clock menu more-arrow no yes

Are Trump supporters driven by economic anxiety or racial resentment? Yes.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

There is much dispute these days regarding exactly what motivates Donald Trump's supporters and, more broadly, the furious right-wing base. Is it economic insecurity or racial resentment?

Bernie Sanders believes it's mostly the former. He told Face the Nation:

Many of Trump's supporters are working-class people and they're angry, and they're angry because they're working longer hours for lower wages, they're angry because their jobs have left this country and gone to China or other low-wage countries, they're angry because they can't afford to send their kids to college so they can't retire with dignity.

What Trump has done with some success is taken that anger, taken those fears which are legitimate and converted them into anger against Mexicans, anger against Muslims, and in my view that is not the way we're going to address the major problems facing our country.

President Obama seems to agree. He told NPR that Trump is taking advantage of "all the economic stresses that people have been going through — because of the financial crisis, because of technology, because of globalization, the fact that wages and incomes have been flat-lining for some time, and that particularly blue-collar men have had a lot of trouble in this new economy, where they are no longer getting the same bargain that they got when they were going to a factory and able to support their families on a single paycheck."

Lately there's been some pushback on this interpretation. In a recent post, Matt Yglesias criticized "Democrats' naive theory of Trumpism," saying that concerns about the loss of white power should be seen as concerns about the loss of white power, not some cover story for economic anxiety. Brian Beutler has started using "economic insecurity" as a euphemism for racism, mocking the disappearance of race from some political analysis.

This dispute strikes me as a bit of a red herring. I'm not sure, in the current case, that economic anxiety and racism can be easily distinguished, their relative power measured. In the dynamic at work in the US — which, as David Frum pointed out in a thoughtful recent piece on Trumpism, is also evident in a number of other wealthy democracies — they are inextricably linked.

A recent set of focus groups with members of the Republican base casts some light on the question. But first, some general background.

trump sign
Great, white, whichevs.
Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Most people don't vote on issues, but on interests

The kind of people who think of themselves as having particular theories of government or economic philosophies are a self-selecting group — and they are wildly overrepresented in politics. They talk about the role of government, the interplay of freedom and rights, the proper level of market intervention, the balance of democracy promotion and realpolitik, and various other abstractions.

For the most part, these issues are not what animate voters. As Chris Hayes wrote in a 2004 article on undecided voters (which remains one of my favorite things written about American politics), most voters don't think in terms of "issues" at all, not along the dividing lines used by political elites.

For most people, the relevant line is not between left and right but between Us and Them. Most politics is interest group politics, about securing benefits and protections for a particular Us and in some cases denying benefits and protections to particular Thems perceived as undeserving or in competition with Us for scarce resources.

This is most clear when the interest group in question is a demographic group systematically excluded from power — in the US, nonwhite non-men, basically. That's why we call feminism or Black Lives Matter or LGBT movements "identity politics." They manifest as political or economic demands tied to group identity.

black lives matter protestors
Identity politics, i.e., "Please stop shooting people with my identity."
(Shutterstock)

But as Yglesias argued in an earlier article, all politics is identity politics. The interests of the politically and culturally dominant group are woven into the status quo; they are simply "politics." Maintenance of the status quo is the assumption; changes to the status quo, which would shift the distribution of benefits and protections, are "demands." The dominant group is rarely seen as, or thinks of itself as, a distinct identity with common interests. It is simply the norm, the baseline.

There's a unique political dynamic that develops when the dominant group begins to lose power due to demographic and economic changes. It becomes a group, one identity among others, fighting for benefits. This is a profound and unsettling shift, inevitably seen as a corruption of the proper order, an assault by the undeserving on the resources of those entitled to them. The group experiences diminution as humiliation and seeks someone to blame, usually various subaltern groups. The process often involves backlash, even violence.

Declining hegemons often see competing demographic groups as the agents of their economic insecurity; their racial resentment and economic insecurity are not distinct.

