Bad ideas have a life all their own. Speaking last Saturday at a rally in Washington Township, Michigan, Donald Trump was in rare form. He worked his audience into a fever pitch with threats to shut down the government and punish the Democrats and his other enemies. He spread more irrational fear about a “caravan” of “illegal immigrants” who will somehow “invade” America. He grossly exaggerated his policy successes, which is nothing new, and in ominous tones targeted “Hispanics” in one of his tirades, to which his almost uniformly white audience responded with a mix of boos and disdainful silence.
This article was originally published at Salon
Despite the news media’s obsession with the “white working class” and its purported “economic anxiety,” that did not seem to be the prime motivating factor for Trump’s supporters at this rally. The median household income in Washington Township is almost $80,000 a year; average household income there is more than $100,000. Both amounts are higher than the respective national averages. Like most Trump voters, those attending his rally were motivated by other factors, which hardly need to be spelled out.
The evidence that racism, sexism and nativism motivated Trump’s voters is overwhelming. Political scientists, pollsters and other researchers have repeatedly demonstrated how he won white voters across all income groups, all educational levels, and both men and women.
Voters who were more more concerned about the economy actually supported Hillary Clinton, while white voters who demonstrated more bias and hostility to nonwhites overwhelmingly supported Trump. First and foremost, it was white identity politics — centered on a deep fear of losing social status and political power in a changing America — that propelled Trump into the White House.
New research by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Diana Mutz sheds further light on the influence that anxiety about power, identity and group superiority hold over Trump’s voters.
In Mutz’s new article, “Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote,” which appears in the April 23 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, she summarizes the debate about Trump’s victory: The “dominant narrative,” she writes, has been that working-class voters who “lost jobs or experienced stagnant wages” punished the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton.
These claims were made on the basis of aggregate demographic patterns tied to voters’ education levels, patterns that could occur for a multitude of reasons. This study evaluates the “left behind” thesis as well as dominant group status threat as an alternative narrative explaining Trump’s popular appeal and ultimate election to the presidency. Evidence points overwhelmingly to perceived status threat among high-status groups as the key motivation underlying Trump support.
White people’s “declining numerical dominance” and the rising status of other groups, especially black people, Mutz writes, combined with “insecurity about whether the United States is still the dominant global economic superpower.” The result was what she calls “a classic defensive reaction among members of dominant groups.”
Mutz cites two reasons for skepticism that economic desperation was the primary factor driving voters toward Trump. “First and foremost,” she writes, “evidence of voters politicizing personal economic hardship has been exceedingly rare.” That may sound counterintuitive, but the social science is robust: Voters rarely make their electoral decisions based on personal factors. She further explains that unemployment fell during 2016 and “economic indicators were on the upswing,” which would typically be very good news for the party in power. As for the decline of American manufacturing jobs, nearly all of that occurred before 2010; under Barack Obama, factory employment in the U.S. actually ticked upward. So it is a mistake, she concludes, to interpret the 2016 election “as resulting from the frustration of those left behind economically.”
Those who felt that the hierarchy was being upended — with whites discriminated against more than blacks, Christians discriminated against more than Muslims, and men discriminated against more than women — were most likely to support Trump. . . . Political uprisings are often about downtrodden groups rising up to assert their right to better treatment and more equal life conditions relative to high-status groups. The 2016 election, in contrast, was an effort by members of already dominant groups to assure their continued dominance and by those in an already powerful and wealthy country to assure its continued dominance.
The implications of Mutz’s research for an increasingly pluralistic and cosmopolitan society are very troubling in a number of ways. First, a need to maintain (racial) group superiority at all costs supersedes any negotiation of shared power between different interests. As a result, “consensus politics” — which is the beating heart of a healthy democracy — becomes impossible.