Although much has been written on the implications of Donald Trump’s nomination as the GOP’s presidential candidate at the national level, little has been said about the consequences that victory might have for politics at the state level. This is to the detriment of understanding why voters in particular states gravitated toward Trump as a political leader as well as how Trump’s appeal to local conservative groups compares to long- and medium-term trends within state-level conservative political movements. This research article, however brief, offers some suggestions on how to think through Trump’s primary victory in Indiana and parse the consequences of that victory for local politics. We review competing arguments for Trump’s popular appeal, paying close attention to the degree to which these arguments can be applied to dynamics within the Indiana political system. We buttress our arguments with data from the U.S. Census and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study as well as with interviews with former Congressman Lee H. Hamilton, Bloomington City Council Vice President and Council Member At-Large Susan Sandberg, and IUPUI Professor of Public and Environmental Affairs Sheila Kennedy.
The GOP convention, held in Cleveland, Ohio, in July, marked the end of the most controversial and explosive Republican Primary since the 1960s. As the primary season wound down, the leading Republican figures — Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and real estate mogul and television celebrity Donald Trump — proposed a wide range of bold policy prescriptions that deviated from more mainstream conservative political ideology. Yet only one among them — Trump — posed the most serious challenges to what has become the Republican Party’s post-WWII policy orthodoxy, with Trump’s attacks on American global leadership; long-standing policies on the free movement of goods, people, and services; and the conceptualization of American society as a multiethnic “melting pot.” On this last point, Trump has both highlighted and exploited growing racial divisions within the American polity, pandering to radical right-wing, neo-Nazi, and white supremacist political groups as well as drumming up support for exclusionary, racially motivated policymaking among the white American working and middle classes.
Presently, we have plenty of expert analysis and commentary on Trump’s popular appeal and why this particular type of candidate would garner widespread support among conservative voters. Two arguments in particular are often proposed by observers and practitioners of American politics to explain the Trump phenomenon: He appeals to people favoring authoritarian leaders and to those suffering from financial insecurity. These arguments, however, provide little insight into the distinct culture of Indiana politics or those trends among Indiana Republicans, many of which predate Trump’s ascendency. Our goal here is to provide a more nuanced approach to explaining Trump’s appeal to Indiana conservatives with greater consideration to local political dynamics.
Competing arguments for Trump’s popular appeal
For some time, social scientists have been interested in how individual-level attributes, personality types, and psychological indicators might help us understand someone’s political choices and preferences. Approaching politics from this psychology-driven perspective has yielded a variety of research programs and has aided scholars to better understand some of the complex underpinnings of both liberal and conservative political ideology. This approach has been applied in an effort to explain Trump’s popular appeal. In a recent piece, Matthew MacWilliams found that an individual’s score on those traits associated with political authoritarianism — that is, an individual preference for strongman political leaders — served as better predictors of an individual’s propensity to support Trump over a wide range of other sociodemographic characteristics such as race, gender, or social class.
MacWilliams explains that “While its causes are still debated, the political behavior of authoritarians is not. Authoritarians obey. They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened. From pledging to ‘make America great again’ by building a wall on the border and promising to close mosques and ban Muslims from visiting the United States, Trump is playing directly to authoritarian inclinations.”
Yet, the degree to which this describes Hoosier conservatives or Indiana political culture is questionable. If Hoosiers favored authoritarian tendencies, one would expect this to manifest either institutionally or in the selection of local or state leadership; we are hard pressed to find examples of either.
According to James Madison’s Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana (Indiana University Press, 2014), historically, Indiana has been marked by a popular distaste for both government and political elites. For instance, Indiana is known to have one of the weakest governorships in the United States, formalized through the state legislature’s ability to override a gubernatorial veto. This legislative power, although unusual, is not an indication of the legislature’s power per se. As Madison says, Indiana is also known to have one of the least effective legislatures in the country, consistently ranking among the least professionalized legislatures in the nation.