The declining power of white men is driving politics on the right

The dynamic is no different for white, Christian, working-class men and their wives in the US. Contra Sanders, Trump did not "convert" their economic anxiety into xenophobia and racial resentment. Rather, from their perspective, he correctly identified the roots of their economic anxiety, something other politicians fear to do because of "political correctness."

To hear this expressed in the base's own words, it's worth closely reading "Inside the GOP," a report from Democracy Corps based on a series of focus groups with the major subgroups of the Republican base. (The research was conducted in 2013 but is more relevant than ever; thanks to Rich Yeselson for the tip.)

Here's a word cloud drawn from the focus group discussions:

word cloud (Democracy Corps)

Notice any themes?

Those base subgroups have their differences, but they are united in their overweening sense of anxiety and a core shared belief about their opponents:

The Republican base thinks they face a victorious Democratic Party that is intent on expanding government to increase dependency and therefore electoral support. It starts with food stamps and unemployment benefits; expands further if you legalize the illegal immigrants; but insuring the uninsured through the Affordable Care Act will dramatically expand the number of those dependent on government. They believe these policies are part of an electoral strategy—not just a political ideology or economic philosophy. If Obamacare is fully implemented, the Republican Party may be lost forever.

While few explicitly talk about Obama in racial terms, the base supporters are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities. Their party is losing to a Democratic Party promoting big government and whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities. Race remains very much alive in the politics of the Republican Party.

To these voters, Democrats are a) hurting the economy by b) taxing productive, upright citizens in order to c) funnel benefits to minorities and immigrants who will then d) vote for Democrats and reinforce the cycle. The economic and demographic anxieties are part of the same story.

Admittedly, Trump supporters do not overlap neatly with the Republican base. He has drawn in many people who were entirely disconnected from politics. But if anything, reactionary sentiments are stronger in the cross section of Americans drawn to Trump.

To the bafflement of the GOP elite, Trump's supporters haven't objected to his various dissents from Republican orthodoxy — his promise to protect Medicare and Social Security, his odd mix of isolationism and belligerence, his relentless, crass mockery of Republican politicians. His voters are not animated by abstractions like small government and low taxes, or by party loyalty. They are animated by demographic interests.

white slavery
Not subtle.
(cometstarmoon, via Wikipedia)

They don't mind government benefits as such. They mind losing some of their benefits to others who haven't worked for them, who don't deserve them, lazy minorities and illegal immigrants. Trump is standing up for Us, and denouncing Them, in a clearer way than any other politician.

This kind of ethnic chauvinism — socialism for me, Darwinian capitalism for thee — is orthogonal to the policy disputes between the two US political parties. For years, it's been subsumed under the plutocratic economic agenda of the GOP elite; Trumpism reflects its full flowering. (Such chauvinism is more familiar, and better represented, in European splinter-right parties.)

Economic insecurity or racial resentment? Yes.

For the Americans rallying around Trump, economic insecurity is tied to the rise of minorities. Traditional white, Christian, small-town, patriarchal culture, along with the high-paying jobs that sustained it, is being assaulted, invaded, corrupted by the rise of demographic groups that do not share its values and a political party that manipulates those demographic groups to further its own power.

To be very clear: I'm not saying, as Sanders is sometimes accused of arguing, that racism is merely an expression of economic anxiety, or that solving economic anxiety would solve racism. That would, in fact, be naive. Racial resentments and stereotypes have their own independent reality and power, which extend well beyond what can be explained purely through recourse to economics.

But by the same token, it's important to understand that from the perspective of the beleaguered white working-class voters supporting Trump, there are not two stories, the loss of economic power and the loss of cultural power, but one story: Their America is being degraded and displaced in favor of another America in which they don't belong. Trying to understand them without grasping that unified story is politically fruitless.


Vox Featured Video

Islamophobia in America goes much deeper than Donald Trump