The Myth of the Tragic Trump Voter

The rise of Donald Trump has left many scrambling for explanations. Trump clearly has no serious allegiance to, or even comprehension of, core Republican ideals – limited government, moralistic social policy, adherence to the Constitution. He inveighs against the openness to trade and sprawlingly interventionist foreign policy that define the neoconservative movement dominant in the GOP since Reagan (who remains, ironically, the chief deity of the modern Republican pantheon, as well as the figure Trump is most frequently compared to by his supporters). He is met by party stalwarts with distaste and sometimes open opposition, with this week’s national convention facing a smattering of high-profile boycotts. A member of the inner circle of party titan John McCain has called Trump a “mean-spirited, lying jerk” and “P.T. Barnum with bad hair”, sentiments no doubt privately held throughout the GOP elite.

In spite of all this, The Donald has marched inexorably to conquest of the Republican Party, a splenetic, spray-tanned Alexander. Just why has this come to pass?

A typical answer gestures vaguely towards the same factors that have been blamed for the rise of right-wing populism in Europe. De-industrialisation and mass immigration, the story goes, have delivered a one-two punch of unemployment and wage stagnation to the traditional native-born working class; meanwhile, the post-war political consensus on strong states and robust safety nets has collapsed, and increasingly strained working people have nowhere to turn. While they could once count on having secure and well-paying employment with little more than a secondary education, whole communities of the native working class have sunk into chronic poverty. Abandoned by mainstream parties with few tangible differences, sick of having their anguish ignored, these blue-collar voters turn to insurgent populist parties that promise to sweep away the corruption of the establishment and defend them from threats to their livelihood.

According to this flawed account, it is these long-suffering workers who are responding to Trump’s bombastic populism. Trump has ostensibly been swept to victory by a tide of working-class support, his message resonating with voters who have long failed to identify with either major party.

The bright, bustling country he once knew seems withered into a shell of its former self, and the American dream seems dead.

A picture is painted of the tragic Trump voter, filled with darkly romantic but factually unsubstantiated tropes. The tragic Trump voter – we’ll call him Stan – is a proud, working-class, small-town American; not particularly exceptional, but a hard worker and a patriot; in many ways a model citizen. In his youth he took a job at the local mine, or mill, or factory, where the pay wasn’t great, but enough for him to enjoy a stable and happy life, able to own a home and raise a family. For years things were pretty good for Stan, but then the economy started to turn sour, and cheaper labour overseas saw his wages start to decline. Eventually his job disappeared altogether – to an immigrant worker willing to work longer hours for less, or outsourced to China. His kids couldn’t find jobs, even after paying extortionate fees for four years of college. His friends and their families that were able moved to the bigger cities, which are buoyed by the same forces of globalisation that were causing him so much pain. Those who stayed often turned to alcohol or prescription drugs. His country, once feared and revered around the world as the defender of the free world, is humiliated by military quagmires abroad and violently shaken by terrorist attacks at home. What is left for Stan? The bright, bustling country he once knew seems withered into a shell of its former self, and the American dream seems dead. You can almost hear a gruff Springsteen lament in the background.

This is a broad-brush rendition of the typical story, but the core message of working-class American tragedy is there. Yes, Stan is bitter; yes, he scorns establishment ‘political correctness’, and might not approach politics with much nuance, or even much willingness to compromise. But given what he has suffered, how he has been steadily disenfranchised, and how the establishment has failed him time and again – the implicit question goes, can you really blame him for voting for a demagogue like Donald Trump? All Stan wants, really, is to make his country great again. Trump voters, therefore, deserve not our scorn and resistance, but a sympathetic disagreement.

Such an account is nonsense. We should not feel sorry for the Trump voter – there is little reason to.

While there are many working-class Americans for whom Stan’s story is not so far from reality, it is totally unrepresentative of the life experience of the bulk of the Trump movement. For one thing, Trump voters’ median income, at $72,000, is well above not only the median income of the nation as a whole ($52,000), but also the reported median incomes of supporters of his Democratic rivals Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Of course, being “working-class” is not an exclusively economic matter, but the account of Trump’s support being a working-class revolt is not borne out on other metrics either. Around 44% of Trump supporters have a college degree. That’s double the share of his supporters who have a high school education or less. Meanwhile, only 33% of whites and 29% of the national population have graduated from university. Strange as it might seem, the typical Trump voter is better-paid and better-educated than the average American. And it isn’t even a close-run thing.

Of course, being “working-class” is not an exclusively economic matter, but the account of Trump’s support being a working-class revolt is not borne out on other metrics either.

Nor is the average Trump voter battered by serious unemployment or runaway immigration. The US unemployment rate today stands at just 5.5%, the same rate as when Reagan left office – hardly at crisis levels. The foreign-born share of the American population is currently 13.3% – certainly an increase from its level of just 5% in the 1970s, but that was a record low. In 1920 the share was the same as it is today.

Despite the prevalence of such an account in the media, it is manifestly not the case that Trump’s rise is due chiefly to an insurgent working class that has finally had enough. Even if they were all turning out and voting for Trump, there are simply not enough Stans in America to produce such support. What, then, explains Trump’s success with the Republican base?

The answer is that the Republican party has brought Trump upon itself. The cynical attempts by successive generations of Republican leadership and their allies over the last 30 years to create a loyal conservative base have been too successful, and what has been produced is a population of fanatically anti-government, anti-establishment voters, convinced that even their own most extreme representatives in Washington are insufficiently conservative.

