Most of the polls turned out to be wrong. Voters did not punish Donald Trump for breaking with 40 years of precedent and refusing to release his tax returns. Michigan and Wisconsin, two traditionally Democratic states that make up part of the Rust Belt’s “blue wall,” went to the president-elect despite his campaign spending virtually no time or money there. A complete lack of experience, an endorsement from the Ku Klux Klan, and the active cultivation of a white nationalist, conspiracy-minded base did not slow him down.
These were upsets. The fact that a majority of white women—53% in total—voted for Trump was not. The real surprise was that so many people believed they would do something different.
A majority of white women have supported the Republican candidate in nearly every election since 1952. (The most recent exception was 20 years ago when 52% of white women supported Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign.) From Goldwater Girls in 1964 to the 14-point margin Mitt Romney held among white women in 2012, this is a voting bloc that, for more than half a century, has shored up its identity in whiteness, not gender. “This election is similar to a lot of previous elections in that…partisan identification obviously guided people’s votes,” Ronnee Schreiber, the chair of the department of political science at San Diego State University, told me over the phone. “So the gender gap, and white women voting for the Republican Party, is completely consistent.”
This was something I observed, in subtle and unsubtle ways, among the women I met at Trump rallies over the last 17 months. Even at events where gender was literally an organizing principle—a group like Women United for Trump only exists to give the impression of a diverse coalition—the women I met, almost all of them white, rarely wanted to talk much about their identity as women.
“You know, I didn’t feel it was women talking to women. I thought it was women supporting Donald Trump, period,” an older white woman told me when I asked her about the tone of a Trump-affiliated event in Florida where all the speakers were women, rose petals covered the merch table, and $50 got you a seat at a private “champagne and cupcakes” brunch with other attendees. “Donald Trump—he doesn’t play any one card. And Hillary just seems to be, ‘We need a woman. We need me, a woman.’”
But a majority of white women voters have been playing one card for 60 years. And while Trump the pussy-grabber may not seem like the kind of candidate who tried to appeal to women on any front, his language and emotional appeals followed a familiar narrative around the fragility and purity of white womanhood that is central to white supremacy.
It was reflected in the more openly racist statements I heard from women on the campaign trail, as well as subtler comments from the white women voters who didn’t turn out to Trump rallies but backed him all the same.
These women are the quiet Trump voters, or, as Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Petersen termed it, “the Ivanka Voters.” They’re women who think Trump’s comments about immigrants, Muslim people, and black Americans are rude, perhaps, but not disqualifying.
As one woman put it to me in Ohio, a variation on something I heard often enough: Sometimes you’re not voting for someone, you’re voting against someone else.
The moment in which many people thought that white women’s political allegiance might flip, when the footage of Trump bragging about sexual assault and moving “like a bitch” on a married woman dropped on a Friday evening, was a moment that underestimated their investment in whiteness.
That analysis also ignored many of the ways in which Trump had been messaging to white women since the start of his campaign.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said while announcing his candidacy at the foot of a gilded escalator. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Later that year, Trump encouraged his supporters at a rally in South Carolina to be on alert about their neighbors and “report them to the local police” if they personally suspected them of terrorism. The target of this neighborly surveillance was clear—the Muslim Americans who only seconds before he had said were “so great.”
Mexican immigrants weren’t just criminals in Trump’s rendering—they were rapists. And the danger of ISIS wasn’t just about “unvetted” refugees fleeing war and a human rights crisis in Syria—it was about a domestic threat that lurked in our neighborhoods, endangered our children.
This was a modern variation on the historic use of white womanhood to animate and justify white supremacy. When Trump—whose lack of interest in and knowledge of history has never kept him from tapping into its most racist veins—invoked otherized “rapists” as a threat to American safety, he was echoing Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who told a room of his constituents earlier this year that men with names like “D-Money” were coming to his state to sell drugs and “impregnate” white women. He was echoing Dylann Roof, who said “You rape our women” before killing nine people at a historically black church in Charleston. He was echoing the Florida mob that lynched Rubin Stacy after he appeared at a white woman’s door to ask for food, and the Mississippi brothers who tortured and murdered Emmett Till after he was accused of whistling at a white woman.
