It was easy for the media talking heads to dismiss Trump’s popularity among White voters as “racism” rather than addressing his tangible benefits to them. CNN’s Van Jones even went as far as to call the Trump victory a “whitelash” from White America in response to the last eight years under a Black President. However, this so-called whitelash can be credited to a specific voting bloc once known as “Reagan Democrats.” These voters were blue-collar whites, previously inclined to only vote Democrat (due to their association with labor unions as well as the long lasting rural support for FDR’s New Deal policies) and switched to Republicans when Reagan ran, pushing him ahead to his massive electoral victories.
These rural voters are primarily concentrated along the Great Lakes in the Rust Belt, but also occupy vast stretches of the Great Plains. In a post-election analysis, Nate Silver noted that, “by far Trump’s strongest demographic group, were disproportionately concentrated in swing states,” giving him an electoral advantage over Hillary Clinton.
Geographically, these were the regions hit hardest by the deindustrialization of Middle America. Many of these areas suffer extreme destitution, such as Appalachia, where the poverty rate is 19.7% (compared to the 15.6% of the country as a whole).
It should also be noted that Appalachia is 98.5% white.
Trump himself perfectly summed up the frustrations of these neglected voters:
“For too long, Americans have been forced to accept trade deals that put the interests of insiders and the Washington elite over the hard-working men and women of this country. As a result, blue-collar towns and cities have watched their factories close and good-paying jobs move overseas, while Americans face a mounting trade deficit and a devastated manufacturing base.”
Despite the presence of numerous swing-counties, the Rust Belt is generally avoided by Presidential candidates compared to other states with more electoral college votes; however, Trump actively pursued these states. It’s worth noting that Trump secured Ohio—commonly regarded as the “bellwether state”—where he won a whopping 30 counties by over 70% of the vote. He continued his plunder of the Rust Belt with wins in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Indiana. Managing to flip the entire Midwest red, Trump had remade the Republican Party as we know it. This came as no surprise to Trump himself, who declared on the campaign trail to Bloomberg News in 2016: “Five, ten years from now—different party. You’re going to have a worker’s party. A party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years, that are angry.”
The Billionaire Populist
Despite the hype surrounding Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant,” the voters responsible for pushing him to victory lived in predominantly White counties. According to analysis by Dan Balz of the Washington Post, “Of the nearly 700 counties that twice sent Obama to the White House, a stunning one-third flipped to support Trump,” and he also won 194 out of the 207 counties that voted for Obama only once.
In his Washington Post article, Balz draws upon the research of Henry Olsen, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Olsen believes that the failure by GOP leadership to address the concern of the White working-class was a catalyst for Trump. Olsen writes, “they’ve been ignoring the economic pressures that have been placed on the native born, low-skilled person for the last 15-20 years,” adding, “Trump walks into this and says, ‘I’m an American first, I’m a conservative second… We need to give the people who have been shafted for the last 15 years a leg up.”
Basic electoral analysis supports these socioeconomic conclusions. According to data from FiveThirtyEight.com, the most reliable predictor of how a district would vote was White socioeconomic status.
The four quadrants of the graph are as follows: High-status/blue, high-status/red, low-status/blue, and low-status/red. Trump dominates his Republican competitors in each of these quadrants with the exception of high-status/blue counties, which tended to favor John Kasich (who I consider the absolute worst of the “principled conservatives”) or alternatively Marco Rubio. Additionally, high-status/red counties displayed strong support for Cruz and Rubio, but Trump still topped their popularity. Interestingly enough, the counties Trump performed best in were low-status/blue, followed by low-status/red counties. Thus It can be concluded that areas where Whites suffer socioeconomic status are the biggest hotness of Trump support, regardless of that area’s demonstrated partisanship.
In 2016, Pew Research Center examined the working-class Whites and their support for populism in both parties. The White working-class has made up a majority of both parties since at least 1992, when they comprised 67% of Republican voters. However, as the country became more educated, their numbers declined to 58% in 2015.
Trump’s dominance over Cruz can be largely credited to this low-education majority, but the decrease is also indicative of the country’s changing racial demographics. In 1992, Whites made up 84% of the population, compared to 72% in 2015. This should be alarming for Republicans, who have always relied on consistent support from White voters and will continue to rely on them in the foreseeable future.
Along with low-income, another data point proven to be a reliable indicator for Trump support was low-education. Nearly half of White voters with a high school diploma or less support Trump, as opposed to only 34% of college graduates and 27% of postgraduate degree holders.
The breakdown of socioeconomic data also offers further evidence that working-class Whites have struggled, noting that the percent change from 1992 to 2013 in average earnings for White men 25 years old or older have increased 19% for college graduates and decreased 3% for those without a college degree. While educated Whites are finding it easy to get ahead, working-class Whites have not had the same fortune.
