Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America

Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America

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A gripping in-depth look at the presidential election that stunned the world

Donald Trump's election victory resulted in one of the most unexpected presidencies in history. Identity Crisis provides the definitive account of the campaign that seemed to break all the political rules—but in fact didn't. Featuring a new afterword by the authors that discusses the 2018 midterms and today's emerging political trends, this compelling book describes how Trump's victory was foreshadowed by changes in the Democratic and Republican coalitions that were driven by people's racial and ethnic identities, and how the Trump campaign exacerbated these divisions by hammering away on race, immigration, and religion. The result was an epic battle not just for the White House but about what America should be.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691201764
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 08/13/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 360
Sales rank: 315,881
File size: 10 MB

About the Author

John Sides is professor of political science at George Washington University. Twitter @johnmsides Michael Tesler is associate professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine. Lynn Vavreck is the Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics and Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles. Twitter @vavreck

Read an Excerpt



Rakeem Jones didn't see the punch coming.

He had been part of a group protesting at a rally for presidential candidate Donald Trump in Fayetteville, North Carolina. It was March 9, 2016, and Trump was leading the race for the Republican presidential nomination. After Trump began speaking, one of the group started shouting at Trump. A Trump supporter screamed at the group, "You need to get the fuck out of here!" The group was soon surrounded by sheriff's deputies, who began to escort them out. Jones gave the audience the finger. Another member of the group, Ronnie Rouse, said that someone shouted, "Go home, niggers!" (Both Rouse and Jones are black.)

As police led Jones out, seventy-eight-year-old John McGraw, who uses the nickname "Quick Draw McGraw," moved to the end of his row and sucker-punched Jones as he walked past. Jones was then tackled by the deputies, who said they had not seen McGraw's punch. McGraw, who is white, was able to leave the event and was interviewed afterward by a reporter from the program Inside Edition. When asked if he liked the rally, he said, "You bet I liked it." When asked what he liked, McGraw said, "Knocking the hell out of that big mouth." Then he said, "We don't know who he is, but we know he's not acting like an American. The next time we see him, we might have to kill him." The day after, McGraw was identified, arrested, and charged with assault and battery and disorderly conduct.

The incident went viral. One reason was Rouse's cell phone footage of the attack. Another was Trump's reaction. In his speech in Fayetteville, Trump appeared to excuse violence against the protesters, saying, "In the good old days this doesn't happen because they used to treat them very, very rough." Two days later, Trump said, "The audience hit back and that's what we need a little bit more of." Two days after that he offered to pay McGraw's legal fees. That never came to pass. McGraw appeared in court nine months later and pleaded no contest to both charges. He was sentenced to a year's probation.

The attack on Rakeem Jones was just one of several violent incidents involving protesters and attendees at Trump rallies. Two days after the Fayetteville rally, the Trump campaign canceled a rally planned for the University of Illinois at Chicago when violence erupted between Trump supporters and protesters. And Trump's reaction to the attack on Jones was just one of many times when he condoned violence against protesters. After a Black Lives Matter activist was attacked and called "nigger" at a November 2015 rally in Birmingham, Trump said, "Maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing." On other occasions, referring to protesters, he said, "Knock the crap out of them" and "I'd like to punch him in the face" and "I'll beat the crap out of you."

What happened in Fayetteville, Birmingham, and other places revealed something else about the election. McGraw's comment "We know he's not acting like an American" distills what the election was fundamentally about: a debate about not only what would, as Trump put it, "make America great again," but who is America — and American — in the first place. It was a debate about whether the president himself, Barack Obama, was an American. It was a debate about how many immigrants to admit to the country. It was a debate about how much of a threat was posed by Muslims living in or traveling to the United States. It was a debate about whether innocent blacks were being systematically victimized by police forces. It was a debate about whether white Americans were being unfairly left behind in an increasingly diverse country.

What these issues shared was the centrality of identity. How people felt about these issues depended on which groups they identified with and how they felt about other groups. Of course, group identities have mattered in previous elections, much as they have in American politics overall. But the question is always which identities come to the fore. In 2016, the important groups were defined by the characteristics that have long divided Americans: race, ethnicity, religion, gender, nationality, and, ultimately, partisanship.

What made this election distinctive was how much those identities mattered to voters. During Trump's unexpected rise to the nomination, support for Trump or one of his many rivals was strongly linked to how Republican voters felt about blacks, immigrants, and Muslims, and to how much discrimination Republican voters believed that whites themselves faced. This had not been true in the 2008 or 2012 Republican primaries. These same factors helped voters choose between Trump or Hillary Clinton in the general election — and, again, these factors mattered even more in 2016 than they had in recent presidential elections. More strikingly still, group identities came to matter even on issues that did not have to be about identity, such as the simple question of whether one was doing okay economically.

