The Source of Trump’s support

The Source of Trump’s Support

Ananish Chaudhuri

Ananish Chaudhuri is Professor of Experimental Economics at the University of Auckland. He studied and taught Economics in the United States for many years. The views expressed are his own.

With Joseph Biden becoming the President-Elect of the United States and Kamala Harris making history as the first woman to become Vice-President, some political realities are becoming clear.

This was nowhere near the blue-wave forecast by the pollsters who predicted an easy Biden victory even if they were as wrong as they were back in 2016. They were still very wrong!

It is clear that Trump supporters are not a majority. Biden will comfortably win the popular vote by a very large margin as did Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Al Gore in 2000. But Trump’s support base is more expansive and solid than most commentators have acknowledged till date.

Second, it is possibly time to retire the view that the votes for Donald Trump represents nothing other than the dying gasps of white supremacists, alarmed at the prospect of becoming outnumbered by people of colour in their own country.

The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman writes:

The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by the middle of this year, non-whites will constitute a majority of the nation’s 74 million children. At the same time, it is estimated that by sometime in the 2040s, whites will make up 49 percent of the U.S. population, and Latinos, Blacks, Asians and multiracial populations 51 percent. There is clearly a discomfort, and even resistance, among many whites, particularly white working-class males without college degrees, to the fact that our nation is in a steady process of becoming “minority white.” They see Trump as a bulwark against the social, cultural and economic implications of that. What many Democrats see as a good trend — a country reckoning with structural racism and learning to embrace and celebrate increasing diversity — many white people see as a fundamental cultural threat.

But this view is almost certainly incomplete if not incorrect given that between 2016 and 2020, Trump’s support has increased among Latinos, particularly in Florida and Texas in spite of his rabid anti-immigration stance geared mostly toward members of the same ethnic community.

Surprisingly, Trump’s support, though still small, has also risen among African Americans from 2016.

There are at least two reasons for this increase in support from minorities for Trump. First, racism is not confined among Whites. There are significant streaks of racism among minority groups. So, when Trump condones anti-Semitic rhetoric, it is not only some Whites who cheer him on; the message finds resonance among some who are African American or Muslim or both. Second, large swaths of minorities are also socially conservative.

So, a better explanation for Tump’s enduring support may be cultural (and possibly even class) warfare. Trump seems to be an unlikely candidate for wearing this mantle but he has delivered on a number of fronts for a disparate group of supporters.

He has stayed away from foreign wars and reduced troops overseas.

He has shifted the composition of the Supreme Court far to the right delighting, among others, abortion opponents.

While his ill-advised trade wars with China and his re-negotiations of NAFTA will likely cause losses for the economy as a whole, these policies, coupled with extensive farm subsidies, have delivered jobs to the mid-Western states that stand solidly behind him.

The First Steps Act signed by Trump was a significant achievement in criminal justice reform; something that has had a positive impact among the African American community. This also needs to be seen in the context of Joe Biden’s strong support for the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which is generally regarded as being ruinous to the same community. This is something that Biden was called out for repeatedly during the Democratic Primary by Kamala Harris and Corey Booker. 

Even I cheered when the Justice Department brought its anti-trust lawsuit against Google. Prior administrations have done little to rein in the power of such massive monopolies.

Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, says about Trump: 

…for many people, he’s the only middle finger available — to brandish against the people who’ve assumed they have the whip hand in American culture. This may not be a very good reason to vote for a president, and it doesn’t excuse Trump’s abysmal conduct and maladministration.

But these people are willing to look beyond the lying, the boorishness, the bullying, the philandering, the cheating, the incompetence, the demands for loyalty and the cruelty because they are not looking for a pastor or rabbi but rather an enforcer who is delivering things they care about.

None of this excuses Trump’s vileness; particularly his willingness to snatch children away from their parents. Neither does any of this align with values I hold dear. But, I am no longer convinced that all of his support can be attributed to racism alone. It is an outgrowth of deep-seated inequities and challenges in the American system that Trump has channelled to his own benefit.

It seems clear that Trump has put together a coalition, which to many of us seems to have little internal consistency but is nonetheless, abiding.

He could have done it differently; he could have done it better; he could have done it with less gratuitous cruelty and more class but clearly there is a sizable chunk of the US population who are still enthused about what he has delivered for them. Biden (and other future Presidents) would do well to try and understand the source of this angst if they are going to have any hope of starting the repair the breaches.