It has become accepted conventional wisdom that the reason Donald Trump has captured the imagination of so many people is because he is speaking to the anxieties and anger of the white working class in America. Every day it seems we get another long dissertation
It is certainly true that there has been tremendous economic dislocation over the past 30 years as manufacturing moved overseas and the once thriving white American working class fell behind. The consequences of this shift came into very sharp focus this winter with the publication of a shocking study by two Princeton economists, Angus Deaton and Anne Case:
Between 1978 to 1998, the mortality rate for U.S. whites aged 45 to 54 fell by 2 percent per year on average, which matched the average rate of decline in the six countries shown, and the average over all other industrialized countries. After 1998, other rich countries’ mortality rates continued to decline by 2 percent a year. In contrast, U.S. white non-Hispanic mortality rose by half a percent a year. No other rich country saw a similar turnaround...
The reason these people are dying is because of alcohol, drugs and suicide and most of them are people with only a high school degree or less. The Washington Post found that the most pronounced increase in death among this cohort was "among white women ages 25 to 54 in small cities, small towns and the most rural parts of the country." There is a serious problem of despair and depression among white, middle aged people without a college degree in some parts of this country. And it's certainly at least partially attributable to the shifting economic tides of globalization. These are people who were not always so lost. They had jobs and lives and hope. They have none of those things today and it's a problem that our society must deal with if we have any empathy at all.
Bill Clinton addressed this at a rally in New Jersey Thursday:
We all need to recognize that white, non-college-educated Americans have seen great drops in their income, have seen great increases in their unemployment rate, have seen drops in their life expectancy, and they need to be brought along to the future. But they can’t live under the illusion that you can reclaim a past which is just that — past. This country is always about the future,”
I suspect those people would be grateful for any help they can get to go into the future. But according to Nate Silver at 538 they aren't Trump voters. His voters are white but they are not members of the working class, at least not if you define class as relating to how much money someone has. Silver wrote a piece called "The Mythology Of Trump’s ‘Working Class’ Support" about a month ago in which he examined all the exit poll data and discovered that Trump voters are actually better off than most Americans. He wrote:
The median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data. That’s lower than the $91,000 median for Kasich voters. But it’s well above the national median household income of about $56,000. It’s also higher than the median income for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, which is around $61,000 for both.
Now it's possible that these people define class in cultural rather than economic terms. The Republicans have been doing this for decades although they liked to define it as "country" vs "urban" but the idea is the same. It wasn't about how much money you had it was whether you had "downhome" tastes — listened to country music, killed animals, liked to wear cowboy hats — that kind of thing. This was how blue bloods like the Bushes and Hollywood royalty like the Reagans indicated they were jus' plain folks who understood the plight of the working man. Sarah Palin came closest to speaking to the actual blue collar working class in 2008 with her references to "Carhartts and steel toed boots". (That campaign also fetishized an odd fellow whose name was Sam but was called "Joe the plumber" even though he wasn't one.) So it's possible that many Trump voters identify as working class on an aesthetic basis even though they are comfortably middle class.
Still, if they are currently making more than the median wage they cannot be said to be among those poor suicidal, addicted lost souls from that study. And neither can they be suffering terribly from the economic dislocation brought about by globalization. Perhaps they or one of their relatives once lost a good job in the mill or the mine or the plant and they're angry and resentful about it, which is their privilege. But again, if this is a group of which at least half are making more than the median, it's more likely their anger and resentment is coming from something other than economic stress.
But that doesn't really answer the question about why they would choose Trump. It's not as if the other Republican candidates were touting diversity and political correctness. What is it that most of these people do have in common that would draw them to Donald Trump? Philip Klinkner, professor of government at Hamilton College set out to find out and the answer isn't pretty. Via Vox:
You can ask just one simple question to find out whether someone likes Donald Trump more than Hillary Clinton: Is Barack Obama a Muslim? If they are white and the answer is yes, 89 percent of the time that person will have a higher opinion of Trump than Clinton.
That’s more accurate than asking people if it’s harder to move up the income ladder than it was for their parents (54 percent), whether they oppose trade deals (66 percent), or if they think the economy is worse now than last year (81 percent). It’s even more accurate than asking them if they are Republican (87 percent).
Those results come from the 2016 American National Election Study (ANES) pilot survey. My analysis indicates that economic status and attitudes do little to explain support for Donald Trump.
Recall that Donald Trump was the King of the "Birthers," the man who mainstreamed that inane conspiracy theory and continued to push it as recently as 2014:
Always remember, I was the one who got Obama to release his birth certificate, or whatever that was! Hilary couldn't, McCain couldn't.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 29, 2014
Obama also fabricated his own birth certificate after being pressured to produce one by @realDonaldTrump"
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 23, 2014
How amazing, the State Health Director who verified copies of Obama’s “birth certificate” died in plane crash today. All others lived
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 12, 2013
People should be proud of the fact that I got Obama to release his birth certificate, which in a recent book he “miraculously” found.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 22, 2013
This was his introduction to politics among the group of white voters who now revere him. It wasn't economics or trade or even American pride that drew them. It was his cynical "othering" of the first black president and all that that culturally represented.
Klinkner did a series of elaborate regressions with a lot of data about these Trump voters. And after all is said and done, the analysis showed that these voters are primarily motivated by racial and ethnic animosity and resentment of social change. There's just no way around it.
I've written a bit about this before, in which I cited Ron Brownstein's incisive analysis of these folks and what they are seeking from Donald Trump. Essentially they want to recapture an America that no longer exists, one that has white people at the center of the culture, on top of the world, secure in their place as the highest caste. That's what they hear when he says he will "Make America Great Again." And that's just not something that anyone deliver for them, not even Donald Trump.