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Is Neoliberalism Behind the Rise of Donald Trump?

Many have pointed to capitalism’s failures to explain the billionaire’s rise, but evidence suggests racism is the driving factor.

Donald Trump speaks at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, on February 27, 2015. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

Donald Trump’s dominance in the 2016 presidential race sent shockwaves through the Republican Party. The Republican leadership fought in vain to deny Trump the nomination, and it is no surprise why. Donald Trump is everything the Republican Party doesn’t want in a figurehead. He openly opposes free trade policies, opposes cuts to social security and makes explicit appeals to working-class voters (i.e., class warfare). As reported by Politico, when speaking to workers at Alumisource, a raw materials plant in Pittsburgh, Trump stated, “This wave of globalization has wiped out totally, totally our middle class.”

As a result of Trump’s emphasis on economic protectionism, some have argued that his rise reflects a revolt among working-class whites against the Republican Party establishment and neoliberal policies such as NAFTA. Some journalists have suggested that the rise of Trump and Brexit are indeed driven by a refusal by elites to recognize the economic hardships‘ many face. Are they right? Are people who back Trump rebelling against policies long supported by elites of both parties?

Political Ideology, Economics and Politics

Political scientists have long sought to understand the role economic self-interest plays in voting behavior, and in most cases ideological factors (e.g., party identification and political ideology) trump economics factors (e.g., employment status, family financially worse off than in previous years). As Jack Citrin and others have argued, it is often difficult for people to go through the mental math of trying to figure out if a policy is either helpful or harmful to them. As such, people often rely on long-standing predispositions such as party identification, racial prejudice and political ideology when making political decisions.

Some may argue that while historically economic self-interest hasn’t played a major role in political attitudes, Trump’s unorthodox candidacy (which rejects many of the free-market principles of the Republican Party) may prove to be an important exception to the rule. However, as many others have pointed out, Trump’s base is not necessarily rooted in the low-income white population. The median income of Trump voters during the primaries was US $72,000, much higher than that of the typical Sanders or Clinton voter (around US $61,000 for both). Additionally, researchers at Gallup found that while working in a blue collar occupation is related to greater support for Trump, so is coming from a family with a high household income.

Free Trade and the Trump Vote

To better understand the influence of Trump’s rejection of neoliberal policies such as free trade on the voting attitudes of whites, I analyzed data from the January 2016 American National Election Pilot Survey, or ANES. The ANES is a nationally representative survey conducted by Stanford University and the University of Michigan. In line with other research, results suggest that attitudes towards free trade policies, the rise of income inequality in America and household income are not related to white support for Donald Trump. Factors such as racial identity (how important being white is to one’s identity), party identification (greater identification with the Republican Party) and racial resentment (a belief that Black people could be just as well off as white people if they only worked harder), are all related to increased support for Trump.

Other researchers have also found little support for the idea that concerns about one’s economic condition is a major factor in driving support for Trump. Therefore, it is troubling when prominent journalists such as Glenn Greenwald state:

There is no single, unifying explanation for Brexit, Trumpism, or the growing extremism of various stripes throughout the West, but this sense of angry impotence — an inability to see any option other than smashing those responsible for their plight — is undoubtedly a major factor. As Bevins put it, supporters of Trump, Brexit, and other anti-establishment movements “are motivated not so much by whether they think the projects will actually work, but more by their desire to say FUCK YOU” to those they believe (with very good reason) have failed them.

While it’s correct that no single explanation exists for “Trumpism,” it is wrong to play up the influence of “economic plight” on support for Trump. But Greenwald maintains it is an act of demonization to suggest racism can exist independent of the economic status of the generally well-off Trump voter:

More importantly still — and directly contrary to what establishment liberals love to claim in order to demonize all who reject their authority — economic suffering and racism are not mutually exclusive. The opposite is true: The former fuels the latter, as sustained economic misery makes people more receptive to tribalistic scapegoating.

While some evidence suggests racism can be exacerbated during tough economic conditions, Greenwald overstates this relationship. For example, the number of reported hate crimes (both confirmed and perceived) has remained relatively stable from 2004-2012, despite the recession. In reality, racial attitudes are developed early in one’s life and remain relatively stable throughout early to middle adulthood. While it’s possible that racism can be triggered by economic factors, it is more likely to be triggered by threats to one’s identity than economic self-interest.

Racial Appeals and Presidential Politics

As such, it should come as no surprise that politicians are often successful when playing to the racial anxieties of voters. One of the most famous examples of this tactic was George H. W. Bush’s use of the Willie Horton story during the 1988 presidential campaign. Down in the polls to his Democratic rival Michael Dukakis, George Bush ran a television ad which featured the story of Horton, a Black man who while serving a life sentence committed a murder while on weekend leave from prison in Dukakis’s home state of Massachusetts. This was intended to show that Dukakis was soft on crime.

As Tali Mendelberg points out, the ad featured a racially charged mugshot of Willie Horton, which played on white stereotypes about Black people with prominent Afro-centric features (e.g., coarseness of hair). The appeal worked, and many attributed the ad as key to turning the election around in Bush’s favor. Donald Trump is similar. He plays on racial and religious stereotypes among whites against Black people, Latinos and Muslims to strengthen his support among whites. Whether Trump’s racial appeals will work in the general election is anyone’s guess, but it is clear ideological factors (e.g., racial biases and white racial identity), not economic factors, are driving white support for Trump.

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