Dylan Matthews, Vox
If the media and commentators in 2016 can agree on nothing else, it’s this. It’s a bit of an odd meme. I can remember literally no one in 2012 dwelling on the importance of taking the concerns of Mitt Romney voters seriously, even though they made up a considerably larger share of the population than Trump supporters. No one talks about taking the interests of Hillary Clinton supporters, a still larger group, seriously.
But Trump supporters, a smaller group backing a considerably more loathsome agenda, have received an unprecedented outpouring of sympathy, undertaken as a sort of passive-aggressive snipe at unnamed other commentators and politicians perceived to not be taking their concerns seriously.
“Trumpism has, in part, made the rest of the nation all the more eager to ignore the millions of white voters living on the edges of the economy,” Michelle Cottle worries at the Atlantic.
“Many decent, sincere people who feel disregarded, disrespected, and left behind — in ways that I do not feel and have never felt — can disproportionately embrace political opinions that I view as bigoted or paranoid,” David Blankenhorn empathizes at the American Interest. “Today’s upscale Americans are less and less likely even to interact with, much less actually give a damn about, those other Americans.”
“Their problems should still be addressed,” Michael Brendan Dougherty writes at the Week, “not because the elite views them as virtuous and thus deserving of the help of the state and its political class, but by virtue of our common citizenship.”
I agree with a lot of this. The government should help people who are materially struggling. Globalization definitely left some segments of the population struggling, and they deserve help. White people, while still economically dominant over black and Latino Americans in basically every way possible, can suffer from poverty too.
But there’s something striking about this line of commentary: It doesn’t take the stated concerns of Trump voters, and voters for similar far-right populists abroad, seriously in the slightest.
Trump’s supporters are not the wretched of the earth
The press has gotten extremely comfortable with describing a Trump electorate that simply doesn’t exist. Cottle describes his supporters as “white voters living on the edges of the economy.” This is, in nearly every particular, wrong.
There is absolutely no evidence that Trump’s supporters, either in the primary or the general election, are disproportionately poor or working class. Exit polling from the primaries found that Trump voters made about as much as Ted Cruz voters, and significantly more than supporters of either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Trump voters, FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver found, had a median household income of $72,000, a fair bit higher than the $62,000 median household income for non-Hispanic whites in America.
A major study from Gallup's Jonathan Rothwell confirmed this. Trump support was correlated with higher, not lower, income, both among the population as a whole and among white people. Trump supporters were less likely to be unemployed or to have dropped out of the labor force. Areas with more manufacturing, or higher exposure to imports from China, were less likely to think favorably of Trump.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Lower-income whites are always likelier to support Democrats than other whites. It’d be very odd if Trump singlehandedly reversed that longstanding trend in American public opinion. But it suggests that the image of Trump supporters as whites on the economic margins, being failed by the elites in Washington and New York, is wrong.
So what is driving Trump supporters? In the general election, the story is pretty simple: What’s driving support for Trump is that he is the Republican nominee, a little fewer than half of voters always vote for Republicans, and Trump is getting most of those voters.
In the primary, though, the story was, as my colleague Zack Beauchamp has explained at length, almost entirely about racial resentment. There’s a wide array of data to back this up.
UCLA's Michael Tesler has found that support for Trump in the primaries strongly correlated with respondents' racial resentment, as measured by survey data. Similarly, Republican voters with the lowest opinions of Muslims were the most likely to vote for Trump, and voters who strongly support mass deportation of undocumented immigrants were likelier to support him in the primaries too.
In April, when the Pew Research Center asked Republicans for their views on Trump, and their opinions on the US becoming majority nonwhite by 2050, they found that Republicans who thought a majority nonwhite population would be "bad for the country" had overwhelmingly favorable views of Trump. Those who thought it was a positive or neutral development were evenly split on Trump.
By contrast, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 got less primary support from voters with high racial resentment and anti-immigration scores than they did from less racially resentful or anti-immigrant voters. Those two primaries were lost by the white nationalist wing of the Republican Party at a time when that wing was gaining in number. As New America's Lee Drutman has found, Republicans’ views of blacks and Latinos plummeted during the Obama years:
The white nationalist wing was gaining in strength, and due for a win. It got one in Trump.
Even in the general election, while support for Trump is correlated most strongly with party ID, the second biggest factor, per the analysis of Hamilton College political scientist Philip Klinkner, was racial resentment. Economic pessimism and income level were statistically insignificant.
The message this research sends is very, very clear. There is a segment of the Republican Party that is opposed to racial equality. It has increased in numbers in reaction to the election of a black president. The result was that an anti–racial equality candidate won the Republican nomination.
Given that the US is one recession away from a Republican winning the presidency, this is a concerning development.
Taking Trump supporters seriously means not pretending their concerns are about the economy
Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Fredericksburg, VA
Alex Wong/Getty Images
The American press is overwhelmingly made up of left-of-center white people who live in large cities and have internalized very strong anti-racist norms. As a result, it tends to be composed of people who think of racism as a very, very serious character defect, and who are riddled with anxiety about being perceived as out of touch with “real America.” “Real America” being, per decades of racially charged tropes in our culture, white, non-urban America.
So in comes Donald Trump, a candidate running on open white nationalism whose base is whites who — while not economically struggling compared with poor whites backing Hillary Clinton and doing way better economically than black or Latino people backing Clinton — definitely live in the “real America” which journalists feel a yearning to connect to and desperately don’t want to be out of touch with.
