Donald Trump and the Myth of Economic Populism: Demolishing a False Narrative

If someone asked me during the primary season, I would have said that economic anxiety played a significant, albeit exaggerated, part in Trump’s electoral success. I always believed the “working class revolt” depiction of the Trump campaign was over-sold. Much of his support is drawn from traditional Fox News, right-wing talk radio demographics – hardly an economically disadvantaged group. This group has become increasingly reactionary and authoritarian in its politics in recent years, demonizing its political enemies for allegedly supporting terrorists, stoking “unwarranted” fears over climate change, embracing a creeping “socialism,” and turning a blind eye to “fifth column” threats from immigrants and Muslims. But the narrative of a downtrodden, Trump-inspired, populist-driven rebellion against the status quo is now a mainstay of coverage in the mass media. This narrative benefits from at least some evidence. For example, it is well established that Trump’s supporters are heavily working class, with many earning modest incomes, and retaining lower levels of formal education. Findings from a March 2016 ABC-Washington Post survey also find that support for Trump is higher among those who claim they are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain their expected standard of living.

But it appears that the working-class populist depiction of Trump’s campaign and his supporters is heavily exaggerated, upon examination of a variety of recent surveys. March polling from ABC and the Washington Post found no significant relationship between respondents’ income and support for Trump. Gallup’s August survey of 87,000 Americans questions just how big a factor economic anxiety is in driving Trump’s primary and general election success. The Washington Post summary of Gallup’s findings reports that;

“those who view Trump favorably have not been disproportionately affected by foreign trade or immigration, compared with people with unfavorable views of the Republican presidential nominee. The results suggest that his supporters, on average, do not have lower incomes than other Americans, nor are they more likely to be unemployed.”

Gallup survey data also suggests that Americans living in geographic locations that have seen manufacturing employment decline since 1990 are not more likely to favor Trump. Furthermore, the Gallup survey suggests there is no evidence that individuals living in geographic locations that were negatively affected by outsourcing of jobs to China are more favorable to Trump either.

Gallup’s survey findings will strike many Americans as surprising, considering they run contrary to much of what we’ve been told during this election season about why voters support Trump. I looked further into national survey data to see if I could confirm Gallup’s findings. Unfortunately, many national surveys are not made available to the general public until months after they are first publicized. Still, relatively recent survey data from Princeton’s Pew Research Center from January of 2016 provides an opportunity for a second look at what’s driving support for Trump. In that survey, Pew asked Americans to rank which candidates they felt would do a terrible, poor, average, good, or great job as president. It also surveyed respondents on numerous other personal and attitudinal factors that were associated with Trump support.

I looked first at Pew’s questions regarding what specific issues Americans think should be top policy priorities. Topics are wide ranging, from climate change and the military to gun control and health care. If Trump’s support is drawn significantly from those expressing economic anxieties, it should show in terms of the top concerns that Americans express. This is not what I find in analyzing Pew’s survey. Support for Trump is not significantly associated with public concerns about “improving the job situation” nationally, “strengthening the nation’s economy,” “dealing with global trade issues,” “reducing health care costs,” “dealing with the problems of poor and needy people,” or “improving the educational system.” All of these issues relate to economics, for example the jobs lost to free trade, anxiety over growing health care costs, and concerns with under-funded schools in poor minority communities.

Looking at the concerns that do predict support for Trump, one sees that they are largely non-economic, although they remain high profile issues in Republican Party politics and are heavily covered in right-wing media such as Fox News and talk radio. I divide attitudinal predictors of Trump support into stronger and weaker predictors, statistically speaking. The strongest predictors of support include the following: interest in “dealing with gun policy,” concern with “strengthening the U.S. military,” concern that Muslims are “anti-American,” disinterest in “dealing with climate change,” and disinterest in “dealing with the problems of poor and needy people.” Weaker, although still significant predictors of Trump support, include the following concerns: “reducing the budget deficit,” “reducing crime,” “defending the country from future terrorist attacks,” and “dealing with the issue of immigration.”

