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Protesters in Manhattan, on June 2, 2020.Demetrius Freeman/The New York Times News Service

As 2020 began, Democratic prospects for ousting Donald Trump were not looking good.

Without a Barack Obama-like figure to unite and mobilize the party’s disparate factions, the Democrats’ next best bet lay in picking a nominee who could speak to the struggles of white working-class voters in a way that could take the air out of Mr. Trump’s tires among the “forgotten” folks who put him in the White House in the first place. Not only did Democrats fail to take up that challenge, they now seem intent on forgetting those very same voters all over again.

On Tuesday, presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden responded to the wave of protests that have engulfed U.S. cities in the wake of the apparent police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by saying the country needs “leadership that can recognize pain and deep grief of communities that have had a knee on their neck for a long time.”

Only minutes later, Mr. Trump tweeted: “SILENT MAJORITY.”

The term made famous by Richard Nixon – who dismissed anti-Vietnam War protesters in a 1969 speech by appealing to the “great silent majority” of Americans – has now been appropriated by Mr. Trump amid the biggest anti-racism protests in years. But those who underestimate the resonance of Mr. Trump’s tweet could be in for a shock in November.

The killing of Mr. Floyd was a horrific act that laid bare the very real scourge of racism that still infects U.S. law enforcement. But it is not indicative of a worsening plight of African-Americans under Mr. Trump or a surge in racist attitudes since 2016. To be sure, a majority of Americans believe Mr. Trump has made race relations worse since he took office. But according to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll, fully 77 per cent of Republicans said “the bigger problem for the country today is people seeing discrimination where it does not exist.”

Before the novel coronavirus pandemic led to the shutdown of parts of the U.S. economy, the unemployment rate among African-Americans had fallen to a record low of 5.8 per cent. What the millennials leading the current protests fail to appreciate is that social mobility among Black Americans has increased steadily (outside of recessions) since the 1970s. The opposite is true among working-class whites, who have experienced steep declines in real income over the same period.

“Since 1970, black education, wages, income and wealth have risen. From 1970 to 2000, black mortality rates declined by more than those of whites, and they fell in the first 15 years of the 21st century while those of working-class whites were rising," Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton wrote in Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, their chilling new book tracking the rise in mortality rates among white working-class Americans from overdoses, suicide or alcohol-related illnesses.

“There is less overt discrimination than in 1970. There has been a black president. The large majority who used to think [interracial] marriage was wrong has now become a large majority who thinks it is just fine,” they write. “More than half of white working-class Americans believe that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”

Among the reams of frightening statistics about the plight of white working-class Americans in Deaths of Despair, one finding stands out: Drawing on Gallup data, Prof. Case and Prof. Deaton note that “the fraction of people in an area who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 is also strongly correlated with the fraction in [physical] pain.” The opioid epidemic that has devastated white working-class communities began, after all, with doctors prescribing painkillers to deal with chronic pain, egged on by the pharmaceutical companies who made them.

The authors estimate that “at risk” working-class white Americans account for 38 per cent of the U.S. working-age population. They are effectively the U.S.'s new underclass, though ironically, one that is also perhaps the country’s single most important political constituency.

And yet, Mr. Trump’s political opponents rarely pay them lip service. None of Mr. Biden’s rivals for the Democratic nomination addressed these voters directly. While some of their progressive policy proposals should be attractive to white working-class voters, the latter are more likely to perceive Democratic policies as a threat to whatever “white privilege” they have left.

Even Mr. Biden, who once boasted working-class appeal, has succumbed to the dictates of the coastal elites who show contempt for Mr. Trump’s sympathizers. Mr. Biden has now left the field open for Mr. Trump to exploit their pain and loss of pride.

Democrats think they can mobilize enough Black and young Americans to turn out in November to win. It will be hard for them to sustain the outrage over Mr. Floyd’s death until then – although that may not stop them from trying.

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