A curious consensus is emerging to explain the rise of Donald Trump and the loyalty of his voters. The argument seems to be that Trump’s success is due not to his apostasy from traditional Republican positions on trade and other economic policies, but rather to pure bigotry and racial animus. This position has taken hold in circles that include such prominent analysts as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, and Matt Yglesias and Dylan Matthews, both of Vox, among others. It has even become a running joke on social media to highlight a prejudiced statement by a Trump supporter, and add the ironic caption “economic anxiety!”
The contrasting view, shared by The New Republic’s Brian Beutler (who started the joke), Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum, and Tory Newmayer, at Fortune, is that both racism and economic anxiety are at work among Trump’s base voters, and go hand in hand. So who is right, and why does it matter?
Those who argue that economics is a mere cover for prejudice base their most compelling evidence on demographic data about Trump supporters. They frequently cite an exhaustive, 87,000 sample-strong Gallup study helmed by Jonathan Rothwell, which shows that Trump’s strongest supporters—even just among white Republicans—tend to be wealthier, on average, than those who view him less favorably. They also come from less-diverse communities, lending strength to the argument that they are less directly impacted by either trade or immigration.
The bigotry camp also argues that Trump’s primary base has consistently held more racist views in polling than supporters of other candidates, and that negative opinions of blacks and Hispanics began to rise among Republicans about the same time that Barack Obama first ran for president. The overarching narrative of this argument is that Obama’s election increased racism among Republicans, leading to a narrow primary victory by Donald Trump, and that his support is further buoyed today by the hyper-partisanship of the modern American electorate.
This analysis, however, falls apart under scrutiny. First, while Trump’s biggest fans are indeed wealthier than average, they remain overwhelmingly blue collar—and the Gallup study also shows that their children’s community health and economic mobility are lower. They don’t depend much on social services themselves, but they see their way of life and their families’ futures disappearing before their eyes.
Moreover, history shows that the likeliest revolutionaries in society—those most willing to take a chance on a disruptive figure to upend the status quo—aren’t usually the poorest, but rather those who were previously comfortable and mildly privileged, but who now feel increasingly disempowered. This disempowerment, as David Dayen argues, can take on both economic and racial dimensions—nor is it necessarily possible to disentangle the two. Slavery was not only a social, but also an economic institution, and poor whites supported Jim Crow policies not only out of prejudice and hatred, but also from fear of competition for jobs from workers of color. As Jamelle Bouie noted in The Nation, early 20th century lynchings increased during times of economic hardship, and decreased during periods of prosperity.
Those who argue that economic anxiety fuels Trump’s support do not maintain that voters aren’t racist, but rather that economic anxiety creates the conditions for xenophobic populist animosity. It is no accident that Nazism sprung from the economic horrors of the 1930s, or that neo-fascist groups like Golden Dawn in Greece rose from the terrible economic conditions facing Europe in the age of austerity. The Brexit vote in Great Britain was, indeed, fueled by cultural and racial resentments—but the flames of those resentments were fanned by economic hardship. Conversely, it is also no accident that the greatest civil rights expansions for large minority groups have tended to come during periods of relative economic prosperity, as was the case during the postwar boom of the 1960s. That Trump’s support is strongest in more ethnically homogeneous areas is also no surprise: Social contact with minorities has long been proven to reduce racism, inoculating people against scapegoating by conservative populists.
The argument that the alt-right’s rise is simply a reaction to Barack Obama’s presidency is unconvincing. The spike in resentment against blacks and Hispanics also coincides with the Great Recession, a predictable outcome if economic anxiety is at play. Secondly, there’s no particular reason that Obama’s ascension to the Oval Office should have engendered anger at Hispanics as well as blacks. Similarly, if racism, not anti-establishment fervor, is the key to Trump’s primary success, then it doesn’t make sense that a plurality of his supporters in the GOP primary picked Hispanic firebrand Ted Cruz as their second choice. Finally, the alt-right wave is a global phenomenon that neatly corresponds with the global economic crisis and austerity policies in Europe following 2008. It’s theoretically possible that the Trump surge in the United States is due to Obama’s election, while the far-right surge in Europe is due to the refugee crisis, and that the two have nothing to do with one another or with economic conditions. But that’s not very plausible.
Also bolstering the argument that economics plays a role here is the resurgence of a populist socialist movement led by young Americans on the left. It’s no coincidence that Trump’s rise in the Republican Party took place at the same time that Bernie Sanders backers agitated to upend economic orthodoxy in the Democratic Party. Economic anxiety is high in the United States, and people of opposing political persuasions have predictably reacted differently to it.
Why does any of this matter, especially if Trump loses the election? The reason is that the fight over what motivates Trump’s base is in part a fight over the nation’s future policies.
The struggle to properly identify the source of the resentment behind Trump’s remarkable primary win, and his resilience as a general election candidate, will shape the Republican Party as it moves to pick up the pieces. Identifying and explaining the forces that fueled Trump may even inform the actions taken by a potential President Clinton to heal national divides.
If Trump owes his support just to a last gasp of angry white male privilege, then Trump’s unorthodox economic positions can safely be ignored as irrelevant. More importantly, his base can be politically shrugged off as the freak-out of an empowered but shrinking demographic that is losing its privilege in a rapidly diversifying electorate. The Republican Party will confront and defeat the racism of its older base by promoting economically orthodox, younger “reformicons,” and Democrats can comfortably remain the center-left party of college-educated professionals, single women, and minorities, with a greater focus on identity-conscious than on class-conscious politics.
But if economic grievances are core to Trump’s rise, then GOP candidates will be forced to shift further away from the desires of their big donors and toward more protectionist and anti-Wall Street policies. For their part, Democrats will need to take account of not only the rising economic populism of Sanders-supporting millennials, but the relevantly similar policy preferences of conservative-leaning independents who backed Trump over more staid, corporate-friendly choices like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.
If America’s two major parties and their analysts diagnose this election’s voter anger incorrectly, the Trump and Sanders campaigns will be but a taste of the political disruptions still to come.