African politics can help us understand why so many white people support Donald Trump

The silent “majority.”
The silent “majority.”
Image: Reuters/Stephen Lam
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For Americans trying to understand this year’s topsy-turvy presidential campaign—especially the rise (and likely fall) of populists like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders—African politics is a good place to start.

The somewhat-surprising link is the result of ethnic politics. In many African countries, it is ethnicity—rather than class, ideology, religion or other potential political identities—that drives politics, determining electoral outcomes and the state’s distribution of resources among citizens. As demonstrated by a range of scholars (led by David Horowitz), this is often a function of the relative size of a country’s main ethnic groups: If no one group represents a clear majority of citizens, or if the largest ethnic group is relatively small and/or shrinking relative to minority groups, ethnic politics are more likely to be prominent.

Without an obviously dominant group, ethnic identity becomes an increasingly salient factor in political, economic and social competition among citizens—particularly in times of economic stress. Savvy politicians—so called “ethno-political entrepreneurs”—have a greater incentive to mobilize on ethnic grounds, exploiting voters’ sense of ethnic threat or opportunity to win power. This is particularly true among members of small and/or shrinking ethnic majorities, groups whose economic and social privileges may be most threatened by changing demographics.

Consider, for example, the recent headline-grabbing political protests in Kenya, which is gearing up for general elections next year. Ethnic politics have long ruled the day in Kenya (at least in part) because the largest Kikuyu ethnic group represents only 22% of the population, impeding Kikuyu attempts at dominance and driving incentives for rival Luhya, Luo, Kalenjin and Kamba groups (representing 14%, 13%, 12%, and 11% respectively) to try displace them. This dynamic has lead to strongman politics and a history of politically driven ethnic violence, including an infamous burst after disputed 2007 elections which killed over 1,000 people and displaced at least 300,000.

Kenya has made major political and economic strides since 2007—including the adoption of a new constitution, a reformed judiciary, and impressive strides in economic growth and diversification—making another sustained outbreak of ethnic violence in the coming election cycle unlikely. Nonetheless, politics—including last week’s protests, which resulted in one fatality—are still driven by ethnicity and ethnic competition, and will probably remain so for the forseeable future.

By contrast, politics in countries with large and/or growing majority ethnic groups are less likely to be driven by ethnicity. In these cases, ethnic dominance is more settled and ethnic politics becomes less prevalent; political competition is more likely to be based on issues such as class, ideology, or urban/rural differences. This is (mostly) true of Southern African nation Botswana, and has historically proved true in Northern European (especially Scandinavian) countries and East Asian polities like Japan. That said, it is worth noting that migration-driven increases in ethnic diversity in Northern Europe have corresponded with a rise of ethnic/nationalist politics therein. Indeed, the same dynamic is arguably at play throughout Europe.

Enter Donald Trump, whose unlikely and yet ultimately successful bid to be the Republican presidential nominee has been fueled by ethnocentric appeals to white Americans, particularly white males. Notably, white Americans’ majority share of the US population is clearly declining, at least in part because of a significant drop in income and health among lower-income white males. White Christians no longer make up a majority of American citizens, while white (male) dominance over the country’s key political, economic and cultural institutions—while still generally intact—is clearly in decline as well.

In sum, white Americans, especially mid-to- lower income white males, are beginning to resemble a “threatened majority,” increasing the political salience of white ethnicity and facilitating the rise of Donald Trump.

This conjecture is borne out by a quick-but-revealing look at this year’s GOP primaries through May 3, when Trump’s victory in Indiana effectively sealed his victory in the Republican race. Notably, Trump performed markedly better among  (mostly white) Republican voters in states where white majorities are smaller and thus arguably threatened than he did in states where white majorities are larger. What’s more, this trend is only slightly stronger in lower-income states (states in which the median household income is below the national median) than in higher-income states, echoing recent findings that Trump’s popularity among white Republicans is by no means limited to ‘blue-collar’ voters. Indeed, after removing Hawaii from the analysis—clearly an ethnic outlier in the US—household income has only a small impact on the relationship between the size of the white majority and Trump’s voter support.

Interestingly, the opposite is true for this election’s other populist iconoclast, socialist Democrat Bernie Sanders. Sanders’ popularity is strongest among white middle class and millennial voters and he has struggled to attract minority votes away from rival Hillary Clinton. Yet while the two politicians may seem to appeal to similar racial demographics, the contrast with Trump is striking. Among (generally more ethnically diverse) Democratic voters, Sanders fares far better in states with larger white populations than in those with smaller white populations. What’s more, this relationship holds strong (in fact stronger than that for Trump) across both lower and higher-income states.

Sanders’ message is far from ethnic; indeed, as a self-described socialist, his campaign is the most ideologically leftist and classist to come out of a mainstream national campaign in decades. But his popularity among Democrats in large white majority states is still consistent with the ethnic politics thesis: Simply put, these voters may feel secure enough in their majority status to embrace on the broader ideological agenda offered by Sanders. Although these (mostly white) voters appear just as angry at the status quo as Trump supporters, demographically and economically they probably feel far less “threatened” by other ethnic groups.

From this, we can derive two main implications for the general election, which will almost certainly see Trump square off against Hillary Clinton rather than Sanders. First, Trump may well outperform Republican predecessors in states with smaller white majorities, including California and other parts of the Southwest, as well as in mid-Atlantic states like New York and Virginia. Relatedly, Trump will probably have an easier time attracting pro-Sanders voters in these states, while Clinton may have more trouble.

Second—and ironically, given the point above—Trump is still very unlikely to beat Clinton in today’s America, where his deep unpopularity among minorities and women (including white women) will ultimately outweigh the electoral benefits of his white ethnocentric appeal. Trump may well do better than Romney or McCain in California or New York, but he is not going to win these big “blue” states. Meanwhile, Clinton’s superior ground game and financing in demographic “swing states” like Virginia and North Carolina will likely stymie any Trump boost from ‘threatened majority’ voting in the United States.