Why poor whites flock to Donald Trump
It's not just racism
Ever since Donald Trump cruised to victory in the Republican primary, political elites and pundits have been struggling to explain his success. Many liberals (once they left off unequivocally predicting that he could not possibly win) have settled on a one-factor explanation: bigotry. Trumpists are disgruntled white racists, end of story.
It is of course beyond question that a big part — probably the large majority — of Trump's success is built on racism, anti-immigrant paranoia, and xenophobia. But in their haste to rule out economic factors, liberals are whistling past some important data, and failing to explain other aspects of Trump — namely, his violence and authoritarianism.
Matt Yglesias handily stakes out the far pole of the liberal view, explicitly foreclosing any economic angle whatsoever to Trump's rise:
[I]n this case, adding an economic anxiety factor to your account doesn't actually help to explain anything. Trump's supporters, for example, are considerably whiter and considerably older than the American population at large. If the economic problems of the past decade had been unusually hard on the white and the old, then an economics-focused explanation could be valuable. In reality, things have been rougher on nonwhites and rougher on younger cohorts. [Vox]
The first problem with this is that there actually is a fairly large class discrepancy to explain. Trump is winning people without a college degree (disproportionately low-class) by 10 percentage points, according to a recent Bloomberg poll — whereas in 2012, President Obama won that same group by 4 points.
Now, it is true that the 14 point swing is driven entirely by white people. Trump has improved on Mitt Romney's margins among this group from 55-37 to 58-30, as of a couple weeks ago. However the 2012 election makes a reasonable experimental control for the liberal hypothesis. It rather stretches credulity to assert that Clinton is getting slaughtered among whites without a college degree entirely because of racism when only four years ago the actual black candidate did 10 points better among the same group. (Incidentally, in 2012 non-college educated whites made up over one-third of Obama's votes.)
Secondly, Yglesias hangs a lot of explanatory weight on the fact that Trump has zero crossover appeal to non-whites. But that is completely consistent with Trump leveraging whites' economic distress by scapegoating ethnic minorities and immigrants. Of course the blamed minority groups will be repulsed by such an appeal — but that doesn't rule out some sort of economic appeal to whites only.
Finally, even if we posit for the sake of argument that racism explains Trump, it does not explain the particular character of his racism, nor his violent authoritarian tendencies. Take wealthy New York liberals, who express their racism by furiously organizing behind the scenes to keep blacks out of their kids' schools, while publicly denying any racist views. By contrast, Trump is not just racist, he is baldly racist in a way not seen since 1968 at least — and he praises dictators, incites violence among his supporters, suggests Clinton is going to steal the election, and on and on.
Back in 2012, Matthew Stoller argued at length that the basic American social contract had collapsed. During the New Deal, citizens' social consent was obtained through widespread unionization, low unemployment, and rising wages. During the Reagan era, neoliberals from both parties killed unions and forced wages into stagnation, but consent was still obtained by increasing asset prices (homes, for most people) and easy access to credit.
Now that contract is dead too. Wages fell during the Great Recession, and only just recently began to slowly increase. The Obama administration did basically nothing to arrest the tidal wave of foreclosures that obliterated some $8 trillion in wealth after the recession — indeed, it stood aside as banks committed systematic perjury to hide lost mortgage documentation. Since then, home prices have recovered to some extent, but more and more people are locked out of that wealth creation — the rate of homeownership has plummeted to a level not seen since 1965, and shows no sign of stopping.
Stoller predicted this would eventually lead to a more coercive, authoritarian politics, as irate citizens abandon elite notions of democracy and social respectability, demanding some kind of disruptive change, and elites scramble to keep them pinned down through economic and physical coercion. That prediction, rooted in on-the-ground economic realities, has been borne out by Trump.
Once again, bigotry is absolutely central to the Trump phenomenon — indeed, in many ways it's reminiscent of the Jim Crow South, where a white elite kept a large minority population in submission with violent terrorism and bought off poor whites with economic scraps and racist propaganda. But liberals are writing themselves a rather dangerous free pass if they pass off the rise of Trump as nothing but pure racism. The truth is that American society has largely ceased to function for a sizable fraction of the population, with downscale whites suffering the worst relative declines — including a huge increase in mortality rates among some sub-populations. This is the result of decades of neoliberal policies affirmed and implemented by both parties.
Trump will in all likelihood be crushed in November. But if liberals cannot articulate a convincing new politics that can provide a modicum of economic security to most people, they'll eventually lose to someone following the trail he blazed.