As we watch the election season unfold, there is a lot of confusion surrounding Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. While his campaign has left us with a great deal to wonder about, the central question remains a simple one: Who are these people that are supporting Trump?

Trump Supporters

Republican Nominee Donald Trump with a crowd of supporters at a recent campaign event

Indeed, much of the world seems mystified (and to a large measure, terrified) by the Trump phenomenon. Outside of some cheering from Russia and China—which should tell you something—the international press reaction to his nomination as the Republican candidate was one of dumbfounded dread. “The unthinkable has come to pass,” wrote Germany’s Die Welt daily; Der Spiegel dedicated an entire issue to Trump, entitled “Madness: American Agitator Donald Trump.”

 Racism (and xenophobia in general) is certainly the trait most associated with these voters, and it’s the explanation most frequently trotted out to account for Trump’s ascent. But this doesn’t entirely add up. Are there really that many  hardcore racists out there? I’m not the only one who questions this rationale. It’s true, we have an unfortunate amount of deeply rooted racism in this country—but racism alone can’t explain Trump’s wide popularity.

To understand the rise of Trump....take a closer look at the white men that support the bilious billionaire. Click to Tweet

To understand that, we have to turn to demographics. Trump’s supporters, as poll after poll has shown, are predominantly white men. Race is clearly one of the factors at work here, and it’s a cruel irony that Obama’s presidency has served to rekindle a lot of racial tension in America. Though it’s difficult to imagine now, at the beginning of the Obama administration, some hopefuls saw his election as heralding the onset of a “post-racial” America, a nation fully cleansed of its ethnic wounds.

As we all know, this did not come to pass. Far from it: the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder effectively defanged enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, a fundamental achievement of the civil rights movement. The shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012 ignited a firestorm of criticism and debate surrounding police violence toward African Americans. Add in the thinly veiled racism of Tea Party rhetoric and “birthers” who claim the President wasn’t born here and/or is a closet Muslim, and you’ve got an awful lot of embarrassing behavior to explain. Some African Americans have commented that they didn’t realize how racist America was until Obama was elected; some have even said they will be relieved to see his presidency end.

There is no getting around it: America has its race problems, and we are far from alone in this. But race is only part of the equation: Trump’s rise has just as much to do with sexism and economics as it does racism. To start to understand the rise of Trump, you’ve got to take a closer look at the white men that support the bilious billionaire.

America has over the last four decades entered a new phase in our history, one in which real wages have declined or stagnated for the vast majority of workers. While there is much talk about recessions and recoveries, this analysis glosses over important details. What we’re experiencing is not a short-term phenomenon; rather, it’s what the economists call a “structural adjustment,” a long-term change in our economic position relative to other nations. To speak in plainer terms, as a nation we’ve lost much of the privileged, protected status that we enjoyed in the postwar world. American exceptionalism has taken a pretty big hit; it has become a cliché that Americans no longer expect the next generation to be better off than this one (in a recent Pew poll, 2 out of 3 Americans expressed this view).

This slide has been particularly hard on a group that has enjoyed an unusual degree of privilege in decades past: nonprofessional white men. Historically protected by the institutional momentum of segregation and the “old boy’s network,” working class white men have been hammered by rising wage inequality and stagnation of earnings. There was a time in America when a full-time job—any job, for the most part—meant security, and translated to a reasonable standard of living. Generally the first ones hired (and promoted), white men were essentially guaranteed a good living in postwar America. That is no longer even remotely the case. Paired with our economic doldrums, the move of women into the work force en masse and rising opportunities for people of color in America have eroded that privileged position. Today, many in this group feel left behind by a system that doesn’t seem to protect their interests anymore.

In reality, the majority of American workers have been shortchanged by the economic policies of the last few decades—but it’s working-class white men that had the most to lose. When you hear them talking about “making America great again,” this is what they are saying: they want to return to the America in which their success was assured, and their status went unquestioned.

They have bought into the lies told by over a generation of politicians, media figures and other demagogues: namely, that their jobs, along with their status and position in society, are threatened by blacks and other people of color—and by women. These lies exonerate them from responsibility, and give them a convenient scapegoat for their economic problems. They also spare them from any deep thinking on the matter, serving to insulate the globalist, corporatist policies (and policymakers) that are actually behind these changes.

These men have seen an enormous amount of change in the last few decades, and surely, much of it has been to their detriment. Having already been primed with the message that nonwhites (and again, women) are the ones behind their troubles, they were treated to the inauguration of our first black president in 2008; to be fair, plenty of them did the right thing and voted for Obama. But as our nation’s already woeful economic state deepened in the first months of the administration, it became an easy and reflexive thing to blame the new president for the sorry state of affairs. In this, much of the mainstream media was dutifully complicit.

8 years on, we are in many ways better off, but our economic problems persist—and the situation for nonprofessional white males hasn’t changed much at all. What has changed is the political and social atmosphere: our discourse has become poisoned by intolerant, hostile speech, and blatantly racist (and homophobic, and misogynist) rhetoric has become commonplace, especially in the murky tide pools of social media. This type of invective reinforces retrogressive attitudes, and makes intolerant speech and support for discriminatory policies feel “acceptable.” True to form, our news media stands by haplessly, hiding behind vague assurances of objectivity and equal coverage.

Today, this disaffected group of voters is being asked to do it once again. To throw off their prejudices, rise to the occasion, and participate in yet another electoral revolution: this time, the election of the first woman to the highest office in the land. With nary a break in between! It seems that for some, it’s all just too much to bear, too soon.

Like it or not, it’s true: not every Trump supporter is a racist. They aren’t all religious extremists bent on expunging Muslims from American society, either. With a few notable exceptions, what they are is a bunch of disappointed, cynically misled human beings, as credulous as any of us. They have been failed by their educators, abandoned by their news media, and sold down the river by their political establishment, and they are pissed off. I’m not in any way sympathizing with their poor judgment, but I’m also not ready to demonize them for it. More to the point, I can’t see the benefit of doing so.

While it is tempting to dismiss these voters as troglodytes and revel in our own superiority, none of that will help us win this election. To do that, and to heal the ugly wound that has been torn open in our political culture, we have to tamp down the rhetoric and engage.  We were all Americans before Donald Trump came along, and we will still be Americans when his loathsome carcass is underground. To whatever extent our political discourse is tainted by his passage, we must be diligent in cleaning up the mess.

As an electorate, we’ve been asleep at the wheel for so long that the road looks unfamiliar. But if we choose to participate, and to demand more from our public servants—and our media voices—we can right our path. Politics is about compromise, not confrontation. It’s about finding common ground, and everything else aside, we are all American workers trying to make sense of a system that has gone a bit shaky. Let’s remember that.