“Identity Crisis” Review: Race, Audience, and the 2018 Midterms in the 2016 Presidential Election

Tommy Johnson

In psychiatry, an identity crisis is a confusion or uncertainty over one’s own sense of identity. In Identity Crisis, the latest post mortem on the 2016 presidential election, the authors depict the psyche of Trump’s base as anything but uncertain or confused.

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By Tommy Johnson

John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck. Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018). ISBN: 9781400888306.

In psychiatry, an identity crisis is a confusion or uncertainty over one’s own sense of identity. In Identity Crisis, the latest post mortem on the 2016 presidential election, the authors depict the psyche of Trump’s base as anything but uncertain or confused.

John Sides, a professor of political science at George Washington University, Michael Tesler, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, and Lynn Vavreck, the Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics and Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, use their collective understanding of theories of political campaigns and of contemporary American politics to put together a biting but eloquent condemnation of America’s political elite.

The book begins at a rally for then-candidate Trump in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Specifically, it opens with a white Trump supporter, John McGraw, sucker-punching Rakeem Jones, a black man protesting the rally. Sides, Tessler, and Vavreck argue that this incident indicates the key theme of the 2016 presidential election: the salience of racial, ethnic, religious, gender, national, and partisan identity:

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 main rivals was strongly linked to how Republican voters felt about blacks, immigrants, and Muslim, and to how much discrimination Republican voters believed that whites themselves faced. This had not been true in the 2008 or 2012 Republican primaries.

The authors argue that identity — specifically racism and xenophobia among Trump voters — played an equally important role in distinguishing between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the general election. They make their argument through figure after figure of visualized data followed by explanations and analysis that they somehow manage to present in a way that is light, digestible, and engaging.

This ability to present data is the book’s greatest strength. The authors manage to turn what is sometimes several pages worth of graphs into single-sentence explanations. For example, they place a graph depicting Clinton’s and Trump’s share of news coverage next to a graph showing each candidate’s favorability ratings, both from June to Election Day, and do so to draw the simple, concise conclusion that, “Trump’s ability to generate headlines made it worse for him, not better.”

But their argument does not stop at summarizing graphs. They offer cogent explanations of why the graphs they provide look the way they do and about the impact of those numbers on the actual campaign. In the case of the negative relationship between Trump’s polling numbers and his share of media coverage, they conclude that this did not hinder his electoral victory because opposition to him within the party’s elites was not consolidated enough to rally around another candidate, nor did strong opposition  begin to spread early enough to encourage voters to defect. The authors attribute this to the fact that with seventeen candidates vetting for the Republican nomination, party leadership wanted to see how things played out rather than to play a more direct role in selecting and assisting a clear favorite as it might have done in prior elections.

The authors diverge from their evidence-driven arguments towards the end of the book, concluding that political elites like candidates, politicians, and media figures can make voters care about and believe things that they previously did not believe. In the end, it is a confusing, counterintuitive argument, that Trump voters contain racist and xenophobic sentiments but only become actively anti-immigrant when political elites tap into this sentiment. They make the complicated claim that certain voters, some of whom even voted for Obama in 2012, are always racist and xenophobic but only sometimes does it matter. The argument is confusing because it takes voters as a lightswitch, who can be turned on and off of issues in an instant by the right candidates. But the message — that fault rests on Trump, the media, and the entire political class for speaking in terms of identity and race — rings crystal clear.

The conclusion that Trump’s victory in the 2016 election has more to do with race than economics is not new, nor is it groundbreaking. A quick perusal through Google Scholar will return many other statistics-laden pieces about how Trump tapped into racism among white voters. Rather, this book is noteworthy for how it tries to explain these statistics in a way that will engage audiences outside of academia.

I appreciate the effort but I suspect that Identity Crisis will fall short in engaging the audience that Trump invigorated. It reads, at times, too much like a book by political junkies, for political junkies, filled with one-liners that will only be appreciated by the ‘politics as sport’-types, those who read the New York Times for the same political entertainment

At the end of the day, Identity Crisis will reach the same audience that reads the Observer or generally engages with politics at Kenyon: informed, left-leaning individuals that operate within informed, left-leaning circles. Despite the panoply of academic research that has revealed that the racial attitudes of white voters is a key contributing factor to the rise of Donald Trump, books like Brian Alexander’s Glass Houses and JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy are lauded for their ability to explain the cultural attitudes of the Trump base through more anecdotal, stories that don’t focus on race, stories that Trump voters and liberals alike can be much more comfortable believing. As such, these stories, low on numbers and high on explanations, have a much broader appeal. Identity Crisis’s readability is intended to put it in the mix with these sorts of books and separate it from the academic circles it originated in. However, its message that white racial attitudes were at the forefront of Trump’s electoral victory will be less comforting for liberals and conservatives alike, which may ultimately hinder its ability to reach the same broad audience as those cultural critiques. If, despite that, this book can filter down into the population and punditry’s understanding of 2016, it will be considered a success.

What Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck depict in Identity Crisis is a process through which Trump managed to tap into the latent racism of segments of the American public, sorting people along these lines. That process may not have been isolated in the 2016 elections.

They repeated this argument in an op-ed that they wrote in the New York Times the day before the 2018 midterms. They argued that any Democrats that could be pushed to the right on immigration had already been sorted into the Republican party in 2016, meaning Trump’s last-ditch scare tactics with the so-called migrant-caravan probably would not benefit Republicans.

The midterms earlier this month, which returned sizable gains for the Democrats in the House, provide at face value support for the authors’ conclusion that Americans are cleanly split into two parties with two fundamentally different ideas about identity, but a closer look complicates their argument.

Jane Coaston at Vox argued that Trump-skeptical Republicans in suburban areas were key for Democrat victories in suburban Congressional districts. In her article, she depicts an inner struggle among these Republicans to decide whether to defect from Trump’s party. Constituents are themselves politically relevant actors that think things through and come to decisions. Constituents are not simply pawns for political activists to move around, and their beliefs are not simply turned off and on but also changed.

In his introduction to the 1981 edition of All the King’s Men, the author Robert Penn Warren reflected on his time observing Benito Mussolini on a Guggenheim Fellowship in Italy, and observing Huey Long as a professor at Louisiana State University.

[The ‘great man’] becomes ”great” not from his own isolated strength but from the weakness of others, or from a whole society that has lost its mission,” he wrote. 2016 supported this notion of lost, easily misled citizens but 2018 points to many Trump voters as people who are still trying to figure things out, people who can be convinced otherwise.

2016 and 2018 both underscore that white Americans are unsure of how to reconcile differences and diversity. Trump, his team, and the media tapped into latent racist beliefs, yes. But these beliefs were already there and they will remain there unless we see voters as people with beliefs that can change rather than automatons with switches that can be turned to bad. When we see voters as light switches, we free ourselves from doing the dirty work of trying to compel them to our side. When we see voters’ beliefs as changeable, then we don’t write off a district or county based on its 2016 results. In 2020, every inch of this country will be an electoral battleground and two years into this president’s term, it is important to view both those who voted for him and those who voted against him as people who must be convinced, and people who we might compel to listen.   

Whether we see voters as malleable matters for this reason: Identity Crisis will almost certainly not reach the many millions of Trump voters that its authors analyze at length. Instead, it will be read by the political activists whose responsibility in 2020 will be to persuade or overcome these voters. Let’s hope they do so responsibly.

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