Dylan Matthews has a wonderful piece up on Vox, Taking Trump voters’ concerns seriously means listening to what they’re actually saying, which points out that in order to heal the great divide in the United States we're going to have to admit what Trump's popularity is all about: a fading, racist white majority is struggling to maintain primacy.
For various reasons, our press and politicians shy away from tackling the inherent racism of this movement head-on. Apparently racism is so ugly, we don't want to accuse people of it even as they scream white power slogans and wave Nazi flags. People find it easier to say that White Power America has big economic problems, which isn't true, rather than look honestly at the hatred and bigotry.
Almost daily in America, police kill an innocent black man. Some portion of our population thinks this is "law and order." We've got white power assholes threatening post-election violence. A reality-tv-created egotistical monster is closer to being elected President of the United States than anyone should believe possible.
I get that we want to be nice to one another, but just waiting for education and time to solve this problem is perhaps not working fast enough. At some point we're going to need to point out that some beliefs, regardless how passionately held, are what they are. Someone holding on to racist beliefs who finds the mantle of 'Racist' too ugly to wear should reconsider their position, not couch it in a cute slogan. They aren't Tea Party Patriots clamoring for a birth certificate, they aren't the New Alt-Right, they are just racist.
The American press is overwhelmingly made up of left-of-center white people who live in large cities and have internalized very strong anti-racist norms. As a result, it tends to be composed of people who think of racism as a very, very serious character defect, and who are riddled with anxiety about being perceived as out of touch with “real America.” “Real America” being, per decades of racially charged tropes in our culture, white, non-urban America.
So in comes Donald Trump, a candidate running on open white nationalism whose base is whites who — while not economically struggling compared with poor whites backing Hillary Clinton and doing way better economically than black or Latino people backing Clinton — definitely live in the “real America” which journalists feel a yearning to connect to and desperately don’t want to be out of touch with.
Describing these people as motivated by racial resentment, per journalists’ deep-seated belief that racism is a major character defect, seems cruel and un-empathetic, even if it’s supported by extensive amounts of social scientific research and indeed by the statements of Trump’s supporters themselves.
So it becomes very, very tempting to just ignore this evidence and insist that Trump supporters are in fact the wretched of the earth, and to connect them with every possible pathology of white America: post-industrial decay, the opioid crisis, labor force dropouts, rising middle-age mortality rates, falling social mobility, and so on. This almost always fails (globalization victims and labor force dropouts are less likely to support Trump, per Rothwell), but if there’s even a small hint of a connection, as when Rothwell found a correlation between Trump support and living in an area with rising white mortality, you’re in luck. If you can squint hard enough, the narrative will always survive.
There’s a parallel temptation among leftists and social democrats who, in their ongoing attempt to show that neoliberal capitalism is failing, attempt to tie that failure to the rise of Trump. If economic suffering among lower-class whites caused Trump, the reasoning goes, then the solution is to address that suffering through a more generous welfare state and better economic policy, achieved through a multiethnic working-class coalition that includes those Trump supporters. Yes, these supporters may be racist, but it’s important not to say mean things about them lest they fall out of the coalition.