Describing these people as motivated by racial resentment, per journalists’ deep-seated belief that racism is a major character defect, seems cruel and un-empathetic, even if it’s supported by extensive amounts of social scientific research and indeed by the statements of Trump’s supporters themselves.
So it becomes very, very tempting to just ignore this evidence and insist that Trump supporters are in fact the wretched of the earth, and to connect them with every possible pathology of white America: post-industrial decay, the opioid crisis, labor force dropouts, rising middle-age mortality rates, falling social mobility, and so on. This almost always fails (globalization victims and labor force dropouts are less likely to support Trump, per Rothwell), but if there’s even a small hint of a connection, as when Rothwell found a correlation between Trump support and living in an area with rising white mortality, you’re in luck. If you can squint hard enough, the narrative will always survive.
There’s a parallel temptation among leftists and social democrats who, in their ongoing attempt to show that neoliberal capitalism is failing, attempt to tie that failure to the rise of Trump. If economic suffering among lower-class whites caused Trump, the reasoning goes, then the solution is to address that suffering through a more generous welfare state and better economic policy, achieved through a multiethnic working-class coalition that includes those Trump supporters. Yes, these supporters may be racist, but it’s important not to say mean things about them lest they fall out of the coalition.
I actually agree that the current capitalist regime is failing. We need truly universal health care, universal child care, a universal child allowance or basic income, and programs to address deep poverty. Redistribution is a very good, necessary thing.
But we have a good case study we can examine to see if Western European–style welfare states can prevent far-right racist backlashes from popping up. It’s called Western Europe. And Sweden’s justly acclaimed welfare state did not prevent the rise of the viciously anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats, which has its origins in the Swedish neo-fascist and white supremacist movements and is now the third-largest party in Swedish parliament.
Nor did Austria’s welfare state prevent the far-right Freedom Party — led by Jörg Haider, who praised Hitler for having a “proper employment policy” — from entering government in 1999. France’s crèches and best-in-the-world government health care didn’t prevent Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has been repeatedly convicted of Holocaust denial, from reaching the runoff for the 2002 presidential elections. It has not stopped his successor and daughter Marine from leading polling for next year’s presidential elections. The Netherlands’ comprehensive welfare state has not prevented first Pim Fortuyn and then Geert Wilders from becoming major political forces, with the latter leading most polls for the next elections.
Nor has Germany’s strong, manufacturing-heavy and export-oriented economy, arguably the strongest in Europe, kept the far-right AfD party from gaining in recent local elections. It’s telling to note that while economically thriving Germany is facing a far-right menace, Spain, where unemployment is 20 percent (similar to the US in the Great Depression), has no far-right movement of much consequence.
Comprehensive welfare states are very, very good. They do not solve racism. Whites in both Europe and America have made it very clear that they will not accept becoming a demographic minority without a fight, and will continue to vote for candidates that speak to that concern and promise immigration policies that put off white minority status for as long as possible.
Accepting that Trumpism is about race does not mean giving up
“Blacks for Trump” is not a large organization. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
One thing this analysis decidedly does not imply is “Hey, Trump supporters are just racists, let’s give up on them.” Trump’s nomination is a threat to America that must be addressed and never allowed to happen again. Giving up is not an option. We have to figure out some way to respond.
Nor is somehow denying Trump supporters material support they need an option (though this is a proposal I’ve only ever heard attacked by journalists sympathetic to Trump supporters; I’ve never heard it actually proposed). Hillary Clinton, to her great credit, has offered programs ranging from expanded child care to free college to a plan to fight the opioid epidemic to child tax credit expansions to improvements to Obamacare that will leave millions of white Trump supporters much better off. This isn’t worth doing to win back their votes; it’s worth doing because it’s the right thing to do.
Notably, Trump is not proposing anything like this and would in fact raise taxes on many middle-class families. Insisting, as many journalists have, that his supporters aren’t voting for the white nationalist candidate because they agree with him on race seems like a way to be charitable to those voters. But the idea that voters are motivated by economic struggles and so are voting for a candidate who would make their economic situation far worse is much more insulting than accepting they are uncomfortable with racial equality. The implicit idea is that Trump’s voters aren’t motivated by genuine political disagreement about race, but are just dupes voting for the wrong candidate because they’re too dumb to Google his tax plan.
Any solution has to begin with a correct diagnosis of the problem. If Trump’s supporters are not, in fact, motivated by economic marginalization, then even full Bernie Sanders–style social democracy is not going to prevent a Trump recurrence. Nor are GOP-style tax cuts, and liberal pundits aggressively signaling virtue to each other by writing ad nauseam about the need to empathize with the Trump Voter aren’t doing anyone any good.
What’s needed is an honest reckoning with what it means that a large segment of the US population, large enough to capture one of the two major political parties, is motivated primarily by white nationalism and an anxiety over the fast-changing demographics of the country. Maybe the GOP will find a way to control and contain this part of its base. Maybe the racist faction of the party will dissipate over time, especially as Obama’s presidency recedes into memory. Maybe it took Trump’s celebrity to mobilize them at all, and future attempts will fail.
But Donald Trump’s supporters’ concerns are heavily about race. Taking them seriously means, first and foremost, acknowledging that, and dealing with it honestly.