In addition, Hoosiers consistently show an aversion to government participation in just about every aspect of public life: From the regulation of the public school systems and the construction of new transportation infrastructure to environmental protection and lobbyist activities, Indiana voters are usually not inclined to grant government or any particular leader any measure of real political power, even in the most practical of circumstances. A desire for an authoritarian political figure does not fit neatly into the state’s political culture or appear to resonate among a people long suspicious of elite political power.
The second most common argument made about Trump’s popular appeal centers on the substantial loss of economic and financial security witnessed by many Americans in the wake of the 2007-2009 financial and housing crises. During this period, many American families suffered from a lengthy economic recession, resulting in widespread home foreclosures, rising unemployment and underemployment, stagnant wages, and rising costs in health care and basic consumer goods. The recession hit Indiana and other Great Lakes economies hard.
Trump’s promise of economic revitalization and massive political and monetary investments in American manufacturing, for some, forms the bedrock of Trump’s appeal, especially among working-class — and more recently economically disadvantaged — white Americans. Trump’s message on Latino immigration supposedly fits into this narrative as well, as many Americans have come to see Mexican and other Latin American workers as competitors over scarce resources and employment opportunities.
Much like the prior argument on psychological predictors of support for Trump, the economic argument also fails to adequately describe the economic situation of many Hoosiers. Indiana residents have benefited enormously from the Obama Administration’s investments in health care, education, and manufacturing; many Hoosier families had effectively recovered from the recession by 2014-2015, many months prior to the Indiana Republican Primary of May 2016. President Obama would even travel to Elkhart, Indiana, to make the case for his presidential economic legacy, holding up Indiana as a prime example of recent American economic growth and financial stabilization.
Furthermore, Indiana Governor Mike Pence — now Trump’s vice presidential running mate — boasted at the Republican National Convention in July of his state’s economic revitalization. Pence lauded Indiana’s economic achievements, including robust economic growth, balanced state budgets, and record investments in education, transportation infrastructure, and health care.
Not everyone, however, has benefited from this recent economic growth. “There are many in Indiana who are happy in their communities and enjoy the lives they lead in the state,” Rep. Lee Hamilton says. “But, on the other hand, there is a segment of the population with which Trump’s message of economic decline resonates. Conservatives are a complex population. Trump’s ‘rigged system’ message resonates with that person who is not currently employed or individuals who have been working the same job for 15 years at the same pay. There are many Hoosiers who no longer view the American Dream as something they can have.”
Declining economic fortune of whites: perceptions versus reality
The suggestion that there are real economic reasons to support Trump is, of course, well-taken. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, in April 2015, about 5.4 percent of Hoosiers were unemployed (roughly 370,000 people), whereas 10 to 15 percent of Indiana’s residents were reportedly underemployed. Although these figures are lower than those taken from the recession years, a substantial portion of Hoosiers still struggles to find gainful employment even in the midst of widespread, state-level economic growth. Yet Trump performed well among wealthier, more financially secure individuals in addition to those currently disadvantaged by the current state of the American economy.
“… Indiana voters are usually not inclined to grant government or any particular leader any measure of real political power, even in the most practical of circumstances.”
Trump’s message of economic decline, while containing important provisions for struggling working-class individuals, fits neatly into long-standing tropes in American politics used to describe the overall decline in the political and economic power of whites relative to minority groups. In Indiana, Trump’s message of white decline was well-received, especially within those conservative circles that have pushed for ideologically conservative legislative action on immigration, refugees, and abortion and for discriminatory policies against LGBT individuals to stave off the encroachment on a particular Hoosier identity — a conflation of Americanness, whiteness, Protestant faith, heterosexuality, and conformity to gender norms and roles — used historically to police the boundaries between Hoosiers and “others.”
Bloomington City Council Member Susan Sandberg says, “Trump has used racial rhetoric in purposeful and inflammatory ways; it’s not even subtle. … It is an appeal to white, conservative blue-collar workers and families. In the United States, race is an economic issue. Race is historically a way to think about who benefits from the political and economic system, a way to think about who is privileged in that system. Politicians in the United States have been known to play on whites’ fears of the ‘other’ and how nonwhite groups may threaten the political and economic power enjoyed by whites. For Trump, this threat goes hand in hand with the racial fears that appear to be driving Trump’s success.”