That’s not a dog whistle that every white woman will respond to, but if there is one lesson to be taken away from this election it’s the contradictory and multi-directional nature of racism—how an Obama voter could flip to Trump, how a self-described liberal woman could use her vote as an expression of her racial panic, how a white woman who once received welfare could vote to keep others from benefiting from the program, and how people can hold all these things in their hands at the same moment. (These expressions of racism aren’t limited to Trump voters, and neither is support for his policies. Among likely Democratic voters, 34% reported total support for his proposed Muslim travel ban in a poll from March. Hillary Clinton supporters backed the ban at a slightly higher percentage—37%—than Bernie Sanders supporters—27%.)
“Identification with groups, just like partisanship, has to be utility-based,” Jane Junn, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California, said of white women’s political preferences. “They have to get something out of their white identity. What were they getting with Trump? Not just the white women, but the poor white men who get food stamps, who get government housing, what do they gain from white identity?”
The protections of whiteness for white women are clear, even as they are often reflected in difference or comparative deprivation. Scarcity, or even the perception of scarcity, has a tendency to make people territorial. As Junn explained, white women get “utility”—what we usually call privilege—out of whiteness, and that’s a powerful attachment.
The wage gap is a pretty straightforward example of how this works. White women earn 76 cents on the dollar compared to white men, but that gap is considerably worse for black women, who earn just 64 cents. Or for Latinas, who make just 56 cents. White women are underrepresented in business, academia, medicine, and journalism compared to their male counterparts. But they are considerably more represented than women of color.
The equality-minded, Lean In narrative of white feminism is much different than the forms of injustice—police violence, housing discrimination, mass incarceration—that have long anchored black feminism. You can see these concerns (or lack of concerns) reflected in voting patterns; a full 94% of black women voters supported Hillary Clinton, though sometimes ambivalently. In fact, white women’s political allegiance to white men at the expense of women of color goes as far back as the women’s vote itself.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the famous suffragette who worked with Susan B. Anthony to secure the 19th Amendment, embraced white supremacy in service of getting white women the vote and often incorporated anti-black racism into her speeches: “What will we and our daughters suffer if these degraded black men are allowed to have the rights that would make them even worse than our Saxon fathers?”
The passage of the 19th Amendment secured the legal right to vote for all women, but it—like many other constitutional protections—was largely an abstraction for black women until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 meaningfully protected that right for black Americans.
For many white women, the protections of whiteness are much more appealing than solidarity with other women.
“It’s nurtured really explicitly by Trump, but it’s nurtured implicitly by the Republican Party,” Junn said of the party’s call to white womanhood and whiteness in general. “I’m not saying that guys like John McCain and Mitt Romney are Trump—they are not. But what the Republican Party stands for in many ways is the consistency of whiteness at the top.”
Ninety percent of Republican voters are consistently white, she continued: “Mitt Romney doesn’t need to say it, nor does John McCain. It’s simply clear that the Republican Party represents white people.”
The framing of the 2016 election was clear from the moment that Trump announced his candidacy by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists,” but it came into sharper focus for me on the last night of the Republican National Convention.
Trump had just wrapped a speech that ran for more than an hour, using nearly every minute of it to stoke the worst kinds of racial resentment and white fear. He namechecked majority-black cities like Baltimore and Ferguson only to vilify them as crime-ridden murder capitals. He accused the first black president of the United States of making the country more dangerous by using “the pulpit of the presidency to divide us by race and color.”
Afterwards, I walked over to the open-air plaza inside the security perimeter where delegates could hang out between speakers. I stood around a table with my colleagues, mostly in stunned silence, when a woman to my right caught my attention. She had on white capris and was wearing all kinds of Trump-Pence regalia. Without it, she would have looked like my mother, my aunts. A cover band was playing “Uptown Funk,” and she was dancing like she was at a wedding.
Moments earlier, the man who would become president had painted a terrifying, violent portrait of America and the non-white people who live there. But she looked radiant, happy. Her face beamed as she twirled, surrounded by other white people doing the same.