I’ve been quite intrigued by the question of whether racial antipathy or class resentment best explains the Trump voter, or more specifically, the Trump victory, which is not the same thing. Almost weekly post-election data appears in favor of one side or the other. It’s tempting to throw up your hands and shout “it’s a mixture!” On one level that’s right, but I think if you are interested both in the history of this election and the future of the Democratic Party, it’s worth digging deeper.
First, by race let me include not only racial antipathy, but also ethnocentrism, xenophobia and anti-Muslim, indeed even anti-Semitic attitudes. You could include as well fear of terrorism. All of these are highly correlated. If you want to imagine them in one person, just think of our Attorney General Jeff Sessions. A wealthy long time politician, he’s clearly not typical of the Trump voter and there is no reason all forms of racism must be held together. One could believe America is a Christian nation without being hostile to African America Christians. Some Trump supporters seem to be very exercised about undocumented immigration, and indeed immigrants full stop, but are not necessarily anti-Semitic.
What connects all of these though is that they suggest “culture” rather than hard economics led the Trump wave. Presumably the causal explanation goes like this. Some voters harbored deep racial resentments of various sorts that Trump tapped into and these attitudes, beliefs and resentments propelled them to the polls. They saw in Trump the promise of a homogenous White Christian America and hence voted for him. While you might say they voted their “cultural” self-interest, or perhaps better self-identity, there is no hint of a material, economic, monetary motive. But if you scratch a bit deeper sometimes the economic starts to shine through.
Many Trump voters when pressed say things like “others” were getting unfair advantages, or getting help and handouts from government, or just getting attention about their plight while they were not. The other is usually coded as African American, Hispanic American, or immigrant more generally. In cases like this cultural attitudes of race interconnect deeply with economic resentments. It should hardly be news that in times of economic stress people’s worst beliefs and attitudes towards others come to the surface. Scapegoating is an ancient evil. American Populists in the late 19th century formed around economic grievances, but they turned their anger against African Americans when their hopes for a reformed economy were frustrated. Likewise it is hard to imagine German antisemitism growing to the monstrous proportions it did under Hitler without a Great Depression.
We can, however, go a bit further than this. Economic explanations seem to rest on objective conditions, in contrast to racial/cultural explanations. This may be a mistake. Often it is not absolute economic levels that matter, but relative ones, relative to what a voter hoped their condition would be, relative to some other group. An out-of-work white, native born factory worker might feel angry and frustrated with his economic condition, whereas an immigrant from Guatemala working for little more than minimum wage might be optimistic about the future, considering how life had been back home. But even this is not enough. “Objective” circumstances do not necessarily correlate with voting preference, even when economics matters to the voter. A simple thought experiment bears this out. Conservative writers sometimes try to make the case that, relative to what poverty was like 100 years ago, the poor have a great life now. Relative to how bad things were in the Middle Ages, that’s even more true. But graphs of per capita GDP or even wages are not what voters respond to. Most would probably not be persuaded by “hey, at least you aren’t a medieval peasant.” In short the relationship between economics and voting is just as subjective as it is for race or other cultural factors.
This does not mean we cannot look at objective evidence, as indeed proponents of both views do. Those who favor the racial/cultural model often look at the high correlations between negative racial attitudes and likelihood of voting for Trump. They note that the worst off vote Democratic not Republican. But there is a problem with this approach. If you look at all Trump or all Clinton voters you will indeed find such correlations. Such voters, however, are often long standing Republicans or Democrats and thus were always extremely likely to vote for the candidate from their party. Racism has been with us a long time and yes, it tends to be conservatives who hold such attitudes and vote Republican. Likewise the lower end of the socioeconomic scale is dominated by African American and Hispanic voters, who are deeply attached to the Democratic Party.
Most voters vote for the candidate of the party they identify with, regardless of who that candidate is. Clinton was undone in part by her belief that mainstream Republicans would reject Trump as too outrageous. Some did but most came back to the fold when they had to pull the lever. Of course, here we can also find a clear case of class at work. Mainstream Republicans are middle and upper middle class and they stand to benefit from Trump’s economic program, which they understood would be Paul Ryan’s tax cuts for the well to do.