These results suggest that support for Trump is based in large part on the politics-as-usual topics that dominate Republican Party rhetoric and right-wing media. The main concerns of Trump supporters are not particularly relevant to the growing anxieties of millions of disadvantaged Americans, and this runs parallel to the Republican Party’s historical lack of concern with economically disadvantaged groups. Many of the concerns associated with Trump support are more abstract and divorced from the everyday lives of citizens, particularly when looking at concerns like fighting terrorism, strengthening the military, and reducing the budget deficit.

What about demographic factors? How do they play into support for Trump? Are less affluent groups – particularly poorer Americans and those from working class backgrounds – more likely to support Trump? The evidence here is weak for those claiming Trump represents the economically downtrodden. I looked at a variety of demographic factors in the January Pew survey, including respondents’ incomes, their self-designated class status (lower class, lower-middle class, middle class, upper-middle class, upper class), their party affiliation, ideology, race, sex, level of education, religious affiliation, and age. The strongest factors associated with Trump support are political party and ideology – as Republicans and conservatives are obviously more likely to support Trump than to oppose him. Other weaker factors associated with Trump support include sex, education, and self-identified class. In other words, the standard profile of a Trump supporter is someone who is more likely to be Republican, “Born Again” Evangelical Protestant, conservative, male, white, and from a middle-to-upper class background.

Most of the above findings regarding demographics are hardly surprising. However, it is worth pointing out that Trump benefits from greater support from those identifying high more affluent economic classes, rather than with working class voters. Furthermore, it’s relevant that income is not a significant predictor of Trump support. This finding, in addition to Trump’s greater support among the more affluent classes, suggest that the “Trump as hero of the disadvantaged” narrative is wrong.

Rather than drawing support from economically distressed, disadvantaged working-class Americans, the unemployed, and the poor, Trump receives most of his support from traditional Republican demographics. So what makes Trump campaign so distinctive from other Republican candidates? I would argue that we have entered a historic period in American political and electoral history. Trump’s campaign is a symbol of the culmination of decades of radicalization and fearmongering that have been embraced by the Republican Party and their foot soldiers in the rightwing media. As the party has radicalized, its rank-and-file members (particularly primary voters) increasingly view the poor as leeches, Muslims as terrorists, distrust and demonize immigrants, look at science with fundamental contempt, and oppose even modest steps towards gun control.

A recent analysis of national survey data by political scientist Matthew MacWilliams finds that the strongest factor associated with support for Trump is individuals holding an authoritarian mindset. An “authoritarianism scale” is commonly measured through what social scientists call the “F-Scale.” The scale includes questions measuring whether individuals think citizens should support their country and government whether it’s right or wrong, that children should simply obey their parents rather than develop critical thinking skills, that dissenters and protestors are anti-American subversives, that government should punish those engaged in “immoral” acts such as homosexuality, and that the country needs a strong leader who will ignore critics and return the country to its former greatness.

The above findings do not suggest that support for Trump is completely unrelated to economic factors. It may be that declining living standards are motivating relatively affluent Americans to support Trump and his promise to “make America great again.” It’s plausible that many higher income Americans have had their standard of living decline due to four decades of increases in the costs of consumer goods, health care, and higher education, which have exceeded average income gains even for those in the top 20 percent of the national income distribution. Still, we should dispense with the idea that Trump’s support arises from poorer and working class Americans who are the victims of outsourcing and growing inequality. There is little truth to this narrative, even if it’s dominated American political discourse. Most of Trump’s support is derived from Americans who, in recent decades, have wanted for little relative to poorer and low-income families that struggle to pay for quality health care, food, and education. Trump’s campaign rests on a foundation of hatred and hostility toward the “other” – with other defined as individuals who do not fit the standard rightwing Republican profile of a white, middle to middle-upper class male who tolerates little dissent against the conservative “Bible” of right-wing media rhetoric, and displays active disdain for the poor, immigrants, liberals and minorities. By understanding what’s at stake in this election, we gain a better understanding of the direction our country is headed. The electoral outcome will not be decided until November, but the battle between progressive societal forces and reactionary opponents of change has never been more stark.

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Anthony DiMaggio is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He holds a PhD in political communication, and is the author of the newly released: Selling War, Selling Hope: Presidential Rhetoric, the News Media, and U.S. Foreign Policy After 9/11 (Paperback: 2015). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com

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