The GOP’s pivot from economic rhetoric to overtly racist appeals was inevitable

And as a new study confirms, the roots of Trump' success was never found in the economic distress of Americans in the first place.

US President Donald Trump arrives to a "Make America Great" rally in Missoula, Montana, on October 18, 2018. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump arrives to a "Make America Great" rally in Missoula, Montana, on October 18, 2018. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty Images)

Contrary to early and erroneous arguments that the economic anxiety of working-class white people provided the impetus for Donald Trump’s surprising 2016 presidential election, mounting evidence brings into clear focus that racial animus was — and remains — the foundation for the president’s political support.

Now, in the closing weeks of an all-important midterm election season, even Republican leaders and candidates are recognizing that making the economic anxiety argument isn’t a vote-winning strategy; indeed, it never was. So, instead, desperate GOP candidates are pivoting to an increasingly harsh — and increasingly racist — appeal for white voter support.

As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie notes in a recent column, the GOP — rather quickly and readily — abandoned its plans to campaign on the benefits of the tax cuts their lawmakers authored, as well as their economic policy priotities writ large, during the midterm. Instead, many opted to follow Trump’s race-baiting playbook. Bouie writes:

[J]ust three weeks before the midterm elections, Republicans are trailing Democrats by nearly 9 percentage points in the congressional generic ballot. FiveThirtyEight gives them a “1 in 5” chance of holding a majority in the House of Representatives. President Trump is still historically unpopular, moderate and independent voters are leaving the GOP in droves, and Democrats are highly motivated to vote.

With the party behind and bereft of further accomplishments to show voters, Republicans have abandoned their script. Instead, they’ve embraced the path set out by Trump in the 2016 presidential election: constant, unyielding demonization of their opponents.

Similarly, The Guardian’s Sabrina Siddiqui perceptively sussed out the stink of Trump-like racism embedded in the anti-immigrant rhetoric of GOP candidates. “Many Republicans have refashioned themselves in the president’s mold, echoing the sharp rhetoric that makes little distinction between bad actors and the majority of undocumented immigrants already in the country or seeking refuge at its borders,” wrote Siddiqui, the newspaper’s Washington-based correspondent.

Siddiqui went on to cite her review of nearly 60 GOP-backed TV ads, which unearthed a common messaging strategy vilifying immigrants as criminals. “The threat of MS-13 and so-called ‘sanctuary cities’ are frequent themes, juxtaposed with Republican candidates vowing to support Trump’s promised wall along the US-Mexico border,” she wrote.

Now, a recent study by the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, a research collaboration of more than two dozen analysts and scholars spanning the political spectrum, offers insights into the GOP’s refurbished reliance on racism to win at the ballot box. And, in the process, the study provides another set of data points to rebuke the white working class economy anxiety argument.

In their report, “In the Red: Americans’ Economic Woes are Hurting Trump,” Robert Griffin and John Sides take sharp aim at “the prevailing narrative of the 2016 presidential election…focused heavily on the economic concerns of Americans, particularly among one key subset of the population – the ‘white working class.’ “

Economic Distress Among Trump Voters Not What It Appears

Griffin’s and Sides’ concluding critique is blunt:

Our research suggests that this storyline is flawed. In the years leading up to the election, economic anxiety was actually decreasing, not increasing, as the recovery from the Great Recession gradually improved people’s assessments of the economy. In fact, what was distinctive about voting behavior in 2016 was not the outsized role of economic anxiety. Instead, attitudes about race and ethnicity were more strongly related to how people voted.

Griffin and Sides note that those white Americans who voted for Trump were, for the most part, better off economically than those who voted for Hillary Clinton. “In fact, white Americans without a college degree report a lower level of distress than college-educated black and Hispanic Americans,” they write. [Emphasis in the original.] “Non-white Americans report more economic distress at every level of income.”


Many media and political analysts, especially those observers from communities of color, argued before and after the 2016 election that Trump’s appeal was built on racism and white nationalism, as opposed to any legitimate concerns for the economic well-being of poor or working-class Americans. But all too often their opinions were drowned out as the nation’s largely white corps of political scientists, politicians and media pundits opted for an alternative explanation to describe voter behavior — one that would neither challenge their own lack of attentiveness to the economic realities faced by non-white Americans, nor force them to reckon with what the electorate actually did in 2016.

The cheery bit of good news hidden by the GOP’s midterm candidates veer from economy-to-racism strategy is that it does not yet appear to be as effective for them as it was for Trump. Perhaps, in the end, there’s only one Trump — largely unpopular and not at all fungible.

But more to the point, voters appear to understand, correctly, that while Wall Street has greatly benefited from the Trump and Republican-controlled Congress’ tax cuts, life on Main Street has improved very little. Hence, there’s no room for the GOP to tout any real economic success.

The New Republic’s Alex Shepherd has noted, for example, how the GOP is “running away from the economy” as Democratic candidates have effectively blasted the tax cut as a massive give-away to the rich. He observed:

While the tax cut appeared to add rocket fuel to a booming stock market, Republicans were never able to connect it to perceptions about the overall health of the economy. Most voters, a recent Gallup poll show, do not discern any change in their economic well-being tied to the tax cut, while an internal GOP Bloomberg poll found that voters, by a two-to-one margin, believed the cuts favored corporations and the wealthy. Democrats were more effective in messaging and instead reframed the law as what it (mostly) was: an unnecessary giveaway to corporations and the rich.

This is a welcome harbinger for next month’s midterm elections. Yet, the crucial fact remains that race — not worries over the economy — matters more to trigger voters to turn out and vote.