standing in the way” of political “enemies” for his supporters.

Independent, “Trump posts scathing late-night Truth Social video attacking four criminal probes as indictment looms,” by Rachel Sharp, March 20, 2023

His message is not directed at party loyalists or even conservative voters. His plea is not to a mainstream. His appeals are to a core group that now serves as a majority within a GOP whose sense of grievance outweighs reality.

Racial Resentment

That has been Donald Trump’s gift to us. He delivers causes to the causeless. Like a bad Santa, he has a sackful of resentments always at the ready. But in a recent article by Thomas B. Edsall, the NY Times opinion author suggests a more disturbing political landscape. Edsall looks at data that cast many of my own deeply felt beliefs about the Trump phenomenon in a new light:

In fact, the new analysis suggests that Trumpism has found fertile ground across a broad swath of the electorate, including many firmly in the mainstream. That Trump could capture the hearts and minds of these voters suggests that whatever he represents beyond racial resentment — anger, chaos, nihilism, hostility — is more powerful than many recognize or acknowledge. Restoring American politics to an even keel will be far tougher than many of us realize.

— NYTimes, “The Unsettling Truth About Trump’s First Great Victory” by Thomas B. Edsall.

The opinion column is really a review of several sources that focused on data suggesting Trump’s hold on the electorate and his ability to maintain loyalty among many voters whose political views are not at all in sync with those of his base. While it may be true that his 2016 election was fueled by white resentment and racism, it is also true that by 2020, after we had all lived through Trump’s disastrous first term in which he was twice impeached, his hold on white voters far exceeded the number who could be considered racist:

“We assess claims that Donald Trump received a particularly large number of votes from individuals with antagonistic attitudes toward racial outgroups (Sides, Tesler and Vavreck, 2017; Mason, Wronski and Kane, 2021). Using the ANES, however, we show that in 2016 Trump’s largest gains in support, compared to Mitt Romney in 2012, came from whites with moderate racial resentment. This result holds despite the fact that the relationship between vote choice and racial resentment was stronger in 2016 and 2020 than in other elections.”

“Measuring the Contribution of Voting Blocs to lection Outcomes” by Justin Grimmer, William Marble, and Cole Tanigawa-Lau, February 28, 2023

Unconventional Wisdom

What are we missing here? Conventional wisdom holds that Trump’s cult-like following can be explained by their degree of resentment toward blacks, Jews, immigrants, women, LGBTQ, etc. It didn’t hurt that these groups were considered the Democratic base. Yet, the authors found that while Trump certainly did gain the votes of those with “high levels of racial resentment” they also found that over the past decade that group has significantly declined in number among the electorate. Trump’s real gains — even in his 2020 loss — have been among moderate white voters.

This raises an issue quite different from conventional political theories about the nature of recent voting trends. Where before we have been fixated on the various voter blocs and the percentages of those blocs that turnout, Edsall’s argument suggests that it is the actual locus of the turnout within those blocs that matters. As an example, the relative voting patterns of a demographic may be consistent — black voters historically vote in larger numbers for Democrats, rural voters for Republicans — but in the most recent national elections the volume of voters from each “silo” is more determinative. A case in point, the 2020 and 2022 midterm elections, were heavily impacted by the number of young voters and the sheer volume of their turnout impacted several races in swing states:

Among those under age 30 who voted in 2020 but not in either of and the two previous elections, Biden led 59% to 33%, while Trump won among new or irregular voters ages 30 and older by 55% to 42%. Younger voters also made up an outsize share of these voters: Those under age 30 made up 38% of new or irregular 2020 voters, though they represented just 15% of all 2020 voters.

Pew Research Center, “Behind Biden’s 2020 Victory. An examination of the 2020 electorate, based on validated voters,” June 2021

The trend continued in the 2022 election as younger voters (18–29) approached in numbers the number of Baby Boomers. According to a Tufts University study, younger voters vote Democratic by a 28% margin (63% to 35% Republican) but as Edsall points out, percentages are deceiving. It also matters where the votes are counted. In Pennsylvania, John Fetterman’s victory was buoyed by young voters who voted for him by a margin of 42% (70% to 28% for Oz). Tony Evers in Wisconsin enjoyed a similar advantage (70% to 30%) as did Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock (63% to 34%). Turnout rather than the percentage of the vote was critical as younger voters have increased their share of the electorate by 11% from 2016 to 2020. In battleground states in 2022 with the abortion issue driving even more turnout, the youth vote was decisive in holding off an expected “red wave.”

Turnout can also be affected by the number of contested congressional contests versus those involving popular incumbents as well as contests in which candidates run uncontested by the other party. In 2022, there were 35 such races nationally, and Republicans took 23 of those races which turned out to be a disappointing mid-term for them.

E Pluribus Unum

Racial animus is certainly a factor in driving voters, and mostly white voters, to the GOP. Edsall points out that those numbers are in slight decline but more importantly are baked into the Republican base even before Donald Trump. As Marc Hetherington, a University of North Carolina political scientist quoted in the Times article states, “And the highly racially resentful already knew full well that their home was in the G.O.P.” The answer is more nuanced as we come to realize that white voters in particular are being drawn to the GOP for many reasons. The more compelling predictors of white-voter angst that have given air to the anti-democratic leanings of the GOP — and have helped diminish the voices of the moderates of that party — are their age, their place in the economy, geography, and their educational levels.

The divide we are experiencing, which appears to have us evenly split on election days, teeters on issues that include and are beyond racism. That may be the good news. Racial resentment among whites is a mostly intractable issue in the present. The increased diversity brought about by the oncoming seismic shift in demographics will soon place whites in the minority for the first time. The shift will likely have a mitigating effect on racial attitudes if only by attrition.

Thinking we can resolve all our differences is a fool’s errand. Racism is an evil that targets the marginalized in society yet its dehumanizing effects marginalize us all. Its elimination is a goal that, whether they meant it at the time, our founders articulated in the de facto motto that today still emblazons our Great Seal — e pluribus unum, out of many, one. Washington, Jefferson, and Adams borrowed the Latin phrase from the Roman poet Virgil to characterize the ambition of their Declaration of Independence from England. The 13 characters in the phrase represented the 13 colonies whose differences were the source of compromises made to create a “union.” While disparities remained — some still with us now — our founders refused to allow their disagreements to define them. Those of us who wish to continue their endeavor should acknowledge their wisdom. While some disagreements cannot be resolved on principle, we know that overcoming them will be the bulk of the work that lay before us:

We should not be post-racial: seeking to get beyond the uplifting meanings and edifying registers of blackness. Rather, we should be post-racist: moving beyond cultural fascism and vicious narratives of racial privilege and superiority that tear at the fabric of “e pluribus unum.”

Michael Eric Dyson

The GOP has adopted an opposing philosophy — one that squanders human capital and our national resources on the chosen few at the expense of all of us. The former president and current enfants terribles has reduced their burden to a single concern — e pluribus Trump.

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Vince Rizzo

Former president of the International Association of Laboratory Schools (IALS) and a founder of a charter school based on MI theory.