Perhaps the most puzzling question for millions of American after election day is this: What explains Donald Trump’s stunning victory?
There are of course many different factors that contributed to his success, many of which will be discussed in the coming weeks and months. But an absolutely critical one we shouldn’t downplay is the anxiety felt by many white Americans about the country’s growing diversity, which led them to be attracted to the most racially regressive candidate in decades.
There is a lot of good evidence to support this theory, but some of the best comes from University of London researcher Eric Kaufmann. In August, Kaufmann worked with the polling firm YouGov to commission a specialized survey of white Trump supporters. His analysis, published on Thursday on the London School of Economics’ policy blog, tells us a lot about Trump voters.
The poll asked white people to rate their support for Trump on a scale of 0 to 10, with zero being no support and 10 being all aboard the Trump Train. Kaufmann then compared that with the size of increase in the Latino population in the respondents’ zip codes between 2000 and 2010. What he found was striking — the people who lived in areas with a large Latino influx were far more likely to say they had 10 out of 10 support for Trump:
“The share of white Americans rating Trump 10 out of 10 rises from just over 25 percent in locales with no ethnic change to almost 70 percent in places with a 30-point increase in Latino population,” Kaufmann writes.
“The town of Arcadia in Wisconsin — fittingly a state that has flipped to Trump — profiled in a recent Wall Street Journal article, shows what can happen. Thomas Vicino has chronicled the phenomenon in other towns, such as Farmer’s Branch, Texas or Carpentersville, Illinois. “
Now, it’s possible those people’s support for Trump wasn’t directly caused by Latino immigration. All that shows so far is that their support for Trump coincided with increased Latino immigration in their areas.
So Kaufmann tried to get at the reasons white, level-10 Trump supporters might have liked the candidate so much. He asked them what they thought the most important issues facing the county were, and then compared them with the issues that people who rated their Trump support at zero prioritized. The results are in the following chart — Trump supporters in red, opponents in blue, and the difference between them in green:
What you see, clearly, is that Trump supporters are far more likely than Trump opponents to see immigration and terrorism — deeply tied to racial and ethnic identity — as America's top issue. They also seem quite unconcerned by economic inequality.
They do seem to care about “the economy in general,” though. But even that may not be quite what it seems. Because it turns out that racism actually seems to cause some Americans to say the economy is doing badly — not the other way around.
As UC Irvine political science professor Michael Tesler explains on the Monkey Cage blog, actual economic difficulty doesn’t seem to increase racial resentment. “Multiple studies, using several different surveys, have shown that overall levels of racial resentment were virtually unchanged by the economic crash of 2008,” Tesler writes. “Some data even suggests that racial prejudice slightly declined during the height of economic collapse in the fall of 2008.”
Tesler’s conclusion? Racial resentment triggered by the election of a black man, is driving economic anxiety. “[T]he national economy’s association with Obama has made racial resentment a stronger determinant of gloomy economic perceptions than it was before his presidency.” In other words, concern about the economy has become, for some, an outlet for anxieties about the country being led by a black man — and that’s what Kaufmann’s survey could well have been picking up.
In Kaufmann’s whole post, which I encourage you to read, he compares his survey of Trump supporters with a similar survey of Brexit supporters. The findings are remarkably similar — anxieties over a changing society were the key cause of hardcore Brexit support.
“The Trump and Brexit votes are the opening shots which define a new political era in which the values divide between voters — especially among whites — is the main axis of politics,” Kaufmann writes. “In a period of rapid ethnic change, this cleavage separates those who prefer cultural continuity and order from novelty-seekers open to diversity.”
Now, it’s important to be a bit cautious about this kind of conclusion. Kaufmann’s post only looked at the hardest of hardcore Trump supporters, the 10 out of 10 Trump fans.
It’s possible that he had an unrepresentative sample for this group, or that an analysis of more moderate Trump fans (your 6s and 7s) could be different. It’s also possible that those 6s and 7s were the key difference makers in the deciding states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
But what Kaufmann’s analysis does suggest, very clearly, is that the people most enthusiastic about Trump — meaning the people most likely to volunteer for him, advocate for him, and back him in the GOP primary — were driven in large part by racial anxieties. Race is a critical part of the Trump story, and can’t be sidelined.