Yes, Racial Anxiety Motivates Trump Support

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In the covering of Donald Trump, the elephant in the room – or at least one of the elephants – is, as one columnist described it, the way that the real-estate tycoon has won over the white working class by turning the traditional Republican platform of less government, more business, and fewer abortions to, quite simply, “white identity politics.”

You can see it in the way Trump says that Latinos can’t judge him impartially, or in how he called out, “Look at my African-American over here” at a rally last week, or said that putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill is “pure political correctness.” These are, to quote a former colleague, “ethnocentric appeals.” Judging by Trump’s locking-up the GOP nomination, they work with Republican voters. While so many pundits attributed Trump support to economic angst, as Christopher Ingraham notes at the Washington Post, even more has to do with racial anxiety. Indeed, new research is coming out that says that anxiety over race is a primary driver of Trump support. Curiously, and contra to the Big Beautiful Wall he promises to build, attitudes about immigration don’t seem to be that great of a predictor for Trump support; same with trade deals. A number of surveys point to racial identity as a driving, if not the driving, force.

This is what Hamilton College political scientist Philip Klinkner found in an analysis of the 2016 American National Election Study (ANES) survey, an internet-based sample of 1,200 Americans designed to generalize to the whole population. “My analysis indicates that economic status and attitudes do little to explain support for Donald Trump,” he writes for Vox. “Those who express more resentment toward African-Americans, those who think the word ‘violent’ describes Muslims well, and those who believe President Obama is a Muslim have much more positive views of Trump compared with Clinton.” Klinkner indexed answers regarding economic opportunity – questions like “Do you think people’s ability to improve their financial well-being is now better, worse, or the same as it was 20 years ago?” – with responses around identity and out-groups – statements like “Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Black people should do the same without any special favors.” He then compared those responses around feelings of support for Trump or presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Klinkner also found a strong correlation between racial resentment and disapproval of Barack Obama’s presidency, and that respondents who approved of Obama’s tenure are more likely to vote for Clinton.

A March ABC-Washington Post poll found similar results: Trump support peaked among Republican-leaning registered voters who were struggling economically and felt that whites were losing out. Another Post analysis found that areas with a high white mortality rate – i.e., how many people were dying – strongly correlated with Trump support.

Last week, the Pew Research Center found, once again, that affection for Trump correlated with animosity toward the other. Demographers Bradley Jones and Jocelyn Kelly found that the 56 percent of Republicans who think Islam encourages violence felt “warmly” toward Trump, while 42 percent of those who think that immigration “threatens traditional American customs and values” had “very warm” feelings toward the tycoon, too. That is the signature savvy of Trump: Like sports entertainers before him, the mogul has fashioned himself a people’s champion — his people’s champion.