Donald Trump’s supporters tend to live in economically depressed areas where white residents experience exceptionally high rates of mortality — and exceptionally low rates of social mobility — according to a new study from Gallup.
Some might view these findings as evidence that “economic anxiety” among the white working-class has contributed to Donald Trump’s rise. The Washington Post, however, sees them as evidence of the opposite. Or, more precisely, one of their headline writers does.
The paper titled its write-up of Gallup’s analysis thusly: A massive new study debunks a widespread theory for Donald Trump’s success. The article defines that theory as the idea that “economic distress and anxiety across working-class white America” is a valid explanation for Trump’s political appeal. But, as the actual copy of the piece makes clear, Gallup’s analysis does not “debunk” that idea; the study merely complicates it:
Yet a major new analysis from Gallup, based on 87,000 interviews the polling company conducted over the past year, suggests this narrative is not complete … According to this new analysis, those who view Trump favorably have not been disproportionately affected by foreign trade or immigration, compared with people with unfavorable views of the Republican presidential nominee. The results suggest that his supporters, on average, do not have lower incomes than other Americans, nor are they more likely to be unemployed.
Yet while Trump’s supporters might be comparatively well off themselves, they come from places where their neighbors endure other forms of hardship. In their communities, white residents are dying younger, and it is harder for young people who grow up poor to get ahead.
Publications run misleading headlines every day. And it’s understandable that the Post would try to court clicks with something sexier than “New study adds some nuance to the demographic profile of Donald Trump’s supporters.”
But the specific way the Post decided to distort Gallup’s study is significant, because it reflects a broader eagerness — among many producers and consumers of liberal media — to dismiss the role of economic decline in the unprecedented success of a pseudo-fascist presidential candidate.
This eagerness is generally well-intentioned: Many progressive pundits see references to “economic anxiety” as a means of avoiding uncomfortable truths about the resilient appeal of white supremacy in America. And, as the Gallup study confirms, Trump supporters are not, on average, more economically disadvantaged than other Americans — but they are quite a bit more racist.
It’s unquestionably true that Trump supporters are more easily identified by their cultural resentments than by their economic hardships. But here are some other relevant truths: We live in a country where the average income for the top 10 percent of earners has increased by 76 percent over the past three decades, while the average income for the bottom 90 percent has fallen; where the bottom 80 percent of households have seen virtually no income gains since 1979, despite the proliferation of families with multiple breadwinners; where the median income for non-college-educated workers is $1.30 lower today than it was in 198o; and where the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression has been followed by a historically slow recovery that has barely been felt outside of a handful of urban centers.
And according to Gallup, Trump’s support is concentrated in the regions the recovery has touched least of all: The GOP nominee’s base is older, non-college-educate white men — who live in places where younger non-college-educated white men have little hope of achieving a middle-class standard of living.
It is irresponsible to look at these facts and conclude that the declining living standards of the American working class have no bearing on the success of Trump’s demagoguery.
The point of acknowledging the possibility that economic factors have contributed to Trump’s rise is not to excuse his supporters’ decision to back a hateful demagogue. Rather, the point is to identify the conditions that allow such demagoguery to flourish. Yes, Trump supporters have agency. So do jihadist terrorists and members of criminal gangs. But scholars in universities all over the world still to try to identify the socioeconomic factors that encourage human beings to adopt those pathological identities.
When the policies that govern our economy are funneling enormous wealth to urban elites — while white workers in rural counties are seeing their median incomes fall, along with their life expectancies — we should be very careful about absolving those policies of responsibility for the ugly politics that is gaining currency in those places.