Mourning In America: What are the roots of Trump’s populist rise?



Any electoral defeat will provoke some sort of unofficial post-mortem self-reflection. With the election of the first orange neophyte as president, the soul-searching (and the soul-crushing feeling of despair) set in. It seems to be a pretty fundamental human instinct. The first thing we do is react. Then we try to find who is responsible. This second part has come in several different forms. Anger is directed at third-party voters, the politically ambivalent, the state of Pennsylvania, Hillary Clinton herself, Bernie Sanders, and, obviously, Trump supporters. Insults are exchanged. Tempers flare. Issues and gripes are litigated several times over. But through the madness, the suffering, and the noise—the question persists: how did the Trump phenomenon happen? What is the root of the populist fervor that Trump seized upon?

For the hard left and very progressive this was the failure of the “neoliberal corporate-friendly” policies that enriched the elites at the expense of the poor. This election is thus the failure of the democratic party and establishment “liberal” politicians who were either too accommodating of conservatives, manipulated by corporate interests, or hopelessly wrong. The backlash towards elites and ‘globalism’, a mere expression of economic distress: the symptoms of a post-industrial rural decline wholly driven by the pro-globalization and free trade agenda promulgated by— as The Jacobin’s Luke Savage articulates—”the transactional relationship between moneyed interests, politicians, and party machines [that] produces a rigged economy that serves and enriches a tiny, insular elite at the expense of everyone else.” This positions says strongly: we cannot write this election off as a function of racism and sexism, we ought to examine the underlying economic causes and take robust, if not radical, steps to address economic inequality.

For your center-right moderate conservatives, liberals, progressives, weak-tea pro-market egalitarians, center-lefters, and so on—this was the product of racism and nationalist inclinations that Trump seized upon to make his case. This was a struggle over the changing character of America. As our country gets less white, those who see their way of life under attack (and even culture) will lash out. An election “full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing,” at least nothing when it comes to the economic roots of the Trumpenproletariat. This is not to say that this view necessarily endorses the idea that Trump supporters do not deserve your empathy or pity. This opinion is actually two. The first is more of a middle ground approach that says that we have a duty to listen to those who supported Trump and we ought to respect them while castigating the racism that accompanied his rise. It goes, “Many decent, sincere people who feel disregarded, disrespected, and left behind — in ways that I do not feel and have never felt — can disproportionately embrace political opinions that I view as bigoted or paranoid.” The second position is nearly indistinguishable from the first, accept for its vitriol and intolerance of perceived racism. The second rejects that your core Trump voters are decent or necessarily sincere people.

The reality of course, is much more complicated.

The instinct to call Trump supporters racist is incorrect, or at the very least, completely unproductive. Furthermore, the broad idea of this explanatory dichotomy between economic anxiety and racism as prime motivators for Trump isn’t academically honest in the slightest. Here’s a wonderful exchange between the influential moderate libertarian economist Tyler Cowen of the Mercatus Center and Ezra Klein of Vox (aka bae) which makes sense of a lot of the scholarship, political science and confusion surrounding this issue.

Cowen: [Robert] Putnam almost says as such, and do you think there’s currently a language in the media where you have readers who are themselves diverse, where it’s possible not to just be blaming the bigots, but to actually present the positive view, “Look, people are imperfect. A society can only handle so much diversity, and we need to learn this.” What’s your take on that?

KLEIN: I strongly agree. We do not have a language for demographic anxiety that is not a language that is about racism. And we need one. I really believe this, and I believe it’s been a problem, particularly this year. It is clear, the evidence is clear. Donald Trump is not about “economic anxiety.”

COWEN: A bit, but not mainly, I agree.

KLEIN: That said, I think that the way it’s presented is a choice between economic anxiety and racism. And one I don’t think that’s quite right, and two I don’t think that’s a productive way of having that conversation.

COWEN: Why don’t we have that language? Where did it go, or did we ever have it?

KLEIN: I don’t know if we ever had it. We probably did have it. We have properly been working very, very hard in this society to make racism socially intolerable. We have a society that continues to have a lot of racism, a lot of sexism, a lot of bigotry of different kinds. But I do think that as a by-product of that debate and that effort, there isn’t a good way to have people discuss slightly more inchoate feelings of losing power that aren’t necessarily in their view, about taking it away from other people. It’s more about losing it themselves. I think that’s a big difference in this.

KLEIN: Arlie Hochschild talks about in her book that there is this kind of deep story that she found among — she’s a sociologist who spent five years with tea party folks in Louisiana — she talks about this deep story of feeling like they’ve been waiting in line, and now other people are getting in front. It’s not so much that they don’t want those other people to get ahead, it’s that they want to get ahead themselves. They are feeling a loss in a zero-sum competition, and they may actually be correct about that.

