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Election Con 2016: New Evidence Demolishes the Myth of Trump’s “Blue-Collar” Populism

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Photo by Marc Nozell | CC BY 2.0

Since Trump’s election win, mainstream commentators have repeated the claim that his rise to power reflects the growing disillusionment of the working class. For just a few examples of these claims, see The Atlantic: “The Billionaire Candidate and His Blue-Collar Following,” the New York Times: “What Donald Trump Might Do for Working-Class Families,” and the Washington Post: “Rallying Blue-Collar Workers in Cincinnati, Trump Blames Democrats for Obstructing his Agenda.”

The claim that Trump is a supporter of blue-collar workers is accepted by much of the progressive-left as well. As the narrative goes, working class Americans rose up with a vengeance to reject the neoliberal policies of the Democratic Party, in favor of Trump’s promises to “make America Great Again” by returning manufacturing jobs to the U.S. This characterization of Trump voters is at times accompanied by a whitewashing or downplaying of Trump’s right-wing, bigoted, white nationalist policies. After all, if the public is primarily concerned with growing economic insecurity among the masses, then bigoted positions on social issues must play a relatively small role, if any, in motivating Trump voters.

The ‘Trump as a working-class hero’ narrative is to a significant extent a product of wishful thinking among those who are understandably disenchanted with the Democratic Party’s growing elitism, seen in the “New Democratic” politics of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi. It’s not surprising that progressives would conclude that voters responded to Trump’s populist rhetoric, which homed in on working-class Americans who have been harmed by corporate outsourcing of manufacturing jobs. We’ve been told so many times that Trump owes his victory to working-class voters; it’s no wonder that many don’t challenge this claim.

There is some truth to the position that Trump voters were motivated by anger and anxiety over the state of the economy. But a growing body of data now makes it clear that this ‘economic populism from below’ narrative is heavily exaggerated, and that scholars and commentators should be focusing on larger factors driving support for Trump, which include support for racism, xenophobia, white nationalism, right-wing militarism, anti-choice politics, and the elitist class war against the middle class and poor.

Numerous studies, including 2016 primary and general election data, leave little question that the traditional “economic populist” framework is increasingly difficult to defend. I summarized the studies covering the 2016 primary elections in detail in a previous Counterpunch piece, “Donald Trump and the Myth of Economic Populism,” which reviewed numerous polls finding that Trump voters were not more likely to be unemployed, to be lower income, or to hail from geographic regions harmed by outsourcing of manufacturing jobs. Rather, Trump supporters were mainly driven by reactionary positions on social and political issues. Significant statistical predictors of support for Trump included: disinterest in reducing health care costs nationally, disinterest in dealing with the problems of the poor and needy, disinterest in addressing climate change, concern with protection gun rights, interest in strengthening the U.S. military, concern with fighting terrorism, support for dealing with immigration, and embrace of Islamophobic attitudes framing Muslims as extremist and anti-American.

Since the 2016 Republican primaries, numerous studies of general election polling data reinforce the conclusion that Trump supporters are fixated on social issues, and that these voters do not represent economically disadvantaged demographic groups. Eric Draitser summarized some of this data in his important CounterPunch piece, “Donald Trump and the Triumph of White Identity Politics.” Drawing on national polling data analyzed by political scientists, Draitser argued that sexism and racism were much more significant predictors of Trump support going into the 2016 November election, as compared to personal economic dissatisfaction.  More recently, other political scientists find comparable results. Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu published a piece in the Washington Post: “It’s Time to Bust the Myth: Most Trump Voters Were Not Working Class,” which finds that Trump voters in the November election did not generally hail from poor or modest economic backgrounds, and that Trump’s primary voters were not any different from the general public in terms of their level of education. While 70 percent of Republican primary voters did not possess a college degree, this was indistinguishable from the nation as a whole, in which 71 percent don’t have a college education.

In addition to the above studies, the Pew Research Center has just recently made available its late-October 2016 pre-election national poll, probing Americans on their voting preferences, economic backgrounds, and political attitudes. I took a closer look at the raw data, and undertook an in-depth statistical analysis of which demographic and political attitudes were significantly associated with support for Trump going into election day. The Pew survey largely reinforces previous academic findings on why individuals supported Trump, while adding some new wrinkles.

Support for Trump, as seen in previous polls, is largely concentrated among more affluent Americans. Trump voters were significantly more likely to be older, white, Republican conservatives – a group that has been quite privileged historically speaking. Trump voters were not more likely to be unemployed, compared to non-Trump voters. Income-wise, the single largest group of Trump supporters was comprised of individuals hailing from households earning incomes of more than $100,000 a year – which made up 35 percent of all his voters. Those earning between $75,000 to $100,000 a year accounted for 19 percent of Trump voters, meaning that 54 percent of the president’s supporters came from households earning over $75,000 a year. Another 20 percent of Trump supporters earned between $50,000 to $75,000 a year, putting them over the national median household income, which has long hovered around $50,000. In sum, approximately three-quarters of Trump voters were from households earning more than the national median income, while just one-quarter earned less than the median.

