JULY 6, 2019
THE MYSTERY OF Donald Trump’s election lacks a single explanation, but this doesn’t stop the new book Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America from trying. Co-authors John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck sift the statistical ashes of the 2016 presidential election, sourcing from a wide range of research and surveying to argue it was the embedded racial and identity ties among white voters. While Hillary Clinton’s victory appeared a stroll as late as 7:00 p.m. on election night, Identity Crisis persuades readers otherwise: that Donald Trump’s unforeseeable course toward the presidency was always in the cards.
Trump’s appeal throughout the primary season was aided by the muddled vision of Republican Party leaders, who split their loyalties between acceptable candidates like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Jeb Bush. Yet none could muster enough support to weather Trump’s wrecking ball of weaponized racial discontent. “Trump tapped into beliefs, ideas, and anxieties that were already present even well-established within the party,” write the authors. “His support was hiding in plain sight.”
Trump aimed his campaign at white voters, ignoring everyone else. Calling for an entry ban on Muslims and the construction of a fantasy Southern wall only enhanced the perception he was willing to say out loud what conventional politicians were too cowardly to say. Such wild pronouncements were rewarded with extensive media coverage. Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck provide readers with evidence of Trump’s dominance: he commanded news coverage by exploiting his established celebrity status and acclaimed dominance in real estate. The irony here, the trio argues, is “that in 1980, Trump had said that television was bad for politics (‘it hurt the process very much’).” Entering the 2016 campaign as an overall more popular celebrity than his Republican contemporaries gave Trump an edge in media coverage from the get-go.
As the primaries progressed, Trump’s median share of cable mentions quickly rose. From May 1, 2015, to April 30, 2016, he received 52 percent of television coverage, leaving the other Republican candidates to split the rest. Even though the majority of his coverage was perceived as negative, the quantity mattered more than the quality. In retrospect, the original negative perception of Trump’s media coverage was “not particularly negative, either overall or relative to other candidates.” The focus on his polling numbers and ability to gain ground throughout the primaries directed the attention toward Trump’s rise within the horse race of political campaigning, away from his outlandish remarks.
Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck excel at keeping their discourse nonpartisan. Given the range of debatable issues throughout the 2016 election, the book follows the unquestionable struggle for establishing a shared identity among its citizens. The American “identity crisis” is revealed — dismayingly — through the feud between Trump and Hillary Clinton, two radically different candidates.
Clinton’s dominance throughout the Democratic primaries relied on extensive networking and political experience, contra Trump’s ability to command free media. Despite this obvious difference, the authors claim that “social identities were the common force in both parties’ primaries,” which mapped onto the 2016 campaign. It came down to loyalty: how voters ultimately stuck with the long-lasting roots of their respective parties, from economics to racial beliefs. And it didn’t help that Clinton’s perceived character flaws — the overblown email controversy, her attacks on Trump — prevailed over her opponent’s own glaring character flaws.
Racialized economics is how Clinton lost her white voters. The authors apply a national survey that compares the perception of racial deservingness among blacks, whites, Trump voters, and Hillary voters. Respondents were asked to agree or disagree on the following two statements: (1) “blacks have gotten less than they deserve”; (2) “average Americans have gotten less than they deserve.” The results clearly favored Trump: 57 percent of all respondents agreed that average Americans have gotten less than they deserve, while 32 percent agreed that blacks have gotten less than they deserve. Of the Trump voters, 64 percent felt average Americans were getting a raw deal, whereas 12 percent said this about African Americans.
The book reaches its apex in the ninth chapter, “The Soul of a Nation,” which explains Trump’s victory as an American identity crisis over the racial identities of voters. These roots incentivize major political parties to rely on subtextual “identity politics” on topics ranging from immigration to economic values. Trump hijacked free media to reveal how working-class white Americans felt that they deserve more than minorities. He tapped into deep-seated Republican sensibilities and successfully exposed the weaknesses within the Democratic Party.
Though the ideas under discussion in Identity Crisis are a pleasant breather from the noise of events that many Americans don’t care about, the book often feels like a slog through data and overboard academic jargon. A sizable chunk of the graphs used throughout the narrative provide little more than a distraction. Some of the analysis is beyond the scope of a general reader, diverting from the book’s pivotal arguments. Some especially recondite graphs also require a background in statistics. Take Figure 8.1, titled, “Incumbent party’s percentage of major-party vote.” A series of years are scattered around a linear, upward slope between an x-axis labeled from -3 percent to +4 percent, and a y-axis labeled from 40 percent to 60 percent. The description reads: “Economic growth and presidential election outcomes, 1948–2016. The relationship between change in GDP and the vote — the diagonal line — is a least squares regression line and is estimated without the 2016 election included.” This is true with the dozens of other graphs and charts throughout the book.
Another consideration when picking up a copy of Identity Crisis is the persistent voice and feel of academia. Numerous sentences and charts hold footnotes or parenthetical notes within, leading to another dutiful chore to go out and seek external research. There is an expectation that the readers of Identity Crisis have a comfortable background in political science, and a knowledge of key players in current politics. The footnotes that lead to the 100-page appendix/notes section at the end provide little help in clarifying complicated graphs or concepts throughout.
For all the appearance of rigor, the trio of authors shows little interest in social media analysis, a key factor in the 2016 campaign. Identity Crisis omits a corresponding analysis of why younger voters — who would have swung the balance — stayed home in historic numbers. This factor raises major question in attitudes toward racial identity when compared with those of middle-aged voters. Trump’s strange affair with Russia also gets little attention, which arguably might have shifted polling numbers and affected his victory (though in fairness, many of the key revelations on the relationship between Russia and Trump hadn’t been revealed until after the book’s publication).
Besides the opening — a lurid anecdote describing a Trump rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina — the remaining chapters trace only the raw data. It is undeniable that Identity Crisis provides a multitude of innovative evidence to answer Trump’s victory, but the accumulation of facts without a clear narrative undermines the reader’s experience. With that said, the overall narrative that traces American identity throughout the course of a single election is eye-opening. Our country’s general perception toward economics and minority rights were on vivid display during the election’s close. Real government and policy issues are affected by voter attitudes toward racial and ethnic beliefs, which stem from and motivate traditional party beliefs. Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck never cease to give the reader a full-scale analysis of how we became so partisan, and how Trump’s victory worsened the American identity crisis.
For readers who feel agitated by ample data and diagrams, skip ahead to the last 46 pages. This section deftly sums up the criteria that contributed to Trump’s victory and narrows the book to its important core: it wasn’t economic views that fueled his triumph, it was the increasingly polarized beliefs in racial inequality and how these beliefs “crystallized the country’s identity crisis: sharp divisions on what America has become, and what it should be.”