There are probably types of advancement in society that is zero-sum, particularly when you begin really trying to open up the floodgates. So I think that’s correct, and I think that we don’t have a good language for it. I don’t know what it would mean to get one, but one thing that has annoyed me this year is I really dislike the use of political correctness as a language for it.

One, it doesn’t explain very much. But two, I think that something that has happened a lot of the time here is people have somewhat either unconsciously — or I think at times cynically — mixed up an elite debate and a non-elite debate.

I generally buy the conclusions of Klein in this case. Demographic anxiety isn’t the same thing as racism. And as a community we should broadly reject this approach that says look: my economic and political prescriptions are actually what is going to solve this trend. And the approach that uncritically accepts stated reasons for the Trump phenomenon and kinda strangely denies that it can be a complex issue, is woefully misguided.

Furthermore, there are several reasons to doubt that economic concerns are the main motivating factors behind the rise of right wing movements. A Gallup study conducted in early July by Jonathan Rothwell concluded that, “Trump’s popularity cannot be neatly linked to economic hardship. Those who do not view Trump favorably appear to have been just as exposed as others, if not more so, to competition with immigrants and foreign workers, and yet are no more likely to say they have a favorable opinion of Trump than others.” Over at 538, Nate Silver brings more analytical weight to bear on this question:

Trump voters’ median income exceeded the overall statewide median in all 23 states, sometimes narrowly (as in New Hampshire or Missouri) but sometimes substantially. In Florida, for instance, the median household income for Trump voters was about $70,000, compared with $48,000 for the state as a whole. The differences are usually larger in states with substantial non-white populations, as black and Hispanic voters are overwhelmingly Democratic and tend to have lower incomes. In South Carolina, for example, the median Trump supporter had a household income of $72,000, while the median for Clinton supporters was $39,000.

These findings are echoed by political scientist Philip Klinker’s Vox analysis of an ANES (American National Election Studies) pilot survey which observed that, “Attitudes about race, religion, and immigration trump (pun intended) economics.” In any case, a lot of recent evidence suggests a plausible disconnect between economic anxiety or loss from trade and support for Trump. The exit polls tell us that 52% of voters cited the economy as the most important issue. But as the Washington Post exit-poll analysis demonstrated, “Among those economy voters, Clinton beat Trump by 10 points.” This trend is additionally reinforced by looking to Scandinavian societies, who have enjoyed robust and equitable growth, but still experienced a similar right-wing populist backlash.

So we are left with this alternative approach that both embraces the economic rationale minimally (while rejecting that is a consequence of the perceived flaws of the center-left economic consensus) and the demographic change rationale far more broadly, which both accepts that the two are related. Michael Tesler, over at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, is a invaluable resource in this regard, suggesting:

One reason is that perceptions of the economy are often not objective and depend on people’s political leaning. A large body of research shows that party identification strongly colors people’s beliefs about how the economy is doing. Democrats and Republicans both think that the economy is performing better when one of their own is in the White House.

Partisan identities aren’t the only thing that matters. In my book, Post-Racial or Most-Racial?, I show that racial attitudes have increasingly structured public opinion about a wide array of positions connected to Barack Obama, including subjective perceptions of objective economic conditions

He continues later on, expanding upon his original concerns:

The results below show that this is precisely what happened.  Racial resentment was not related to whites’ perceptions of the economy in December 2007 after accounting for partisanship and ideology. When these same people were re-interviewed in July 2012, racial resentment was a powerful predictor of economic perceptions. Again, the greater someone’s level of racial resentment, the worse they believed the economy was doing.

In fact, multiple studies, using several different surveys, have shown that overall levels of racial resentment were virtually unchanged by the economic crash of 2008. Some data even suggests that racial prejudice slightly declined during the height of economic collapse in the fall of 2008. The evidence is pretty clear, then, that economic concerns are not driving racial resentment in the Obama Era.

The causality, seems to be primarily one way. It is not economic nor material issues that are necessarily driving anxiety over demographic change, but the former and latter both play a role in engendering the feeling of neglect and being left-behind that Trump seems to have seized upon. And while demographic change appears to be a more powerful factor, its important we do not overlook those who have disproportionately lost from trade or the symptoms of post-industrial decline even if they are unrelated to the populist phenomenon that is, was, and will unfortunately continue to be, Donald Trump.

Some phenomenal sources and further reading on this question:





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