Bennett Herson-Roeser

The Defense of the Mythological Trump Supporter: Who to Blame in the 2016 Election

Throughout this tumultuous election cycle, media outlets and representatives from across the political spectrum have coalesced behind their collective mythical creation – the false image of the average Donald Trump supporter. Comforting Liberals, labels of poor, white, high school dropouts, with confederate flags flying from the back of their gun-loaded pick-up trucks provide a vivid distinction between themselves and, in a patronizing playground mentality, the “problem children.” Similarly, Conservatives disgruntled by Donald Trump – in perhaps a display of paradoxical false consciousness – distinguish themselves from the “problem children” by reiterating narratives of how a working class rebellion against wise, reasonable Republican elites fueled the rise of the sharp-tongued demagogue.

Yet, if we are to avoid the inevitable next Trump-like candidate – now that the extreme alternative right wing has had many of their beliefs legitimized and brought into the public discourse – we must prioritize finding a true understanding of, rather than an incessant distancing from, the average Trump supporter. The argument that poor and working class white Americans are to blame for Trump’s rise is not only empirically inaccurate, but it also, as writer Sarah Smarsh discusses, takes flight on the wings of moral superiority that affluent Americans of all political ideologies often pin upon themselves. Consequently, Smarsh argues that the treacherous narrative convenient to capitalism is invoked: the poor are dangerous idiots.

In reality, though, Trump supporters, compared to the average American, are better off financially. Earlier this year, exit polls from the primaries demonstrated that the average Trump primary voter made $72,000; far more than that of Clinton ($61,000), Sanders ($61,000), and the overall statewide average ($56,000). Moreover, the average income of Trump supporters was only $1,000 less than that of Cruz supporters. Nonetheless, when shifting focus from the poor to the rich, data show that Trump attracted 50 percent more voters making $200,000+ than Cruz did. Yet, because Trump unashamedly expresses ideas associated with poorer character, only his supporters are stereotyped as white trash.

Generally, wealthier Americans are more likely to turn out to vote, especially in primaries anyway, making it difficult to suggest that the poor directly fueled Trump’s ascension. Indeed, states in which exit polls were conducted this year and in the campaign four years ago show an insignificant increase in the turnout of voters earning below $50,000, a fact that discredits this fictitious “rebellion” narrative.

In actuality, averaging Trump’s support in all state primaries with exit polling shows that the voters earning under $50,000 have made up 29 percent of the electorate and 32 percent of Trump’s support, while those earning over $100,000 have accounted for 37 percent of the electorate and 34 percent of his support. Though this contradicts the most popular image of the stereotyped Trump supporter, it should not be surprising:  in recent history, lower-income whites have always supported Democrats more than wealthier whites.

Survey data dismiss further the authenticity of the mythological Trump supporter. Last month, 87,000 interviews conducted by Gallup showed that those who like Trump do not have lower incomes than other Americans do, nor are they more likely to be unemployed. In fact, when controlling for education level and place of residence, the data suggests that those with greater incomes are more likely to favor Trump.

A more accurate explanation of the rise of Trump is white insecurity.  As demonstrated, we should be careful not to associate exclusively certain political beliefs with the poor. The data from the 2016 American National Election Studies (ANES) pilot survey illustrates that while education, income, and economic pessimism are insignificant variables in determining support for Trump, racial resentment, belief that Obama is a Muslim, and belief that Muslims are violent are instead solid indicators of a person’s support for Trump. Moreover, the data indicates that those who are most pessimistic about the economy, although only marginally, harbor less racial resentment than those who are the least pessimistic, reinforcing the idea that the poor are not necessarily on average the “problem children.”

Using data from the 2008 Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project (CCAP) and the 2012 CCAP, in addition to 2016 YouGov surveys, a broader trend among all Republicans (and independent-leaning Republicans), rather than only poor folk, appears. In a study which measures racial resentment as measured by agreement with a statement similar to “Blacks could be just as well off as whites if they only tried harder” and support with support for the eventual Republican nominee illuminates this trend. In 2008, under 30% of the people considered to have the highest ‘racial resentment’ supported McCain. In 2012, just over 30% of those people supported Romney. Yet, in the most recent primary about 60% of those people considered to have the highest racial resentment supported Trump. Clearly, anti-black attitudes strongly correlate with support for Trump – but we should remember that the voting demographics by income and education are relatively constant across these elections, suggesting that elites and those financially well-off harbor racial resentment more than, or at minimum, equal to, poorer voters. The same situation exists when examining immigration.