Other culturalists might point out that if you ask people, do they believe the system is rigged or unfair, those who say yes tend to vote for Clinton. Those who say no are inclined to Trump. But here the problem is that Trump voters may actually believe in the system. They are just frustrated it is not working for them. This is exactly the situation that can breed racial and ethnic resentment, and point voters toward a candidate who promises them the jobs and incomes they know they deserve. Trump voters were not looking for an economic critique; they were rejecting politicians who had failed them, from either party (the “shake things up voter”).
Still it is not the general Trump voter we are interested in. We have to look at the marginal Trump voter. These are people who might have voted for Clinton, but either stayed home or switched parties. Much has been written about the “switchers,” often dismissing them as phantoms. But the best recent analysis suggests they were quite real and had an impact on the outcome. These were the sorts of voters who made a difference the key states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Even now, pundits go out to these states and ask the Trump loyalists, “are you sorry yet that you voted for him.” Not surprisingly they usually hear “no,” or even “he’s doing great!” They are speaking to the most loyal Trump supporters not the marginal ones, who may well be willing to switch, or just stay home, next election.
It would be nice to believe America is making progress on its racial attitudes, but the past half century or more suggests there will always be a hard core of racists and cultural resenters in the electorate. Trump was just more overt in his appeals to them. It is possible that after eight years of an African American president, racism did grow. But among those disposed to think racially, Obama was hated from the start. And if anything changed it surely would have been in his first four years. People often point to the “Beer Summit” after the Henry Louis Gates incident when racism reasserted itself, but that was in the first Obama administration. Yet Obama won rather handily the second time. And while Trump to a degree pumped up white turnout, in the end it the difference in turnout did not swing the election. On the other hand, the white voter who flipped did have a significant impact. Did that voter suddenly realize he or she was a racist after voting for Obama, maybe even twice?
Perhaps switching voters tended to hold less liberal racial attitudes and exhibit a greater fear of diversity than similarly situated voters who did not switch. Could economics have mattered in this case? We have to start by relaxing the constraint that only those economic conditions WE see as valid count. It does no good to say, “but it can’t be class because they voted in the opposite way I would have if I were in their shoes.” The evidence that economic conditions mattered in the white vote is pretty compelling. These voters had less education–the infamous “non college graduates.” They were more rural, at a time when the best economic opportunities were concentrating in cities. They congregated at the lower end of the economic scale, for white Republicans. It’s well to remember that incomes of white families and of Republicans in general tend to be higher than African American and Hispanic Democrats. Perhaps we feel those downscale rural white voters should have made common cause with similarly situated urban nonwhites. Race and identity do matter, but they matter in part on how they operate on economic identity. The strongest racist attitudes were found in the parts of the country that have long been solidly red. It was the relatively small number of voters in key northern states living in the places that had done the least well the recovery from the Great Recession who turned the election.
Taking the question not as “what did most voters see in Trump” but “how did he win the election” then economics, while not everything, did matter. Of course there were also the other, more contingent factors—Comey’s late surprise, the Russian hackers, the fake news, but even here we see how economics came into play. If part of the problem was Clinton’s lackluster campaign, which included being overly focused on Trump’s personality and personal history, then a stronger economic message could have made the difference. That Bernie Sanders, a socialist with a very consistent (some would carp “one note”) economic message did so well, including among some who rejected Clinton for Trump, tells you something. Even now, in France, voters who are enthusiastic about the left wing Jean-Luc Mélenchon may swing to the right and support Le Pen if their favored candidate is not on the final ballot.
There is no reason to pit cultural against economic explanations. But to completely ignore class and economics in an age that has seen globalization, offshoring, outsourcing, stagnating wages, a growing inequality of income, wealth and opportunity, and increasing corporate concentration and power (United Airlines, anyone?) seems like a death sentence for the Democratic party. Put more optimistically, it may not be possible in the short or even longer term to upend deeply held racists beliefs and resentments. But economic attitudes tend to be much more amenable to a strong message and good policies.