Within establishment political and media circles, the mythology surrounding the motives of white working-class voters has been the most popular and enduring explanation for why Donald Trump is in the White House.
It’s a misleading narrative — but it has nevertheless become such an ingrained article of faith that even some progressive leaders have been reluctant to describe as “fake news.”
As the story goes, Trump’s campaign rhetoric primarily appealed to poor, white, and Christian men who saw themselves partially reflected in the image of a politically incorrect straight-talker — a billionaire mogul who’d be a traitor to his class and wage war on elites of all stripes. Happy to look past his personal imperfections, playboy reputation and failed business history, Trump’s white voters clung to the tender hope that he would keep his campaign pledges and improve their economic well-being. Their mantra was the ridiculous “Make America Great Again.”
And it is all wrong and misguided.
So says a new study that contradicts that narrative, instead asserting that Trump voters are much less worried about their financial well-being than they are about losing their dominant status as white people within a demographically diverse and ever-changing nation.
Writing in an academic journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Diana C. Mutz, a University of Pennsylvania political science and communications professor, argues that white, Christian, and male voters — who made up the bulk of Trump’s base — cast their ballot out of deep-seated fear that their social standing in America was slowly eroding and that Trump was the best candidate to arrest this perceived decline.
“The 2016 election was a result of anxiety about dominant groups’ future status rather than a result of being overlooked in the past,” Mutz wrote in her study, which was released Monday and was widely circulated in online and mainstream media reports, such as the New York Times, which reported:
Losing a job or income between 2012 and 2016 did not make a person any more likely to support Mr. Trump, Dr. Mutz found. Neither did the mere perception that one’s financial situation had worsened. A person’s opinion on how trade affected personal finances had little bearing on political preferences. Neither did unemployment or the density of manufacturing jobs in one’s area.
Speaking to the New York Times, Mutz offered a counter-explanation: Trump effectively tapped into white fears to frighten voters. “It’s much more of a symbolic threat that people feel,” she said. “It’s not a threat to their own economic well-being; it’s a threat to their group’s dominance in our country over all.”
While many political observers – myself included – have been saying this or some version of it since well before Trump was elected, the “left behind” narrative, as Mutz describes the explanation for Trump’s improbable support, has dominated political and media explanations since his election.
For example, Darrell M. West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, wrote recently that “economic anxiety … has become one of the defining characteristics of contemporary American society….[Americans] rightfully fear for their own well-being as well as that of their children.”
These alarmist narratives tug at the strings of white superiority and prove to be powerfully persuasive, even among well-to-do white Americans, as Mutz noted in her paper:
Racial status threat makes perfect sense occurring immediately after eight years of leadership by America’s first African American president. It is not racism of the kind suggesting that whites view minorities as morally or intellectually inferior, but rather, one that regards minorities as sufficiently powerful to be a threat to the status quo. When members of a dominant group experience a sense of threat to their group’s position, whether it is the status of Americans in the world at large or the status of whites in a multiethnic America, change in people’s sense of their group’s relative position produces insecurity.
Such fear and anxiety about demographic change also explains why the “left behind” fears of white voters continued to have salience even among Democratic Party leaders such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Cal.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Last year, these Democratic leaders responded to Trump’s victory by doubling down on the effort to make their party more attractive to working-class white voters through the so-called “Better Deal” plan.
I never believed the fable of beleaguered white voters. Indeed, I first said as much in a 2015 Huffington Post article with Kica Matos of the Center for Community Change Action, pointing out Trump’s appeal was rooted in racism:
Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again”, does not align at all with his rhetoric or political agenda. His campaign slogan should instead offer, “Make America White Again.” That’s the subtext to his message, appealing to those that pine for a return to the days when discriminatory laws, openly bigoted politics, racial violence, and a culture of hate and cruelty were tolerated when directed at people of color.
Other observers have noticed it as well. Scholars associated with the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic magazine surveyed more than 3,000 people last year and discovered that Trump’s supporters were steadfast in their anxiety about cultural and identity loss. “White working-class voters who say they often feel like a stranger in their own land and who believe the U.S. needs protecting against foreign influence were 3.5 times more likely to favor Trump than those who did not share these concerns.”
Beyond any sense of personal vindication, which I’ll gratefully embrace, these revelations are significant because they help shape the stories we tell ourselves as a nation about how and why our political process functions. If the public fails to accurately assess the underlying motivations for voting behavior, finding common ground in public policies becomes increasingly difficult, if not downright impossible.
Mutz acutely documents that the critical factors of white fear and racial anxiety, at work during the 2016 elections, was and continues to be misidentified. “Political uprisings are often about downtrodden groups rising up to assert their right to better treatment and more equal life conditions relative to high-status groups,” she wrote in the study. “The 2016 election, in contrast, was an effort by members of already dominant groups to assure their continued dominance and by those in an already powerful and wealthy country to assure its continued dominance.”
As mounting evidence reveals, Trump isn’t president because of economic issues on Main Street, though these certainly exist for many. No, let’s be clear: He sits in the Oval Office because his relentless fear-mongering produced a “whitelash” in response to the browning of America. It’s a desperate and despicable effort to retain the nation’s racist hierarchy, which must be accurately understood to resist.