In short, these identities became the lens through which so much of the campaign was refracted. This book is the story of how that happened and what it means for the future of a nation whose own identity is fundamentally in question.

The Political Power of Identity

That identity matters in politics is a truism. Getting beyond truisms means answering more important questions: which identities, what they mean, and when and how they become politically relevant. The answers to these questions point to the features of the 2016 election that made group identities so potent.

People can be categorized in many groups based on their place of birth, place of residence, ethnicity, religion, gender, occupation, and so on. But simply being a member of a group is not the same thing as identifying or sympathizing with that group. The key is whether people feel a psychological attachment to a group. That attachment binds individuals to the group and helps it develop cohesion and shared values.

The existence, content, and power of group identities — including their relevance to politics — depends on context. One part of the context is the possibility of gains and losses for the group. Gains and losses can be tangible, such as money or territory, or they can be symbolic, such as psychological status. Moreover, gains and losses do not even need to be realized. Mere threats, such as the possibility of losses, can be enough. When gains, losses, or threats become salient, group identities develop and strengthen. Groups become more unified and more likely to develop goals and grievances, which are the components of a politicized group consciousness.

Another and arguably even more important element of the context is political actors. They help articulate the content of a group identity, or what it means to be part of a group. Political actors also identify, and sometimes exaggerate or even invent, threats to a group. Political actors can then make group identities and attitudes more salient and elevate them as criteria for decision-making.

A key question about identity politics is how much it involves not only an attachment to your own group but also feelings about other groups. Identities can be "social," with direct implications for how groups relate to each other. These relationships do not have to be competitive, and thus group loyalties do not have to create hostility toward other groups. But group loyalties can and often do. Hostility can arise because groups are competing over scarce resources. It can also arise not out of any objective competition but because group leaders identify another group as a competitor or even the enemy. Both the "us" and the "them" of group politics can depend on what political leaders do and say.

A Changing America

The social science of group identity points directly to why these identities mattered in 2016. First, the context of the election was conducive. The demographics of the United States were changing. The dominant majority of the twentieth century — white Christians — was shrinking. The country was becoming more ethnically diverse and less religious. Although the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, no longer dominated the nation's consciousness, there were other terrorist attacks in the United States and elsewhere. The civil rights of African Americans were newly salient, as the Black Lives Matter movement coalesced to protest the deaths of unarmed blacks at the hands of police. Indeed, several high-profile incidents between the police and communities of color made Americans more pessimistic about race relations than they had been in decades. Moreover, there was no recession or major war, either of which tends to dominate an election-year landscape, as the Great Recession and financial crisis did in 2008 and the Iraq War did in 2004. This created more room for different issues to matter.

Another crucial part of the context: even before 2016, group identities and attitudes were becoming more aligned with partisanship. Racial and ethnic minorities were shifting toward the Democratic Party and voting for its candidates. Meanwhile, whites' attitudes toward racial, ethnic, and religious minorities were becoming more aligned with their partisanship. People who expressed favorable attitudes toward blacks, immigrants, and Muslims were increasingly in the Democratic Party. People who expressed less favorable attitudes toward these groups were increasingly in the Republican Party.

This growing alignment of group identities and partisanship is crucial because it gives these group identities more political relevance. It helps to orient partisan competition around questions related to group identities. It gives candidates a greater incentive to appeal to group identities and attitudes — knowing that such appeals will unify their party more than divide it. It makes the "us and them" of party politics even more potent.

A Racialized Campaign

But none of this context was new in 2016. The country's growing diversity was a long-standing trend, and its mere existence did not ensure an outsize role for group identities in 2016. Certainly this trend cannot itself explain differences between the 2016 election and presidential elections only four or eight years prior. Something else was necessary: the choices of the candidates. That the candidates talked so much about these issues, and disagreed so sharply, helped make these issues salient to voters.

First there was Trump himself. Trump was a real estate developer and a fixture of New York City society and its tabloids, which chronicled his marriages, affairs, and business dealings throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 2004, he became a reality television star, hosting NBC's The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice, in which contestants competed for positions in his businesses. It was an unusual biography for a presidential candidate. But as Trump positioned himself to run for office, he did so with a strategy that has been anything but unusual in American politics: focusing on racially charged issues.

Even before he ran for office, Trump was no stranger to racial controversies. In 1973, the government accused him and his father, who was also a real estate developer, of refusing to rent apartments they owned to minorities and steering African Americans toward other properties where many minorities lived. The Trumps would later settle the case without admitting wrongdoing.

