What Liberals Miss About Trump Country

Liberal pundits look at Trump voters and see a monolithic mass of reactionary resentment. But class matters — poor Republicans actually tend to hold progressive views on the economy.

A sign encouraging voters to vote Republican on November 4, 2008 just outside rural Elizabeth, Colorado. Marc Piscotty / Getty Images

The effects of Donald Trump’s presidency on the American economy are widely debated, but there’s at least one field of production whose boom is indisputably a result of his election: the conservative voter ethnography industry. Since Trump’s rise, article after article has tracked down Trump voters in some small town in a formerly Democratic state. The pieces vary in tone — some are journalistically objective, others are more personal — but they all seem to end with the author silently shaking their head, confounded by the unbreachable irrationality of these voters.

Monica Potts’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times is the latest in this genre. Her article focuses on the fight over a new position at a public library in rural Arkansas, which sparked opposition over the county’s ability to pay for the new salary. Potts uses this dispute as a window into the values of rural Trump supporters, and what she finds isn’t pretty. These voters have an ideological opposition to public services, she argues, opposing their extension even when they themselves would benefit. She’s remarkably blunt about the political upshot, making explicit what most of the genre leaves subtextual: “Economic appeals are not going to sway any Trump voters, who view anyone who is trying to increase government spending, especially to help other people, with disdain.”

This line of argument is widely embraced across the liberal commentariat: Trump voters are an impenetrable bloc, an irredeemable monolith motivated by racism and resentment. Yet what’s remarkable about this image is how thoroughly it’s contradicted by the empirical evidence on rural Republican voters. Far from a homogeneous group, the Republican Party is actually shot through with contradictions that center on what liberal journalists insist can’t possibly explain anything: class.

Red State Blues

Income and voting are tightly linked in US politics. Higher income people are more likely to vote, and are more likely to vote Republican, than people with lower incomes. Though the image of the uneducated white Trump voter is omnipresent in American political discourse, the fact that Trump’s support comes disproportionately from the affluent is seldom mentioned. And among the lower-income people who do pull the lever for the GOP, opinions tend to be very different from those of high-income Republicans, particularly when it comes to economics.

A report from the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group last summer found that while Democratic voters by and large hold similar economic ideologies whether rich or poor, Republican voters were deeply divided by income. A majority of Republicans earning less than $40,000 a year supported raising the minimum wage, while among GOPers making more than $80,000 a year, less than 40 percent supported such a raise. The gulf was even wider on issues like mandatory paid family leave and taxing the rich.

There was a similar divide on understandings of how the economy works. Among Republicans pulling in less than $40,000, 45 percent believed that economic inequality was caused by systemic unfairness in the economy. Only 18 percent of their wealthier counterparts endorsed such a view. Overall, the authors of the report concluded that about one in five Republican voters held views about the economy closer to the average Democrat than the average Republican. Though these poor Republicans are a minority of Trump’s coalition, they are a substantial one.

Others have discovered similar patterns. A study by Cory Maks-Solomon and Elizabeth Rigby examining votes in the Senate found that the two parties are divided on different axes. While Democrats differ between rich and poor on social issues and are united on economics, Republicans are united on social issues and divided on economics, with poor Republicans endorsing significantly more progressive economic policies than rich Republicans. Senators in both parties tended to vote in accordance with the richest members of their party.

What’s more, research indicates that these dynamics are strongest in precisely the sorts of areas where journalists go poking around to find Trump voters. One study revealed that schisms between rich and poor voters are widest in “Republican-leaning [congressional] districts, as well as districts that are highly religious, rural, and located in the south.” Another, based on different data, found that the relationship between income and voting was itself contingent on the average income in a state. In rich states, which also tend to be more Democratic, income and voting were only weakly related, while in a poor red state like Arkansas, the relationship was much stronger. It is in poor states that the rich and poor are most divergent in their voting patterns.

In other words, the Republican voting bloc is much more fractious than our intrepid explorer journalists suggest. Poor Republicans believe quite different things, particularly about economics, than their more well-heeled co-partisans. And it is in exactly the rural areas where journalists conduct National Geographic–style ethnographies that these differences matter most.

In this, as with so much else, Trump is not an exception to the main currents of US politics. While sneering at “economic anxiety” as an explanation for Trump’s victory has become a reflex to liberal pundits, the evidence suggests that Trump’s often canny manipulation of intra-party fissures was one of the factors that carried him to to the White House.

Thomas Ferguson and his colleagues at the Institute for New Economic Thinking found that a number of economic issues were important for Trump in both the primary and the general election. In the primary, three of the issues that strongly predicted backing Trump over the other Republican candidates were favoring limiting imports, backing government policies that limit inequality, and believing politicians only care about the rich. In the general election, Trump’s victory depended in part on the behavior of two groups — those who voted for Obama in 2012 and then for Trump in 2016; and those who hadn’t voted in 2012. Among both groups, limiting imports was an important policy preference in predicting switching to Trump. Trump’s election didn’t so much negate the chasms in the Republican Party as foreground their existence as never before.

Culture in Context

The homogenization of rural white America in the portraits of liberal observers obscures all of this. Instead, readers are told again and again that nothing can shake Trump voters’ faith in him, that racism and xenophobia drive everything about their politics, and that they will happily deprive themselves of opportunity if it means they can deprive others as well.

There’s more than a whiff of the familiar “culture of poverty” narrative, usually applied to black Americans, to this picture. In both cases, observers point to the culture and values of a group as responsible for its condition. In the culture of poverty story, black Americans lack the morals and mores that would allow them to succeed in the labor market. In the Trump voters story, the normative deficiencies of poor whites lead them to oppose investment in public goods (infrastructure, social welfare programs, libraries) that would actually improve their lives. In both cases, the social structures that shape people’s lives fade from view, replaced by nebulous constellations of values that determine people’s fates like astrological signs.

This liberal blind spot is particularly debilitating when it comes to explaining the roots of anti-solidaristic ideologies. None of the above, after all, negates the fact that there are huge numbers of poor white Americans who embrace racism and are ideologically opposed to public assistance programs. But what journalists venturing into Trump country miss is that people’s values reflect the actual choices available to them. People facing persistent unemployment because of discrimination and deindustrialization will often respond by demoting work’s importance in their value system. People who live in areas where the welfare state is all but nonexistent probably see a smaller tax burden as a more likely outcome than the government actually helping them, and they order their values accordingly. Or, as in Aesop’s fable, the grapes that are out of reach were probably sour anyway.

Too often, accounts that set out to understand the mind of the Trump voter flatten all of this, invoking an all-encompassing and unassailable culture instead of investigating the actual fault lines and weaknesses in his coalition. The end result is only too familiar to observers of contemporary American liberalism. Rather than attempting to chart a path to victory, many liberals attempting to take stock of the moment seem more interested in validating their defeat by confirming its inevitability.

It’s hard to think of a moment in recent history in which this orientation has been less appropriate. Public opinion polls show that sentiment on virtually every major question is moving to the left, from immigration to unions to abortion. At the same time, the continuing unfettered ravages of American capital have carved deep fractures into both of the major political parties. If ever there was a time to think US politics could be decisively changed for the better, this is it. Taking advantage of this moment, however, is going to require coming to terms with how class is shaping American politics — including the mind of the heterogeneous Trump voter.