On a similar scale measuring position on unauthorized immigrants from ‘citizenship’ to ‘support’, there is a very similar trend. For Romney and McCain, the support by these people categorized in the ‘deport’ section only constituted around 30% of their respective votes. For Trump, these voters make up well over 50% of his primary voters.

Indeed, according to ANES data, Republicans’ feelings towards Blacks and Hispanics have plunged at the most rapid rate in recent history while Obama has been president, approaching pre-Civil Rights Era levels.

All indicators suggest that the rise of Trump cannot be attributed exclusively to deranged, bigoted poor people; rather, he garners support from a much larger intolerant cohort – the majority of Republican voters. Trump has simply exchanged dog-whistle politics with explicitly derogatory, profiling, messages. This should not minimize intolerance from those with lower economic status – which, indeed, exists – however, it should remind us that the poor are no more racist than others and do not represent the average Trump supporter. Rather, most Republicans who are not white trash are to blame. These enablers of Trump are much better off and have considerably much more nefarious power and influence than people are willing to admit.

Despite Conservatives’ misguided efforts to blame the poor for the bigotry expressed by Trump, smug Liberals are not innocent either. While the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has not been as provocative as her opponent, she certainly has her respective forms of intolerance as well.

In her own coded language for “white-trash bin,” Clinton labeled half of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” Using the analogy of Sarah Smarsh, making such a generalization at a $6,000,000 fundraiser in downtown New York City, at which some attendees paid $50,000 per seat, instills ideas of powerful Washington figures discussing “normals” with distaste behind closed doors. Clinton’s statement, in combination with her history of routinely meeting significant superrich, financial interests behind closed doors, only reinforces this “othering” and “belittling” of those with lower economic status for things for which they are not solely responsible.

When Clinton contrasts her policies with those supported by the mythological poor “deplorables” and their loud, bellicose mouthpiece Trump, she and other Liberals over-romanticize her past political behaviors. After all, it was she, not Trump, who cast black children as animals, asserting: “they are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘superpredators.’  No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.” This statement, given in Hillary’s speech of support for the 1994 crime bill, is hurtful on its own, but the bill itself, for which she argued, decimated Black communities. Nearly half a decade later, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that in seven states, Blacks constituted 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison, despite the fact they were no more likely than whites to use or sell illegal drugs – reminiscent of Jim Crow policies. The same year HRW released this report, the joblessness rate for young, non-college-educated black men, accounting for prison populations, was 42 percent. Her endorsement of the policy contributing to the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates, mostly persons of color, in modern history and the subsequent impact cannot be ignored. Nor can we ignore that Clinton has received substantial contributions from major prison lobbyists to this day and during this election, at levels on par with Republican challengers. While she has offered proposals to fix the prison system to some extent, it is unclear how much she has learned and how genuine her ideas are. Perhaps more importantly, it remains ambiguous if she will successfully correct the negative stereotypes of persons of color, which her actions and actions she supported actually helped to create – the likes of which have facilitated contemporary racial resentment, or, in the cases of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and countless others, grave consequences of racial bias.

While Clinton has endorsed some domestic policies that have hurt communities of color, perhaps even more overwhelming is the devastating impact of Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy on international persons of color. Clinton supported the invasion of Iraq, much of the Afghanistan surge, and the destabilizing regime change in Libya. Honduras and Palestine mar her record too. Although Clinton has a somewhat nuanced record of foreign policy engagements and expansion, it is trending towards more hawkish than in her early career. For example, she opposed striking al Qaeda targets in Pakistan in 2007 and 2008, but during her tenure as Secretary of State, between January 2009 and February 2013, she allowed 294 drone strikes in Pakistan, killing an estimated 2,192 people – many innocent, and all executed without trial. In her memoir Hard Choices, she wrote that secret drone strikes are “one of the most effective . . . elements” of the “war on terror”.

Hillary Clinton is less problematic than Donald Trump; but, just as Conservatives are over-romanticizing their innocence in fueling Trump and his bigotry, Liberals, too, are over-romanticizing their innocence in deleteriously affecting non-white communities just because it has not been in the form of shouting denigrations into a microphone to thunderous applause. The entire framework within which we have debated this election has been flawed. No party is innocent. If we are to have a better future, restructuring our discussions to be productive and accurate is the first step, trading mythology and pretend-innocence for accountability and honesty.

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