During the 2016 campaign cycle, I closely studied what I knew would be remembered as a historic election. A pervasive theme throughout my research was the inquiry of academics and pundits alike into what motivated people to vote for Trump, and, more importantly, why these people were overwhelmingly White. The topic of non-stop discussion was “White working-class voters.”
An important resource I referenced was the 2016 book The Populist Explosion by John B. Judis, editor-at-large at Talking Points Memo. This book offers insight into both the right-populism of Trump and the left-populism of Bernie Sanders by examining these American strains of populism alongside the growing European populist movement. In addition to citing all the following statistics from this book, I have linked a PDF of the full text since it’s a short read and I highly recommend checking it out.
What is Populism?
Judis clarifies that attempts to define populism are misguided since the ideology defies the common left-right dichotomy. Additionally, populism varies in practice between countries or regions. Instead, he categorizes populism as a “political logic—a way of thinking about politics.” Populism is different from socialism as “It is not a politics of class conflict, and it doesn’t necessarily seek the abolition of capitalism.” Left-populism differs from liberal and progressive movements by assuming antagonism between social classes rather than seeking to reconcile their interests. Right-populism differs from conservatism in its suspicion of the business class.
Judis draws a distinction between left-populism and right-populism. Left-populism unites the bottom and middle classes against an upper-class elite, whereas right-populism unites the lower classes against an elite which is also accused of coddling an outside group, such as immigrants. This so-called “elite” can vary, but is frequently composed of monied powers, intellectuals, and the political establishment.
Furthermore, Judis writes that populist movements are significant because they serve as warning signs of political crisis. A rise in populism indicates dissatisfaction with the current political norms due to the establishment’s neglect of the people’s concerns. Nowhere is this more clear than in the appeal of Trump due to Washington’s continual ignorance of a growing immigration problem. The ultimate takeaway is that the political establishment requires change.
Populism in the GOP
Astonishingly, the actual Republican Party as an institution had little bearing on the electorate’s preferences. The Populist Explosion cites a USA Today poll of primary voters found that 68% of Trump supporters would still vote for him if he ran as an independent. Contrary to the common consensus among political scientists that people vote for parties rather than people, it seems that Trump would have been just as popular with or without the GOP.
This irrelevance of the Republican Party is because Trump differed from his primary opponents by running on a platform of right-populism, rather than principled conservatism. This defiance of mainstream Republican norms won him the support of White working-class voters, which ultimately pushed him over the edge to victory in 2016. But how exactly do these voters differ from standard Republican voters?
A few notable trends can be observed in the demographic data sourced by Judis. Early on, political scientists observed that Trump voters tended to be less educated. Eventually education was established as one of the strongest factors correlated to support for Trump. According to a survey by the American National Election Studies, 70.1% of Trump primary elections voters polled were not college graduates, while the supporters of principled conservatives such as John Kasich were twice as educated.
In a rapidly changing economy, voters without a college degree are frustrated by the limited job prospects. This frustration is revealed in the survey responses of Trump’s primary election voters. Out of all Republicans, they were the most worried about the Great Recession—even if they were not as badly affected. Additionally, Trump voters held the most pessimistic views on the economy. According to Pew Research Center, 48% of Trump voters believed economic conditions were poor, as opposed to 31% of Ted Cruz voters, and only 28% of John Kasich voters.
In addition to the educational divide, there was also a schism in income levels, although this wasn’t as strong of an indicator for support of Trump. In the Republican primary election, half of Trump voters earned less than $50,000 a year versus only 35.3% of Kasich voters. While low income was characteristic of many Trump voters, Trump was able to court the votes of just as many wealthy Republicans.
On the Issues
The voter data revealed further differences between those who favored Trump and those who preferred his principled conservative counterparts. The differences went beyond demographics and into their political opinions. While only 40% of Kasich voters believed that immigrants were a burden on the economy, a whopping 70% of Trump voters agreed with that statement. Moreover, 66.4% of Trump voters opposed birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants, while only 26% of Kasich voters believed the same.
On the issue of trade, 67% of Trump’s voters responded that free trade deals are bad for the United States, versus 46% of Kasich’s voters, and 40% of Cruz’s voters. Yet another economic issue where Trump voters and traditional Republican voters differed was reductions in Social Security, with 73% of Trump voters opposing any reductions. Looking at the broader scope, 61% of Trump voters believed the economy unfairly favored the rich and powerful, as opposed to 51% of Kasich voters and 45% of Cruz voters.
One of the defining issues that set Trump voters apart from other Republican voters was political correctness. Trump voters were the least likely group of voters to think that people should be more sensitive about what they say to people of different backgrounds. While it may seem that all Republican voters are fed up with political correctness, they vary in their degree of opposition. While 57% of Trump voters responded that people are too easily offended, only 45.9% of Kasich voters agreed. Based on this data point, I think it’s fair to interpret that—to an extent—Trump voters recognize political correctness as an attack on White people.
Understanding the specifics behind Trump’s election is the key to rebuilding the GOP into a worker’s party that can compete on the national level. Many Republicans have failed to learn from 2016, but many others are catching on. Trump’s actual presidency hasn’t necessarily seen the realization of his populist campaign rhetoric, but if anything he has served as a crucial stepping stone toward a new Republican Party unlike anything we’ve seen before in America. As the distraught lower and middle classes continue to pull away from the political consensus of both parties, populism will eventually unravel the American neoliberal establishment.