Out of Touch Elites
In March 2016, Kevin Williamson wrote an article directing the establishment’s frustration with Trump at the American people voting for him. The article acknowledges a socioeconomic trend within the electorate that pollsters began noticing as more states cast their votes: Trump has massive support among working-class Whites and low-education voters. All of those factors have proven to be reliable indicators for support for Trump. The ivory-tower attitude of the National Review quickly concluded that this meant Trump voters are unintelligent and essentially low-brow.
In another article during the 2016 election, Kevin Williamson criticizes these Americans of the Rust Belt for sticking around their declining cities and lectures them on the responsibility of learning new skills so they may follow economic opportunity. He suggests they should “get out of the ghetto or the barrio, get an education, get a job, and start a new life and a new family in some more prosperous corner of the county or country.” If escaping these conditions were that easy, these voters would have done it already, genius. In fact, the ones with enough agency, skill, or luck are capable of doing so, as Williamson wrote in a 2014 article (which lacked the condescension of his later articles). However, breaking free from the cycle of poverty is easier said than done. For starters, these people can’t afford housing elsewhere. Getting out of a decaying rural community is stuck in a paradox: leaving requires money, but there are no jobs to earn the money (which you want to spend in order to get a job).
Living in a small town with no jobs or opportunity, young White people are often doomed to remain stuck there since they lack the economic means to move to a more prosperous area. A single factory can support the livelihoods of an entire county, so when that factory gets shut down it has devastating effects. What other employers are there in the middle of nowhere? The less fortunate can only find seasonal work and suffer sporadic unemployment; for the lucky ones, there’s Walmart, McDonald’s, Tractor Supply Co., or maybe a small grocery store. Others are forced to search for work elsewhere—even if it means an hour and a half commute to healthier job markets closer to a large metropolitan area. Rural communities also frequently lack sufficient infrastructure, making long-distance commutes difficult, inconvenient, and costly. When trying to escape rural poverty, every step of the way is an uphill battle.
Williamson’s revulsion at these communities is blatant—he declares their way of life dead and in a distasteful metaphor literally compares their enthusiasm for Trump with the prescription medication addiction that plagues Middle America: “Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.” Yes, he really wrote that! Williamson’s colleague at the National Review, David French, even went to far as to defend that gross analogy in his own elitist article, in which he blames rural Whites for their problems. The pedantic article lectures them on their “moral obligation to do their best” and scolds them for “barely trying.” His explanation for their lack of motivation? He writes: “And always — always — there was a sense of entitlement.”
Latent with the emotional bias of the primary season’s #NeverTrump era, it is hard to seriously analyze much of what National Review had to write about the White working-class. Their didactic articles read like the frantic mania of an ideology that knows it’s going extinct. The National Review reaffirms the consensus of the so-called principled conservatives: Trump would supposedly be a disastrous, erratic candidate who would further alienate minorities from the GOP, and the party must instead nominate a principled “adult in the room” touting a message inclusive to Hispanics while continuing to ignore White Americans.
Case Study: Ohio
To understand the Rust Belt voter, Ohio is a good place to start. In 2008 and 2012, Obama was boosted to victory by some of the most impoverished counties in northeastern Ohio. Much of northeastern Ohio had not voted Republican since 1984, but in 2016 these voters once again turned out for the GOP. Northeastern Ohio faces a heap of economic challenges, including unemployment, stagnant wages, and diminishing property values—all of which are below that of the state average for these metrics.
In Ohio, economic anxiety is not contained to the northeast. Isolated by a lack of infrastructure, other rural regions of the state have also suffered, such as in Ohio’s Appalachian corner, where 17.8% of families live in poverty, according to the most recent Ohio Poverty Report. While the country as a whole saw improvement after the recession, rural areas were left behind and continue to struggle with their economic recovery. “Poverty is the family tradition,” as Ohio native J.D. Vance wrote in his 2017 book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, which I cannot recommend enough.
Among the other issues plaguing these counties is the opioid epidemic, which has hit Ohio far worse than any other state in the country. Overdoses and broken homes have tragically become commonplace, with some counties in Appalachian Ohio suffering 80% or more of children removed from their homes in cases of parental drug abuse, according to the Public Children Services Association of Ohio. In the wake of the opioid crisis, methamphetamine use has seen a steep increase in several midwestern states, including Ohio. Despite these circumstances, crime does not run rampant throughout Appalachia, as Kevin Williamson noted in 2014:
“The Big White Ghetto is different from most other ghettos in one very important way: There’s not much violent crime here. There’s a bit of the usual enterprise one finds everywhere there are drugs and poor people…There’s a great deal of drug use, welfare fraud, and the like, but the overall crime rate throughout Appalachia is about two-thirds the national average, and the rate of violent crime is half the national average, according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service.”
