The prominent media narratives of Donald Trump’s political ascent have failed to take his supporters’ economic grievances earnestly, which has lead to a facile, condescending media discussion about the candidate. Trump’s talking points on returning manufacturing to the United States and his popularity in areas where manufacturing employment has severely declined represents a serious challenge to the economic policy identity within the Republican Party and the Democrats’ claim to represent working class interests.
The primary media narrative of Trump’s political ascendance has dealt mainly with class, race, and the Republican base’s opposition to cultural facets of the condescending left. Within this, there is a widely held belief that Republican Party elites did not take Trump seriously and therefore failed to prevent his success within the party. These chronicles exist alongside alternative explanations that Trump’s electability comes from his ability to negotiate, a media bubble propping up his perceived support, his status as a former TV star, or that he instantiates a sufficiently widespread desire for fascistic governance.
Trump has undoubtedly mobilized existing class of formal bigots and legitimated the outright expression of once clandestine racism. Furthermore, Trump supporters’ repeated articulations of disdain for Republican elites and the party’s patrician reciprocal pearl clutching are undoubtedly reflective of the broader Republican schism in 2016. However, these broader theories do not dig beyond a basic overview of the sundry influences of Trump support without a deeper understanding linking the economic facets with the social areas.
An analysis of manufacturing employment data from 1980 to 2015 demonstrates a strong correlation of Trump support relative to his competitors in states where manufacturing employment was most harmed by free trade agreements and broader macroeconomic shifts.
The Trump data is a stark contrast with Mitt Romney’s primary election. 2012’s Republican primary was similarly contested for many months, but Romney support showed no notable correlation between the decline of manufacturing jobs and support for the candidate.
These data indicate a serious discrepancy between the two candidates’ primary platforms and their constituents, best contrasted with Mitt Romney’s advocacy for free trade and Donald Trump’s protectionist inclinations. Adding fuel to the fire, there is a significant correlation between support for Donald Trump and underemployment within a state.
Trump’s support in states where manufacturing was most harmed by free trade agreements could easily be interpreted as backing up the prevalent argument that his support comes from dispirited white working class individuals. While this is a convenient narrative for writing off the mobilizing factors for Donald Trump’s popular support within the broader Republican base, the reality is much more complex.
The phrase “white working class” implies the sort of blue-collar worker about whom David Brooks waxes poetic about engaging. However, the average Trump supporter’s median income is $72,000, compared to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’ backers at $61,000 and a national median income of $54,000. Coloring this is the fact that the poor simply don’t vote with anywhere near the numbers of the middle class or wealthy, due to a number of socioeconomic reasons ranging from getting time off to vote to hopelessness. In the case of the Republican Primary, the voting frequency of household incomes below $50,000 in a number states was so low that CNN’s exit polling reported the data in those categories as “n/a”.
Trump supporters are not displaced manufacturing workers expressing their discontent. Rather, Trump partisans are anxious white witnesses of the hollowing out of the American dream vis-à-vis unionized living wage manufacturing jobs in the time between 1980 and today. These individuals live in areas harmed by manufacturing employment’s decline, but are themselves solidly middle class in roles that do not necessarily require a college education. While these data clearly demonstrate economic anxiety around manufacturing employment and offshoring American labor, they do not directly account for the local racial anxiety that has accompanied Donald Trump’s campaign.
At the same time manufacturing’s share of overall employment in the economy fell 13.5%, the prevalence of white employment in the manufacturing sector declined 17.9% from 1980-2015.
Even when other sectors had slightly higher white employment, manufacturing jobs have always been a political totem for the idealized American dream. This cultural nostalgia within both parties in coordination with older white political anxiety is broadly linked to the 1950s racial and socioeconomic makeup, with an ascendant middle class and well-paying union jobs.
This sense of racial crisis within white voters comes at a time when the white population declined by 7.2% but overall white employment has fallen more quickly, decreasing by 20% from 1980 to 2015.
