How Donald Trump Made 'Working Class' White

March 13, 2017
Donald Trump Swearing in Ceremony

Historian Nell Irvin Painter is history professor emerita at Princeton and the author of seven books, most recently The History of White People.

Donald J. Trump campaigned on the slogan “Make America Great Again,” a phrase whose “great” was widely heard as “white.” Certainly the election has been analyzed as a victory for white Christian Americans, especially men, especially the less educated. Although a cascade of commentary since the election has characterized the outcome as a loss for Democrats, Hillary Clinton received the majority of votes — almost 2.9 million more than for Trump. Against Mr. Trump were women, people who had attended college, young people, and middle- and working-class people of color. Trump’s supporters increasingly have been labeled by class — working class.

Though white Americans differed sharply on their preferences for president, the election of 2016 marked a turning point in white identity. Thanks to the success of “Make America Great Again” as a call for a return to the times when white people ruled, and thanks to the widespread analysis of voters’ preferences in racial terms, white identity became marked as a racial identity. Formerly seen as individuals expressing individual preferences in life and politics, white Americans in 2016 became Americans with race: white race.

I don’t mean that Americans suddenly started counting people as “white.” This has been going on since the first federal census of 1790. Since 1790, population statistics have faithfully recognized a category of “white” people, sometimes more than one — especially native and non-native born, for in previous centuries, the census divided white people into subgroups according to nativity. We did not suddenly discover the category of white in 2016.

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