The bleak future rural Whites face is illustrated in the shocking mortality rates. According to a Wonkblog article referenced by Kevin Williamson:
“The life expectancies among non-college-educated White Americans have been plummeting in an almost unprecedented fashion… Trump counties had proportionally fewer people with college degrees. Trump counties had fewer people working. And the White people in Trump counties were likely to die younger. The causes of death were “increased rates of disease and ill health, increased drug overdose and abuse, and suicide.”
Furthermore, in 2017, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer also reported on this phenomena:
“The trend of rising premature death rates has been consistently worse in rural counties across the country, a pattern that’s borne out in Ohio. The 10 Ohio counties with the worst premature death rates include nine clustered in the southern tip of the state…These are also among the counties with the state’s highest drug overdose rates, according to the most recently reported data from the Ohio Department of Health.”
With life expectancies on the decline and premature deaths on the incline, these communities could just simply die out. But Kevin Williamson thinks that’s a good thing: “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die.”
The sense of sheer hopelessness in these areas is no better summarized than by examining suicide rates, which skyrocket once you pass the city limits. Most shocking to me was a study conducted by The Ohio State University which found that from 1996 to 2010, the youth suicide rate in rural areas was double that of in urban areas. This heartbreaking statistic serves as sober reminder of their predicament.
The White working-class needs to find a home in the Republican Party. Their desperate pleas for help have fallen on deaf ears for far too long. Guy Molyneux articulated this frustration in a 2017 article:
“Non-college whites believe government has let them down, but most have no principled or ideological objections to government playing a strong role in the economy. Although just 20 percent trust the federal government, 50 percent also say it should take a more active role in solving the nation’s economic and social problems. Indeed, two-thirds (68 percent) say the federal government should do more to create jobs and improve wages, and majorities also say it should do more to improve K–12 education, to make college affordable, and to regulate banks and the financial sector.”
Republicans and Democrats have both shamefully turned their backs on voters trapped in rural poverty, and it needs to stop now. Rural voters have grown to distrust the government, as Molyneux writes:
“White working-class voters. Just 20 percent of them [white working-class voters] believe they can trust the federal government more than half of the time (a rather low bar). While 61 percent of white working-class voters have an unfavorable view of corporations, a stratospheric 93 percent have an unfavorable view of politicians.”
While Democrats promote some economic policies supported by many low-income voters—such as entitlement benefits—the growing popularity Affirmative Action and favoritism of nonwhites among Democrats has left behind underprivileged Whites. On the bright side, Americans are starting to wake up. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, “Republicans are significantly more likely to say whites, rather than blacks, experience a lot of discrimination in the U.S. today (43 percent vs. 27 percent, respectively).” Additionally, the Washington Post reported that “perceptions that whites are currently treated unfairly relative to minorities appeared to be an unusually strong predictor of support for Donald Trump in the general election.” This trend was also observed by Pew Research Center:
“This strain of white identity politics, which sees white people as the group in need of special protection, is relatively new. In 2005, 6 percent of both Republicans and Democrats thought white Americans experienced “a great deal” of discrimination, according to a Pew Research Center survey. In 2016, the share of Republicans had jumped to 18 percent, while Democrats ticked up only slightly to 9 percent. Forty-nine percent of Republicans — compared to just 29 percent of Democrats — said whites face at least “some” discrimination.”
This shift toward identity politics turned off many White voters the Democrats used to rely on. Energized by the possibility of the first Black president and the first woman president, the Democrats failed to notice they were closing the door on White voters. But the more consequential result of Democrats embracing multiculturalism has proven to be the rise of white identity politics.
While Democrats are to blame for ignoring White voters, Republicans are no less guilty in their continued betrayal of White voters. Empty promises are made by the GOP, which appeases the base by paying lip service to social issues. Yet, when we look at the “culture war,” one must wonder what have conservatives actually conserved? Even in the span of just the last ten years, gay marriage evolved from a fringe issue to tiptoe around into a new norm made so mainstream that bright rainbow spotlights were shined on the White House in celebration of the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court ruling. Republicans were too preoccupied with accommodating their donors in the financial sector to pay any attention to the most rapid cultural shift leftward since the 1960s. Older Americans are now living in a world vastly different than the one they remember growing up in. This alienation could only add to the mounting frustration of White voters.
The anger from these broken promises has drained any remaining hope from entire swaths of the country, such as in Ohio, Appalachia, and other rural areas of the Midwest. These voters have finally had enough. Instead of an urbane, wonkish candidate like Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan, the voters decisively chose Donald Trump. Only Trump had the enigmatic fiery bravado to galvanize exceedingly indignant Whites, and the message was received.