Undoubtedly some of these economic participation disparities are driven by greater access to postsecondary and higher education among white populations, but for those without a college degree - which represents a large portion of Donald Trump’s support base - the rise of racial minorities in the economy could appear to white voters as a looming threat to their economic dominance.
The forces that mobilize Trump supporters, while confounding for the aristocratic self-described “thought leader” class in Washington D.C., are as old as the constituencies of New Deal Democrats and the Dixiecrats.
Trump’s platform has effectively been a modernized version of the postwar Democratic South with opposition to social liberalization and economic redistribution, although only to select “deserving” populations.
While Donald Trump’s platform does not resemble the New Deal constituency in the sense that he supports expanding the welfare state, his stark departure from the Republican Party’s orthodoxy on privatizing or cutting social redistribution programs is remarkable.
Trump’s support for the continuity of social programs is particularly salient in an era when the mainstream Democratic Party has essentially given up on expanding social programs or substantively addressing income inequality. Outside of education spending, Hilary Clinton’s 2016 economic policy positions - including support for the Affordable Care Act and its individual mandate over a single-payer system – basically represent a continuity of the Obama Administration’s center-right 1990s economic policy masquerading as “radical” leftism on America's libertine right, (read: "never Trump") wing, where anything short of an Uber equivalent for liberalized human organ transplants is communism.
Over the past decades, the mainstream Democratic party has largely ceded ground to business interests (note: paywall). The party has moved to the right on economic issues in exchange for advocating for socioeconomically-niche liberal social policy agendas on civil liberties and the environment. Within this space, anti-union right to work laws flourished and labor’s capacity to bargain against capital in a political system captured by corporate interests has markedly declined.
Trump’s support in manufacturing areas is unsurprising, given the policy preferences of the regional partisan bases prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. While it is widely forgotten today outside of political circles, the Democratic Party’s stronghold was the South during the New Deal era. However, a few short years after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death, the party split over civil rights as Harry Truman publicly supported desegregating the military. This schism fostered a Democratic party offshoot by former Democrat Strom Thurmond to form the States' Rights Democratic Party (“Dixiecrats”). Nonetheless, southern Democrats still supported government economic intervention to correct market failures. Following the Civil Rights Act, the South became a conservative Republican bastion, despite enduring support for the Democratic economic policies as evidenced by Nixon’s tepid support for social redistribution programs in 1968.
Later, Ronald Reagan’s infamous Republican strategist Lee Atwater recognized the value in formally capturing the southern vote on race issues couched in states’ rights language. Southern animosity towards “welfare queens” to prevent “abuse” of social redistribution programs became a means to demonize fictitious poor, black recipients and promote free market dogma to cut social programs. Concurrently during this era, a rise in aggressive free trade agreements precipitated the decline of American manufacturing in many states where Republicans fared well in presidential elections.
The social and economic preferences of the Republican base in the 2015-2016 primary season represented by Donald Trump reveal a departure from the intellectual conservatism espoused in the National Review and the Weekly Standard. In Donald Trump, these would-be Dixiecrats have found a way to have their economic cake of protectionism and job security and the ability to eat it too, with the candidate’s overt race-baiting.
Donald Trump is running on an economic platform predicated on a narrative of racial and ethnic causes for economic decline using the manufacturing sector as the prime example. His social platform is often merely a vehicle to espouse an economic ideology designed to transition Republican white voters to a new political paradigm. Rather than engage in the self-loathing proscribed by Republican elites towards the economically disadvantaged, Trump encourages anxious whites to simply blame foreigners and minorities. The manufacturing sector has become the talisman for Trump’s campaign in which he has maligned the Chinese government for currency manipulation and blamed public officials for failing to stem the exodus of manufacturing jobs from the United States.
It is consequently unsurprising that Donald Trump has taken off in the Republican Party. The party has no clear positive vision for its policies of deregulation and federal spending cuts outside of illusory private sector gains that have yet to manifest from its economic policy agenda. To nervous white voters, Trump offers the best of both worlds: a positive vision of economic prosperity through maintenance of social redistribution programs and the marginalization of disadvantaged populations.
Article was originally published in May, 2016 and revised through June, 2016