As Donald Trump inches closer to the nomination, it's clear that he's very popular with a certain type of white voter. Why that's the case is up for debate.
The political movement behind Trump clearly mixes elements of economic distress, populist resentment of political elites, and white racial backlash. Disentangling which of these elements is to blame for the rise of Trump is the subject of dozens of hot takes per day. But a fascinating piece of political science research published back in 2014 suggests that they are far too tangled to unwind.
I have in mind Brian D. McKenzie's "Political Perceptions in the Obama Era: Diverse Opinions of the Great Recession and its Aftermath among Whites, Latinos and Blacks."
How the study worked
McKenzie, a professor at the University of Maryland, finds that a large share of the white population perceives itself to have been experiencing economic distress because Barack Obama is sitting in the White House, tilting the playing field in favor of black people. He finds that, naturally enough, white people who feel they are being victimized in this way have a lot of anger at the political establishment. And he finds that neither African Americans nor Latinos believe this is what is happening, perhaps in part because nonwhites are well aware that there has been significant economic distress in communities of color.
His key data source was a study undertaken by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post working with some scholars from Harvard to look at race and the recession. They used a big enough sample so they could do meaningful analysis of the racial subgroups. And, crucially, it included one question asking whether Obama has done "too much" in terms of " looking out for the economic interests of African Americans" and another one asking which racial groups had been hardest hit by the recession.
The Great Recession and slow recovery period are instructive for understanding ethno-racial elements of citizens' political attitudes beyond partisan distinctions. The analyses here indicate that numerous whites overlook the economic evidence that blacks were substantially harmed on multiple fronts during the recession and instead believe this group was unfairly aided by a sitting black president. These perceptual biases shape whites' political opinions and are associated with feelings of financial frustration and higher levels of blame toward the government in Washington. This thought process is consistently prevalent for whites, compared with other racial and ethic groups. And the replication analyses confirm that the key patterns of whites' attitudes hold across three time periods using several reputable data sources, including the 2012 American National Elections Study. Interestingly, while many whites believe that African Americans are the beneficiaries of favorable economic policies from the Obama administration, blacks themselves do not feel they have been uniquely assisted financially (Harris 2012; Harris and Lieberman 2013).
This ties together white nationalist themes, economic anxiety themes, and populist anti-establishment themes nicely — a large bloc of white voters believes they are suffering economically because their elected representatives in Washington betrayed their interests in order to help nonwhites.
President Obama on why he is such a polarizing figure
GOP leaders wanted to run on the opposite message
The connection between this cluster of ideas and Trumpism is pretty clear. But it's also easy enough to imagine it being channeled in a more conventional direction.
The problem is that following Mitt Romney's defeat in 2012, the leadership of the Republican Party decided that they wanted to go in the exact opposite direction. The idea was that under the leadership of Jeb Bush (with his Mexican-American wife) or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz (both Cuban Americans) and with backers like Sen. Tim Scott and Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, the GOP would present itself as a modern, cosmopolitan, forward-thinking vehicle for right-of-center economic policy.
Conservatism would be an ideology for everyone, not just for white people terrified that all their money was going to be spent on Obamaphones and hip-hop barbecues.
The problem, as we can see in retrospect, is that this sent exactly the wrong message to an important element of the GOP base. It said that their own party's leaders were planning to betray them.
From the standpoint of an intellectual or a policy wonk, the GOP's restive base looks incoherent.
7/ Narrative of Tea Party years was that the party lost its base by making deals and not being fiscally responsible. But now comes Trump ...— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) March 28, 2016
8/ ... and suddenly a different part of the party is mad, and they're voting for a dealmaker who isn't fiscally conservative at all!— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) March 28, 2016
But in truth, there's a fairly coherent through line here — resentful white people perceive themselves to be in a zero-sum clash for resources and opportunities with African Americans and Latinos, and want candidates who will champion their interests rather than throw them overboard in pursuit of a broader electoral coalition.