If there is an intellectual core in President Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union speech, it came in the section on undocumented immigration. In it, Trump cast the country as divided between elites and the working class, with Trump on the side of the working class and Democrats as the champions of the elites.
“No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration,” Trump said. “Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards. Meanwhile, working-class Americans are left to pay the price for mass illegal migration — reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools and hospitals, increased crime, and a depleted social safety net.”
These claims about the harms of undocumented immigration aren’t accurate, of course, but that’s hardly the point. What Trump is doing here is telling a kind of morality tale: The good and hardworking Americans versus the hypocritical globalist elites. And you know whose side Trump is on.
This idea came up again and again in the speech. His biggest economic accomplishment? Jobs. His tax cut? Good for “working families.” His trade agenda? Designed to save American jobs from foreigners in Mexico and China. The unitary message, again and again, is that Trump is here for the little guy, the victim of Washington’s business as usual.
This is not, in fact, true. Trump’s tax cut helped the wealthy, not the working class, and his attempt to weaken Obamacare is taking away health care from Americans who couldn’t otherwise afford it. There’s no evidence his trade policies are helping the working class. His policies on immigration have terrorized an untold number of working-class migrant families, who live in fear of an ICE raid targeting their loved ones. If Trump’s goal is to help the little guy at the elite’s expense, he’s doing a terrible job of it.
But like all myths, the central one in Trump’s State of the Union does contain a real message. The tension between Trump’s State of the Union message and his actual record reveals the core of his administration’s thinking: Not populism, but ethno-nationalism. An ideal of a country whose politics center the interests of one ethnic group, the white majority.
That is really what the State of the Union was about, and no amount of supposedly race-neutral populism can mask that.
Trump’s ethno-nationalist State of the Union
In his new book Whiteshift, University of London professor Eric Kaufmann digs into the data on immigration attitudes in the United States and broader Western world. Kaufmann argues that concerns about the economy and crime don’t really drive people’s views about immigration. People don’t dispassionately look at the data on (say) crime rates, conclude undocumented immigrants are dangerous, and then decide to support politicians like Trump as a result.
Instead, Kaufmann finds, concerns about immigration among white majorities largely reflects a sense of ethno-cultural threat. White Americans are anxious about cultural change, about the rising number of people who look different, speak differently and eat different food. This is supported by a raft of evidence from other scholars, as well as Kaufmann’s original research.
But since people don’t want to say they’re uncomfortable around minorities, for somewhat obvious reasons, their concerns get articulated through race-neutral language. Politicians warning about crime rates from undocumented immigrants or job losses, in Kaufmann’s view, are dog-whistling to address white ethno-nationalist concerns about cultural change.
This theory serves as a skeleton key for unlocking Trump’s State of the Union. Trump’s populism, if it exists at all, is a populism for white Americans. The sin of the elites is not hoarding the wealth, as it is in left populism, but rather allowing mass migration and cultural change.
This is how Trump can get away with touting a tax policy that is objectively a giveaway to the rich and brag about his efforts to undo Obamacare, the single largest redistributive policy in modern history, while at the same time claiming to be on the side of the “working class” against the elites.
What Trump is offering white America — particularly the white working-class voters he seems to prize — is what W.E.B. DuBois called “psychological wage” of whiteness: a sense of dominance and cultural primacy untethered from the actual distribution of wealth. It is a populism less about redistributing material resources than redistributing status, making white voters feel more valued than they were in the past.
This is perfectly compatible with plutocratic economic policy: It’s an appeal less to concrete policy accomplishments than to a person’s emotional and psychological sense of place. What Trump’s supporters hear when they hear “working class” isn’t literally the working class; it’s “people like us,” meaning white native-born Americans.
So when Trump concludes by saying “I am asking you to choose greatness,” the first question to ask is who the “you” he’s speaking to is. Because as much as Trump might wish us to believe it, he’s not speaking to everyone.