Trump's bigoted base: Keeping minorities down is the No. 1 issue for the billionaire's backers — it's not a theory, it's a fact

Data shows Trump voters, above all, are motivated by negative feelings about people who aren't like them

By Heather Digby Parton


Published May 18, 2016 12:00PM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (AP/Mary Altaffer)
Donald Trump (AP/Mary Altaffer)

he unexpected successes of the two political outsiders, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, in this presidential primary season has everyone grasping for some kind of explanation that would easily explain it. The most commonly held assumption is that people are angry and cynical about the two political parties which is undoubtedly correct.  If the two campaigns share any characteristics, it's that they absolutely loathe the political establishments of the party to which their preferred candidates have attached themselves, however tenuously. This should not come as a huge surprise to anyone since the gridlock and torpor that has characterized our national politics for the past several years is not exactly inspiring.

But many commentators have also concluded that the reason the two campaigns captured the imaginations of so many people is that both candidates are addressing deeply felt economic distress among the American electorate. The country is only now starting to awaken from the paralysis and fear that gripped the public during the epic financial crisis and that is bound to have reverberations. Moreover, that crisis served as an educational wake-up call for a whole lot of people who recognized that the system was no longer working very well for the benefit of ordinary people even as it's working fantastically well for the one percent. And a lot of those ordinary people are sick of it.

Sanders is responsive to that concern in a very direct, almost obsessive way and it makes sense that someone with his economic worldview would capture the imagination of at least some part of the electorate. There is no mystery about Bernie Sanders' outsider appeal.

Trump is another story. Here we have a card-carrying member of the one percent, a man who flies around on his own 767, has married one gorgeous supermodel after another, brags non-stop about how he's gamed the system for his own advantage and millions of average working Americans can't get enough of him. What gives?

The obvious answer is that for all of his fatuous promises to "Make America Great Again" by "making deals" that will result in so much winning we'll be begging him to stop because we can't take it anymore, Donald Trump's supporters aren't actually motivated by economic frustration at all. Indeed, it's ridiculous on its face. Whatever Trump's talents, he's an heir to a real estate fortune and a fame whoring celebrity brand name in a suit not a brilliant captain of industry. (One of the rumors about his opaque business dealings is that the scope of both his fortune and his empire may very well be, shall we say, overstated.) His economic message, to the extent it actually exists, is that foreigners are robbing Americans blind and he's going to get the money back and give it to his supporters and everyone will live happily ever after,

The idea that this is responsive to the deep economic anxieties of the average working Joe is a stretch. But it is very responsive to another set of anxieties that's been plaguing many members of the right wing for decades and went into overdrive with the election of President Obama. That would be the ethnocentric anxieties of white conservatives who are feeling emasculated by the emergence of a multi-ethnic, multi-racial majority.

These attitudes have been studied quite a bit the last few years but the Trump phenomenon is providing a plethora of information about that cohort.  Just this week Jason McDaniel and Sean McElwee  authored a statistical summary into the attitudes of these voters and unsurprisingly,  the data shows they are motivated by negative feelings about people who aren't like them:

In our newest analysis, we examine the feelings expressed by Trump supporters towards a variety of groups in America. The results are pretty clear: compared to supporters of other Republican candidates in the primary, Trump supporters really dislike many groups in America. For these voters, Trump’s blend of casual racism and muscular nativism is the core of his appeal.

No, the Trump voter is not attracted to their man because he wants to renegotiate trade deals. They are attracted to him because he bashes China, insults Mexicans, demonizes Muslims,  degrades African Americans and worships government authority to keep all of them, and more, in line. His aggressive misogyny is just an added bonus.

They looked at data among GOP primary voters which gauged feelings of warmth toward different categories of people. Across the board, Trump voters were much cooler toward blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, Gay and lesbian, transgender, feminists and scientists. The only categories of people about whom they felt warmer than other Republicans were white people and police. The authors went further:

One possible explanation for the results presented above is that attitudes about race and racial identity are stronger motivations for Trump supporters compared to supporters of other candidates. Here, we explore how white racial identity, or ethnocentrism, interacts with negative feelings about people of color. The results ... demonstrate that as racial identity becomes increasingly important for a white Trump supporter, they express significantly more negative feelings towards both Muslims and Latinos.

However, racial identity does not play the same role for supporters of other Republican candidates. Although feelings towards both groups become more negative as white racial identity becomes more important, the effect is not statistically significant. This is strong evidence that white racial identity plays a more important role in how Trump supporters evaluate people of color compared to those who support other candidates.

They further show that the "American" identity is strongly correlated in the Trump voters with white identity, which also informs their militant nationalism. For Trump supporters "positive feelings about white people increase dramatically as the importance of American identity increases." This is not true of other Republicans. Trump has a monopoly on the white nationalists in the Republican party (and according to the Wall Street Journal, the most extreme members of that cohort are feeling energized and inspired by his leadership.)

Finally, according to the data, Trump voters are much more hostile to Latino immigrants than other Republicans, but that shouldn't surprise anyone. But more telling is the fact that they are dramatically more likely to believe that President Obama is a Muslim. In fact, 64 percent of Trumps voters believe it compared to 25% of non-Trump supporters.

Tackling the question of economic insecurity as a driving factor it turns out the assumption that the average Trump voter is a "disaffected" older, economically stressed white voter with a high school education is wrong. Their data shows that these voters were driven in the GOP in the early years of the Obama administration out of racial anxiety not economic anxiety or family income.

Rather, we find that what drives support for Trump is the mistaken belief that the government serves the interests of Blacks, rather than whites. Political scientist Brian McKenzie finds that, “whites who feel the Obama administration is looking out for the economic interests of blacks are more likely to express frustration with their own financial position.”

These statistics validate the common sense observation that while it's very tempting to see this embrace of political outsiders in both parties as springing from the same phenomenon, beyond a general exasperation with the political establishments they are very different phenomenons. The Sanders movement is clearly motivated by an economic argument. The Trump movement, something else entirely.

The bad news for Trump in all this is that these voters are no longer a majority in America. The good news for Trump? The mainstream media thinks it's Barack Obama's fault:

Obama’s legacy: His failure to heal racial divisions and uplift black America

— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) May 18, 2016

Thanks Obama ...

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Editor's Picks Elections 2016 Gop Racism