To be certain, whites as a community lost a substantial amount of wealth during the recession and continue to face growing economic loss relative to the 1960s and 1970s. White men in particular are now subjected to a wide range of economic and health crises, including a declining ability to access education and employment, growing rates of HIV infection, and growing rates of substance abuse and addiction. Taken as a whole, however, American whites still control the vast majority of the wealth and property in the United States and continue to experience higher levels of economic growth and upward social mobility on the whole than other, nonwhite groups.
In a recent interview with Trump supporters, journalist Molly Ball found that this particular group of conservatives tended to resent the ability of Democratic Party candidates to appeal directly to the economic and material interests of women, blacks, and other minority groups while Republican elites were openly criticized for catering to the perceived and real economic concerns and needs of American whites. But race is not simply an economic issue; it is a way through which to think about economic deservingness (see The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williams (Oxford University Press, 2012)).
In recent years, race has also become a way to discuss overall white cultural decline and the growing inability of the white, conservative, Protestant, heterosexual community to control American governance and cultural institutions. For some time now, it has become common for conservatives, inside and outside of Indiana, to racialize policymaking — that is, rejecting government policies or programs that appear to be favoring minority groups over the preferences of the (white, Protestant, heterosexual) majority. It is precisely this type of thinking — favoritism for minorities in light of majority opposition — that forms the core of Trump’s populism. Trump has benefited enormously through this populist politicking, but it’s the racialization of the majority-minority dichotomy that makes Trump’s message so hard-hitting to many of his supporters.
Professor Sheila Kennedy, a former Republican state legislative candidate, says, “This is Trump’s attack on what some see as ‘political correctness,’ but I would call it an attack on civility. People have been thinking about the world in racial terms for some time. Trump capitalized on that and made it central to his overall political message.”
Whiteness in Indiana politics
Although typically couched in a language of economics, dividing the majority and minority populations — with its subsequent racialization — speaks to a wide range of issues that lie far beyond simple competition between the groups over scarce resources or welfare goods. White nativism in the United States has a long history of being masked in seemingly legitimate economic grievances. When we probe more deeply into how whiteness is constructed, fostered, and utilized in American political life, we find that white nativism is about much more than economic gain. Rather, it is about cultural capital and the power not only to shape attitudes toward marriage, sexuality, and family, as well as to shape concepts of gender roles and their expression, but also the power to define citizenship and national belonging.
Whiteness is not just a rigid border that separates whites from nonwhites; whiteness is a means through which the cultural and moral power of white upper classes is defined, expanded, and defended. It is not the concreteness of whiteness that forms the backbone of its political power as a rhetorical and cultural tool. Instead, it is the ambiguity of whiteness and its apparent lack of an adequate definition that allows elites to apply it to a wide range of cultural and political issues — from abortion policy to state-sanctioned discrimination of nonwhites, women, and sexual minority groups — without ever mentioning whiteness per se. It is the multifaceted nature of whiteness — overlapping racial, class, sexual, and ethnic identities — that allows whiteness to be both rigid yet flexible, pervasive but weak, hegemonic but innately shallow and fragile.
The election of Barak Obama in 2008 as the nation’s first African-American president marked a watershed moment for American political life and the progressive future of the Democratic Party, but also for long-dormant factions within American conservative political circles to re-engage nativist rhetoric. Trump has long been at the forefront of the nativist turn in recent American politics, leading calls for an investigation into Obama’s citizenship status and supposed Christian faith. Trump’s recent attacks on American Muslim and Latino communities resemble his initial political strategy — that is, calling into question the loyalty of nonwhites to American governance institutions.
Since 2010, for many Republicans, white nativism has taken shape within Tea Party activism — a complex mixture of anti-immigrant attitudes, anti-LGBT posturing, and evangelical Protestantism. In Indiana, political inroads made by Tea Party political elites challenged long-term trends within established conservative circles, while simultaneously conforming to the state’s long history of state-sanctioned discrimination. Indiana political culture has long been marked by provincialism, localism, and an aversion to outsiders. Tradition-oriented conservatives in the state marshaled their political power to defend the cultural, economic, and political influence of white Hoosiers, vamping up the “culture war” they had been waging since the 1980s. Importantly, however, Trump has long been a beneficiary of this new nativist moment in American politics. At present, we see him pushing the boundaries of palatable racial rhetoric, capitalizing on the growing fears among whites of cultural and economic decline.