There is some evidence that economic anxiety was a significant factor in voting for Trump. But most of the attitudes embraced by Trump supporters were of the typical Republican Party variety, indicating support for elitist, pro-corporate, and reactionary social agendas. Political attitudes that were significant predictors of Trump support included the following, as found in Pew’s October 2016 survey:

* Disapproval of Obama’s “Affordable Care Act,” no doubt motivated by conservative attacks on the poor and minorities as “unworthy” recipients of government aid.

* Support for the “originalist” belief that the Supreme Court should “base its rulings on its understanding of what the U.S. Constitution meant as it was originally written.”

* Agreement that it is “fair game” for Republican officials to “insult political opponents,” in line with right-wing media’s longstanding authoritarian and incendiary fearmongering, which frames liberals, leftists, and the Democratic Party as socialist, immoral, soft on terrorism, and un-American.

* Agreement with Hawkish militarist positions, specifically agreement that “the U.S. military campaign against Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria” is going poorly, and concern “that the U.S. will not go far enough in stopping the Islamic militants.”

* Support for the belief that “tax rates on household income over $250,000 [a year] should be lowered,” in line with right-wing rhetoric framing tax cuts for the rich as essential to guaranteeing mass prosperity and “job creation.”

* Agreement with the Christian right that abortion should be illegal in “most” or “all cases.”

In the October Pew poll, Trump voters were not more likely than non-Trump voters to describe their own “personal economic situation” as “fair” or “poor.” They were more likely than non-Trump supporters to say that “free trade” agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership are a “bad thing” for the U.S., but as already discussed, this sentiment does not spring from personal experience, since Trump voters are not more likely to live in regions heavily hit by corporate globalization and manufacturing job outsourcing. Still, CBS-New York Times exit poll data from November 2016 finds that Trump voters were nearly twice as likely as Clinton voters to say that their “family financial situation” is worse today than in the past. This finding, when coupled with previous income statistics, provides a better picture of what we’re really talking about when we speak of “economic anxiety” and Trump voters. These individuals represent an affluent, privileged segment of the country in terms of their income, but one that is relatively less privileged than it was in the past, prior to the 2008 economic collapse.

Trump supporters are clearly angry at the state of the U.S. economy. The CBS-New York Times 2016 exit poll data suggests they are more than four times as likely to claim the state of the U.S. economy is “poor” compared to Clinton supporters. Trump’s supporters are looking for scapegoats to blame for their own downwardly trending economic fortunes. And right-wing politicians and conservative media from Fox News to Rush Limbaugh are more than happy to provide them with targets. Susceptibility to reactionary bigotry was apparent in Pew’s October 2016 survey data. Numerous reactionary political attitudes, related to racism, sexism, and xenophobia, were statistically significant predictors of support for Trump. These include:

* The belief that “undocumented immigrants who are now living in the U.S. should not be allowed to stay in the country legally” and that “there should be a national law enforcement effort to deport” them, despite the lack of evidence that immigrants represent a greater criminal threat to the country than native citizens.

* The sentiment that “there is too much attention paid to race and racial issues in our country these days,” despite countless studies documenting how American political, legal, economic, and media institutions routinely discriminate against people of color.

* The notion that during the election, Clinton was “treated less critically [than Donald Trump] because she is a woman,” which draws on the farcical right-wing delusion that men are the real victims of sexism in America, and that women act from a position of power as an aggressive, sexist, dominating force.

* The feeling that “The U.S. does not have a responsibility to accept refugees from Syria into the country,” which draws on paranoid, unsubstantiated, and bigoted notions that Muslims are a “fifth column” threat to American lives and national security.

There is some truth to the notion that Trump supporters have real economic grievances, as related to growing economic insecurity over the last decade, which has been experienced at nearly all income levels. But they are not more likely to suffer from economic insecurity or from unemployment, and their incomes are among the highest in the U.S. Furthermore, Trump voters – like the Republican Party historically – demonstrate little to no interest in uniting with other social and economic groups who have been treated far worse in the modern era. The narcissism displayed by Trump’s supporters is hardly surprising, however. They’ve been told for decades by right-wing media pundits and Republican political officials that they’re better than the rest of America – particularly the poor legions and people of color who are depicted as lazy, immoral, and unworthy of taxpayer assistance.

I agree that progressives have their work cut out for them, in that it’s our job to challenge the classist, bigoted views embraced by the Trump-supporting American right. But it is near impossible to address these issues head on when large segments of the public refuse to even recognize that these problems exist. The path toward a democratic, humane future begins with being honest about the challenges we face. With the wealth of data now available documenting the elitism and bigotry of Trump voters, Americans no longer have an excuse when it comes to embracing willfully ignorant, romantic myths about what’s driving support for this president.

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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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