The extremist wing of the party has existed for decades – witness the success of Barry Goldwater in 1964 – but the wholesale radicalisation of the GOP began in earnest in 1979 with the election of Newt Gingrich and the subsequent Reagan presidency. Gingrich, as Speaker of the House under Clinton, pursued a hardline, no-compromise approach to politics, cheapening the discourse with stunts like his “Contract with America” and manipulating conservative opinion against the establishment. Gingrich and others realised that by obstructing the passage of legislation through Congress, they could paint the government as lazy and ineffectual, and that when Clinton sidestepped Congress, the Republicans could depict the government as corrupt and authoritarian. As intended, this bred a disenchantment with the establishment in the electorate that Gingrich and his allies used to seize the House of Representatives from the Democrats.

Meanwhile, the phenomenal success in the late 90s of conservative media organisations using brash and flashy partisan programming, chief among them Fox News, encouraged the decline of thoughtful analysis in the conservative discourse. Such news sources, whose confrontational and perpetually outraged style developed originally because it was more ‘exciting’ for viewers and hence sold better, are both breathtaking in their cynicism and their success in legitimising the emotionally and ideologically resonant  – what commentator and comedian Stephen Colbert called “truthiness” – over the factually true as the basis for political discourse. Fox News quickly came to serve as the unofficial mouthpiece of the party, spreading conservative propaganda and smearing Republicans’ adversaries, all the while legitimising the quiet prejudices nursed by elements of the party – prejudices that are now spilling out in support of the racism and xenophobia Trump and his followers have voiced.

With the media constantly proclaiming the corruption of the political class and encouraging misinformation and conspiracy theories about political enemies, it is no surprise that the radical populism Gingrich and the GOP seeded for their own political gain took hold in the party base. Following the Republicans’ resounding defeat in the 2008 general election, party leaders faced a wellspring of anger in the form of the Tea Party movement, which at the time represented the radical right wing of the party. Those who espoused or were willing to exploit the wildly anti-government views of the movement found electoral support, further encouraging radicalisation within the party leadership.

This exploitation of the anger of the radical base unleashed forces the leadership could not control. Republican politicians, no matter how extreme they were, must have recognised they simply could not repeal the Affordable Care Act, nor Dodd-Frank, nor could they force massive reductions in government spending; and yet, in order to mobilise their base and win election, it was just these things that they had promised. The Republican base has for eight years now been encouraged in its most feverish delusions about the current administration.

Anti-government sentiment GOP leaders whipped up against President Obama and the Democrats was quickly turned on them when they failed to deliver on their promises. There are numerous startlingly high-profile cases of the base’s fickleness: John Boehner, swept to power as an acolyte of Gingrich in the 90s, reached the position of Speaker of the House on a platform of no-compromise with the Obama administration, only to be denounced as insufficiently conservative and toppled when he failed to repeal Obamacare; Boehner was replaced by Paul Ryan, a member of the so-called “Young Guns”, a generation of radicals following Boehner’s that drew immense support from the Tea Party, and yet now, less than a year after he took up the Speaker’s gavel, Ryan too is being denounced for failing to deliver on his promises to the extreme right.

Which brings us to Trump. Early in the Republican nomination process, many were certain that Trump had no chance – after all, he obviously does not hold many of the extreme conservative views that the party leadership had inculcated in its base. His proposals are frequently authoritarian and even unconstitutional, charges the Republican base has levelled at the actions President Obama since day one of his tenure. The leadership, in their arrogance, made a gross miscalculation; the animus of the insurgent party base is not a developed conservative ideology, but a formless, fulminating anger at the establishment – which the leadership has encouraged.

To illustrate: Spectators marvel at the fundamentalist Christian right’s support for Trump, a repeatedly remarried man who boasts of his adultery and lusts after his own daughter. They shouldn’t be surprised. The Republican Christian right is not ignorant of Trump’s sins, but between Trump and Washington, Trump is not just the lesser of two evils, but a champion, for he promises to make war on that den of unspeakable iniquity that is the federal government. This is how deeply engrained anti-establishment feeling has become.

For failing to deliver on their radical anti-establishment rhetoric while in office, politicians as conservative as Ted Cruz were found wanting in the eyes of the party base. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has successfully positioned himself as the anti-establishment candidate, tapping into the populist anger the Republican leaders sowed and promising to burn the Washington status quo to the ground. His lack of political experience works to his advantage; Trump conveys power, but instead of the power of political office and election, now tainted in Republicans’ eyes, Trump channels a crass, demonstrative power of fabulous wealth that speaks to a certain part of the American psyche. And so he has emerged triumphant from the nominating process, not because of a disenfranchised working class finally rising up, but because of the rabid and uncontrollable populism Republican leaders created.

In the America to come, conservative whites will no longer be able to wield the power they have done for most of the country’s history.

To be sure, it is not the case that the Republican base has no reason at all to think they are being disenfranchised; this overwhelmingly white demographic sees the changes underway in America and recognises the country is on a path to greater political diversity and inclusiveness. In the America to come, conservative whites will no longer be able to wield the power they have done for most of the country’s history. That truth inspires a deep fear, and that fear is part of why the anti-establishment feeling has taken hold; after all, the chief figures in the “establishment” Republicans have taken aim at from 2008 onwards are Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, and Hillary Clinton, prospective first female president, both harbingers of a more inclusive nation. But although they may feel disenfranchised, it is no real disenfranchisement for a group who have had every advantage their whole lives to see these advantages begin to fall away – it is justice.

Donald Trump is proof of how rotten one half of American democracy has become. He is not the candidate of Americans desperately trying to survive – he is the candidate of Americans desperately trying to maintain dominance. There is no tragedy of the Trump voter. The only tragedy is that he has made it this far.