“White nativism … is about cultural capital and the power not only to shape attitudes toward marriage, sexuality, and family, as well as to shape concepts of gender roles and their expression, but also the power to define citizenship and national belonging.”
“The culture war is much more than just a battle over culture,” says Professor Kennedy. “Rather, it is emblematic of a resentment among whites that they no longer see or have access to the world they were promised. It’s not just about race, it’s about ‘otherness.’ Many look around today and see things they are uncomfortable with: new technologies that they do not understand, a black man as president of the United States, gay men and women getting married, people speaking Spanish and other languages, and the arrival of new kinds of immigrants.”
Congressman Hamilton echoed this sentiment, saying, “Unease in Indiana today is driven by the fact that people are seeing change in their communities that they don’t like. There are more outsiders, more foreign-born individuals, more immigrants, more individuals who don’t fit the more traditional definition of what a Hoosier is.”
In the aftermath of the 2010 midterm election, the Tea Party was ascendant in Indiana politics, and the state began to implement some of the most restrictive policies in the country under the leadership of Governor Pence. In 2011, we saw the emergence of an Arizona-style immigration law that granted local police forces the right to engage in overt racial profiling. In 2015, state conservatives passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, granting local businesses the right to deny services to LGBT individuals based religious beliefs. This would be followed by the governor’s refusal to accept Syrian refugees in the state and the passage of one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws.
These trends in Indiana politics make little sense without reference to race in American politics and the construction of white identity that is so central to the history of Indiana political development. Trump’s racialized messages, populist politicking, and “rigged-system” message fit neatly into the recent political victories of Indiana conservatives, and Trump’s primary victory in the state was spurred on by a growing movement among Indiana Republicans to defend an increasingly narrow political and cultural identity understood as under attack by social and cultural change. “What bolstered Trump’s popular appeal,” Kennedy says, “was that he was willing to say things that people felt but they themselves had not been willing to say.”
White nativism is finding a new voice in American politics, but this nativism is not new to Indiana. “Indiana has a long history of racism in its politics and economic choices,” explains Sandberg. “Racism never really went away. It just went underground. Indiana also has a long history of white supremacist groups being a part of community life in certain parts of the state. It’s important to remember that, in Indiana, there are still many very homogenous, all-white communities. Individuals in these communities are suspicious of outsiders and of others who are different from the locals.”
A recent Gallup report found that economic hardship and living in diverse communities does not adequately explain favorable views of Trump. However, the report does not address the role of racial attitudes and institutions that underlie Trump support among some Hoosiers.
In the 2016 Indiana Republican Primary, CNN exit polls suggested that Trump won a majority of the white vote and performed better than Cruz across many of the typical political indicators specific to ideological conservatives such as religiosity, income, and education. According to the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, on a scale of 0 to 100 (with 100 representing higher levels of racial resentment), the average racial resentment score for white Americans was 68, compared to white Hoosiers who scored 71 on average. For white conservative Republicans, the average score jumped to 82. In southern Indiana, where Trump performed the best, the average racial resentment score for white Republican Hoosiers is 83 compared to 78 in northern Indiana.
Overall, Trump received a majority of votes in all but a handful of Indiana counties. The Fort Wayne area was more receptive to Cruz than to Trump, whereas southern Indiana was more solidly pro-Trump; some southern Indiana counties awarded Trump 60 percent of the vote. Comparing the results with 2014 census data, Trump appears to have fared better in those counties with higher median incomes.
Trump did not create the racial climate that exists in Indiana and elsewhere, but he was adept at tapping into preexisting and ongoing dynamics at the state level. As we move into the general election, we will see if the Trump campaign’s selection of Pence as VP pick boosts support in Indiana for the Republican ticket and whether racial resentment and white identity continue to play a role in Hoosiers’ political choices.