Politics & Policy

Trumpism: ‘It’s the Culture, Stupid’

Trump greets supporters in Warren, Mich., March 4, 2016. (Scott Olson/Getty)

“You’re working harder. Your wages aren’t going up.” 

— Hillary Clinton

“Make America great again.”

— Donald Trump

In 2004, Thomas Frank scored a hit with What’s the Matter with Kansas?, lamenting that voters from that state failed to recognize their economic interests and instead sided with Republicans year after year. To Frank, the idea that voters might have interests beyond their economic status was unthinkable.

His claim, that they were simply manipulated by Republican candidates and could no longer see what was best for them, was rightfully ridiculed by conservatives. Frank’s critics argued that the Democratic policy agenda was not as obviously in their interests as he presumed. But they also pointed out that cultural concerns can be just as valid a driver of voter behavior as economic ones. Frank had made the mistake, common on the left, of assuming that economic concerns are preeminent.

Pundits and politicos of all ideological stripes are making the same mistake this primary season as they struggle to grasp the rise of Donald Trump. National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru has wisely counseled against strong single-factor explanations for his success, but the view that economic anxiety explains the rise of Trump has become prevalent on both the left and the right. There is, however, little evidence that points to that conclusion.

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Start with what voters have said so far. We’re halfway through the Republican primary season, with 24 of the 50 states having held primaries or caucuses. Exit (or entrance) polls have been conducted in 15 states. (Unfortunately, since Super Tuesday on March 1, exit polls have been conducted only in Michigan and Mississippi.)

In all of these states, Republican voters were presented with four issues — jobs and the economy, immigration, terrorism, and government spending — and asked to name the most important one facing the country. “The economy and jobs” was the top concern in ten of the 15 states, and it was ranked second in the other five. That makes it sound like economic concerns have been paramount for voters, but it is hard to say without any comparison point.

Democrats have been asked the same question, except with inequality and health care substituted for immigration and government spending. The economy was the top concern in all 15 states among Democratic primary voters, and the share of voters choosing jobs and the economy was higher in the Republican primary only in Vermont and Virginia. Some issue has to be the most important one every year; typically, the economy is that issue, except when national-security threats loom.

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Trump performed no better in states where the economy was the biggest issue than in other states. In the ten states where the economy was the top issue, Trump won eight, or 80 percent. In the five states where the economy was second, Trump won four . . . or 80 percent. His average margin of victory was 7.8 points in states where the economy ranked second but just 6.9 points in states where the economy was the top issue.

Trump also did worse among voters for whom the economy was a top issue than among other voters. He won voters who chose the economy as their top issue in 10 of 15 states, worse than his showing among voters over all, which he carried in 12 of 15. While he won jobs-and-economy voters in ten states, he won immigration voters in twelve, and terrorism voters in twelve. In all 15 states, Trump’s margin of victory was higher among at least one other category of voters than it was among jobs-and-economy voters. In eight states, Trump’s margins were greater on at least two other issues, and in two states his margins were lowest among jobs-and-economy voters.

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Another reason to think that Trump’s success does not primarily reflect economic anxiety is that the economy is doing quite well. The unemployment rate is below 5 percent, not far from where it was in 2007, before the recession started. Median hourly wages are back to the peak they reached in 2007. Median annual household income is also nearly at its historical high.

Economic doomsayers tend to focus on the relatively low rate of labor-force participation to argue that the unemployment rate no longer captures the weakness of the labor market. But much of the decline in labor-force participation is due to rising school enrollment and the retirement of baby boomers. And much of it is voluntary. Fewer than 40 percent of men aged 25 to 54 who are out of the labor force tell government surveyors they want a job, and the rise between 1979 and 2006 in the number of these men who are uninterested in work statistically accounts for the entire drop in labor-force participation over that period.

#share#Many argue that Trump’s signature issue, immigration, has resonated because of the economic threat posed by immigrants to the white working class. But immigration is not necessarily first an economic issue. For many, it is about national security, as reflected in the draconian suggestion that Muslims be barred from coming to the United States. For others, immigration is simply about the rule of law. Those who have entered the country illegally should not be allowed to flout the law while others who play by the rules must wait their turn until they can enter the country lawfully.

Trumpism is being driven primarily by cultural anxiety — by dissatisfaction with cultural change and perceived cultural decline.

For a non-negligible subset of Trump voters, anti-immigration sentiment is about racism and nativism, plain and simple. Many more are uneasy about rapid cultural change and do not bring to their concern the ugliness of prejudice. It is not unreasonable to worry that the ever-growing foreign-born and second-generation populations will change the character of the nation in ways we cannot predict, whether along religious, political, ideological, or cultural dimensions. These fears have influenced immigration debates throughout history, but as the very idea of assimilation is called into question by many, some today may find the prospect of cultural change especially threatening. People value ways of life for understandable reasons; when their permanence is thrown in question, it is reasonable for them to be anxious about change.

Relative to economic anxieties, cultural insecurity has been given short shrift as an explanation for the Trump phenomenon. And here I’ll run the risk that Ponnuru identified: of focusing too much on a single issue. I’ll also depart from data, so caveat emptor.

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I believe that Trumpism is being driven primarily by cultural anxiety — by dissatisfaction with cultural change and perceived cultural decline. “Make America Great Again” is clearly about fear of national decline, but it is not primarily about economic decline. Trump’s complaint is that “we never win anymore,” not a narrow protest that other nations are taking away our jobs or that wages are stagnant. It taps into fears that something has gone wrong — with our economy but also with our position on the international stage, with our values, with our families, and with the maintenance of law and order.

Further, it could not be more obvious that Trump voters are mostly indifferent to policy. Trump’s appeal is in his brash confidence, his celebrity, and his refusal to bow to the political correctness that is newly ascendant. Indeed, for all the chin-stroking over Trump’s success, there has been little discussion of the role that campus-based PC activism and, more recently, the Black Lives Matters movement have played in stoking the fears of cultural traditionalists. One does not need to be a reactionary or a Trump fan to view, for instance, the disruption of Bernie Sanders rallies by activists, the shutting down of Trump’s Chicago rally, or the silencing of controversial views on campuses as destabilizing forms of incivility.

#related#The idea that Trump’s success primarily reflects the failure of conservative policies to address the economic concerns of its base gets things completely backward. Those whom public-opinion analyst Sean Trende calls “cultural traditionalists” are in the Republican party today because they left the Democratic party beginning in the 1960s. Those who rejected liberal cultural positions related to civil rights, feminism, the counterculture, secularism, and anti-authoritarianism fatefully were embraced by the Republican party.

But the complaint of these cultural traditionalists, Trende notes, is fundamentally with “cultural cosmopolitans” — the highly formally educated, careerist, metropolitan, and culturally liberal elite that runs the country. These cultural cosmopolitans dominate both parties, but their liberalism most clearly finds a home with the Democrats. And liberals have been winning the culture wars pretty decisively over the past couple of decades.

Trumpism is best viewed as a hostile takeover of the Republican party by a non-conservative authoritarian who is stoking and leveraging the cultural resentment and authoritarianism of the GOP’s traditionalist base. And that base is primarily opposed to the cultural liberalism that is ascendant in the Democratic party. The economy is in much better shape than it was in 2008 or 2012. Conservatives focused unduly on cutting top tax rates could certainly offer more and better policies to the working and middle classes, as National Review’s Reihan Salam has noted. But if voters are reacting against conservative policies that fail to address economic distress, they have chosen a strange time to air their grievances — and a strange vessel to carry them.

Scott Winship — Mr. Winship is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and its director of poverty studies.


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