In 1989, there was the case of the Central Park Five: four black men and one Hispanic man who were wrongfully convicted of raping a white jogger in Central Park. Within days of the incident, Trump took out a full-page ad in New York City newspapers that declared, "BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY! BRING BACK THE POLICE!" The men's convictions were vacated in 2002 after another man confessed to the crime, although Trump continued to insist that the men were guilty and would do so again during the 2016 campaign.

As Trump elevated his political profile during the Obama administration, racially charged rhetoric was central. He rekindled the long-discredited claim that Obama was not a native American citizen and became a virtual spokesperson for the "birther" movement. The strategy worked: when Trump flirted with running for president in 2011, his popularity was concentrated among the sizable share of Republicans who thought that President Obama was foreign born or a Muslim or both.

Obama eventually released his long-form birth certificate, but Trump made similar insinuations throughout the 2016 campaign. This was only one of Trump's many claims during the campaign that played on racial and religious anxieties and fears and brought elements of the election-year context — undocumented immigrants, terrorism, Black Lives Matter, and others — to the fore.

Trump's tactics by themselves were not enough to make racial issues central to the campaign. Had his opponents taken the same positions as him, then voters' own views on these issues would not have helped them choose among the candidates. But for the most part Trump's opponents took different positions and condemned his controversial statements. In the Republican primary, many of Trump's Republican opponents — and many Republicans, period — broke with him when he proposed things like banning travel by Muslims to the United States.

Then, in the general election, Hillary Clinton fashioned her campaign as a direct rebuke of Trump. One part of that involved a different social identity: gender. Of course, because she was the first woman major-party nominee, Clinton's gender was already significant. But she also emphasized the historic nature of her candidacy and targeted Trump for his mistreatment of women.

Moreover, Clinton distinguished herself from Trump on issues related to race and ethnicity. She took sharply different positions on civil rights, policing, and immigration. She accused Trump of catering to white supremacists and hate groups. Ultimately, she ran as Obama's successor and the curator of the coalition that had put him in the White House — a coalition predicated on ethnic minorities, young people, and others who were relatively liberal on racial issues. Clinton did not embrace every aspect of Obama's record; indeed, on some racial issues she took more liberal positions than Obama. But her candidacy was clearly meant to cement and expand his legacy as the first African American president.

How Identity Mattered in 2016

Because Trump, Clinton, and the other candidates focused so much on issues tied to racial and ethnic identities, it is no surprise that those identities and issues mattered to voters. But how? It was not because those identities and attitudes changed much in the aggregate. In the years immediately before 2016, there was no clear secular increase or decrease in the strength of ethnic identities — with the possible exception of a modest increase in the strength of racial identity among white Americans. Similarly, there was no secular increase in prejudice against ethnic or religious minorities. The metaphor of a wave was sometimes used to describe what was happening in the United States and many European countries. This was fundamentally misleading, as the political scientist Larry Bartels argued based on European survey data, which showed no change in, for example, attitudes toward immigration between 2002 and 2015.

The better metaphor, Bartels argued, was a reservoir. Among Americans, there is a range of sentiments about ethnic and other groups. Some people strongly identify with their group and some people do not. Some people have favorable attitudes about other groups and some people do not. It is not that these sentiments never change, or that the balance of people with different sentiments is unimportant. But the key question for elections is whether and how these sentiments actually matter for voters. In 2016, the candidates tapped into these reservoirs of opinion and helped "activate" ethnic identities and attitudes, thereby making them more strongly related to what ordinary Americans thought and how they voted.

How did the activation of identities and attitudes matter in 2016? The story begins even before the election itself (chapter 2). As the campaign got under way, much was made of Americans' "anger" and anxiety about their economic circumstances. But levels of anger and anxiety were no greater in 2016 than in recent years. In fact, economic anxiety had been decreasing, not increasing, in the eight years before 2016. What economic and political dissatisfaction did exist was powerfully shaped by political identities. With a Democrat in the White House, Republicans had much less favorable opinions about conditions in the county. But dissatisfaction also reflected racial attitudes: under Obama, white Americans' feelings about blacks became associated with many things, including whether and how they felt about the economy. "Racial anxiety" was arguably driving economic anxiety. Moreover, during Obama's presidency, there was an even stronger alignment between partisanship and identities and attitudes tied to race, ethnicity, and religion. The party coalitions were increasingly "racialized" even before the 2016 campaign began.


Excerpted from "Identity Crisis"
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Copyright © 2018 Princeton University Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables ix

1 Fayetteville 1

2 "Whaddaya Got?" 12

3 Indecision 33

4 "The Daily Donald Show" 47

5 Hiding in Plain Sight 69

6 Cracks in the Ceiling 97

7 The Trump Tax 130

8 What Happened? 154

9 The Soul of a Nation 201

Afterword 221

Appendixes 229

Notes 255

Acknowledgments 327

Index 331

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