Historical Mob Violence and the 2016 Presidential Election

Date01 March 2021
Published date01 March 2021
AuthorAmy Kate Bailey,Rebecca Abbott
Subject MatterContemporary Analyses and Implications
172 ANNALS, AAPSS, 694, March 2021
DOI: 10.1177/00027162211017437
Historical Mob
Violence and
the 2016
1017437ANN The Annals Of The American AcademyHistorical Mob Violence And The 2016 Presidential Election
As a 2016 presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump
invoked racially charged rhetoric to galvanize conserva-
tive white voters who felt left behind in the “new
economy.” In this article, we ask whether Trump’s abil-
ity to attract electoral support in that way was linked to
local histories of racist mob violence. We use county-
level data on threatened and completed lynchings of
Black people to predict support for Trump in the 2016
Republican presidential primary and general election
across eleven southern states. We find that fewer voters
cast their ballots for Trump in counties that had sup-
pressed a comparatively larger share of potentially
lethal episodes of racist mob violence. Supplementary
analyses suggest that counties’ histories of violence are
also related to their electoral support for Republican
presidential candidates more broadly. We posit that this
correlation points to the durable effects of racist vio-
lence on local cultures and the imprint of community
histories on the social environment.
Keywords: culture of violence; racism; elections;
political rhetoric; lynching
During the 2016 U.S. presidential election,
the link between America’s racist history
of violence and its contemporary realities
snapped into focus. Our streets were filled with
protestors calling for an end to state violence
against communities of color and advancing
new visions of racial justice. Donald Trump’s
rhetoric offered a counterpoint, exemplified by
his claim, when announcing his candidacy, that
Mexican immigrants to the Unites States are
“bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime.
They’re rapists” (Winsor 2016). His candidacy
was formally endorsed by leading white
Rebecca Abbott is a PhD candidate at the University of
Illinois at Chicago who studies political violence, struc-
tural inequality, and applications of quantitative meth-
ods for social problems. Her research applies both
classical statistics and machine learning methods to
create policy-oriented research.
Correspondence: akbailey@uic.edu
supremacists, including “the head of the American Nazi Party, three former Ku
Klux Klansmen,” and more than a dozen people affiliated with organizations
identified as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center (Posner and
Niewert 2016). Donald J. Trump, both as a candidate and in office, capitalized on
white racial anxieties in his political rhetoric and policy decisions. Violence also
occurred at several of his campaign rallies, and he made statements encouraging
violence, including offering to pay legal fees for those who physically attacked
protesters (Berenson 2016). We have found no evidence, conversely, of violence
occurring at campaign events for Hilary Clinton.1
In this article, we ask whether Trump’s divisive message was most resonant in
places with histories of violent racist oppression. Specifically, we use incidents of
threatened and completed lynching—the best available measure of local concen-
trations of violent terror—to predict the percentage of the vote recorded for
Trump in counties across eleven southern states.2 We find the vote for Trump was
higher in counties where a greater share of potential lynchings progressed into
lethal mob violence. We believe this association highlights the durable nature of
local culture and that community responses to threatened collective violence can
shape the social and political environment.
Prior Literature
Lynching as a practice was geographically concentrated in southern states
(Tolnay and Beck 1995), only one in an array of violent tactics used to oppress
Black Americans (Campney 2019). Wide variation in levels of mob violence
existed across the South, however, shaped by local social, demographic, and eco-
nomic factors. Importantly for the current study, partisan voting patterns were
linked to whether communities embraced or resisted lethal violence as a mecha-
nism for maintaining white supremacy. Counties with greater support for the
segregationist Democratic Party during the Jim Crow era experienced more
lynchings, on average (Tolnay and Beck 1995) and were more likely to allow
threatened mob violence to become deadly (Hagen, Makovi, and Bearman
A community’s history of racist violence persists in indicators of intergroup
conflict and routinized bigotry. Historical lynchings predict elevated rates of
homicide and interracial murder committed by whites (Messner, Baller, and
Amy Kate Bailey is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Her scholarship focusing on racial violence has been widely published and funded by the
National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.
NOTE: Authors are listed alphabetically. Equal attribution is assumed. An earlier version of
this article was presented at the 2019 meetings of the American Sociological Association. We
thank E.M. Beck, David Cunningham, and Stewart E. Tolnay for access to data and feedback
on this project; the Centers for Studies in Demography and Ecology for computing support;
and Emily Marshall, Christine Percheski, Hana Shepherd, LaTonya Trotter, and anonymous
reviewers for helpful comments.

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