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The Secret to Donald Trump’s Success Isn’t What You Think

For months, the media has turned to economic anxiety to explain the reality television star’s rise. They were wrong.

By Jared Keller


Attendees wave signs for Donald Trump as he speaks at a rally in Erie, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

For months, journalists have explained the rise of Donald Trump in terms of a relatively simple narrative: Economic frustration among poor, uneducated whites left behind by the Great Recession has catalyzed a tide of white anger, beginning with the Tea Party “revolution” of the 2010 mid-term elections and coalescing around a big-shot businessman who promises to return jobs and success to America. Why else, the media reasoned, would so many Americans find themselves enthralled by the Republican hopeful?

They (myself included) were wrong. According to a massive new poll by Gallup, economic hardship isn’t the primary determinant of support for Trump. The culprit is culture.

Conducted by economist Jonathan Rothwell, the Gallup analysis surveyed 87,428 Americans with a favorable view of Trump from July 2015 to July 2016. It revealed that Trump supporters tend to be relatively affluent — yes, they’re less educated and work blue-collar jobs, but they have relatively high incomes — dispelling the myth that it’s poor white Americans driving the Trump boom.

Similarly, Rothwell discovered no link between exposure to trade competition (say, immigrant labor forcing down wages for construction and factory jobs) and support for Trump’s isolationist rhetoric. And while Trump continues to dominate among white men and women without college degrees, according to a Monmouth University poll released Monday, they’re not necessarily voting because of economic self-interest. Rather, Rothwell’s analysis reveals that Trump supporters’ social well-being, as measured by lifespan and intergenerational mobility, is lower than the average American’s. As the Washington Postputs it, Trump supporters disproportionately come from neighborhoods where “white residents are dying younger, and it is harder for young people who grow up poor to get ahead.”

Why, if they’re relatively well-off economically, are these white people flipping out over a perceived loss of social mobility?

Fans of Trump are essentially in a cultural funk, afflicted with a high mortality rate and unsure that their children will have a better life than they enjoy. This jives with a recent survey of 2,607 adults by the Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings Institution published in June that found Trump supporters worry about immigrants who don’t speak English, disproportionately believe American culture has changed for the worse since the 1950s, and believe in “reverse-racism” against whites. White Americans are becoming unglued in the social order.

Yes, it’s true: Trump is, at his core, running a campaign based on nationalism and isolationism rather than economic populism and protectionism. While the media has been busy framing him as an avatar for average Americans frustrated with gridlock in Washington, Trump has been dog whistling to white Americans threatened by coming demographic shifts. It’s been a theme of his entire campaign, most notably with Mexicans, Muslims, and women: “Make America great again”—by restoring the America where white prosperity went unshared and unchecked. Trump may not personally be a racist (although his comments over the last year and summer run-in with white nationalists suggest otherwise), but his campaign has managed to turn white resentment into a potent electoral salve.

Trump’s long-running misogyny, a trait that Franklin Foer argues is at the center of the real estate magnate’s ever-changing ideology, underscores how his voters are motivated by a uniquely hyper-macho brand of nationalism rather than economic populism. According to Gallup polling data published in April, 70 percent of female voters viewed Trump unfavorably, up from 58 percent last summer. That trend has only grown more pronounced in recent months: The Monmouth poll notes that, while women without a college education continue to back the candidate, it’s educated women who overwhelmingly reject Trump for Hillary Clinton, with the businessman trailing the former secretary of state by 30 points.

And no, it’s not just because women tend to vote Democratic (or are coming out in droves for Clinton): Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney narrowly won college-educated white women by six points in 2012. “Trump,” Foer notes, “rose to fame on the basis of our prurient interest in his caddishness and amusement at his vulgar provocations.” These once-boyish hijinks aren’t just ethically dubious; they’re politically salient among a subset of white, mostly-male voters with an axe to grind against the progress of women and minorities in American society.

But why, if they’re relatively well-off economically, are these white people flipping out over a perceived loss of social mobility? It’s the “perceived” that’s essential here: The mortality rate among African Americans is still significantly higher than whites (as is the unemployment rate), and the majority of the gains from the post-Recession recovery have flowed to white Americans.

But for those conservatives who see society changing rapidly around them, any loss (or potential loss) is too hard to bear. As Rothwell puts it, the relationship between social well-being and political views “may be that material well-being and health are undermined by a cultural or psychological failure to adjust and adapt to a changing world.” White Americans may still be relatively well off, but it’s the relative deprivation that sends them flocking to Trump.