Running for president in 2016, Donald Trump sold two kinds of populism. One appealed to white tribalism and xenophobia – starkly in his early embrace of birtherism, recurrently in his exaggerations about immigrant crime, Muslim terrorism and urban voter fraud.
The other was an economic appeal, aimed at working-class voters hit hard by de-industrialisation who found the existing Republican agenda too libertarian. Trump promised to protect entitlements and replace Obamacare with something more generous; his anti-immigration arguments were about jobs as well as crime; he promised lavish infrastructure spending and trade deals that would bring back factory jobs; he pledged to make the GOP a “worker’s party”.
When this combination of appeals delivered victory, it set off an interminable debate about whether to look at Trumpian populism primarily through the lens of race or economics. Interminable, but crucial, because the answer would say a lot about whether a less tribal political alignment is possible – with Democrats winning back blue-collar whites or Republicans building a pan-ethnic nationalism – or whether we’re doomed to a permanent racial polarisation of the parties.
The strongest argument for privileging economics is a simple one: Trump won millions of working-class white voters in the Midwest, the constituency and the region hit hardest by globalisation, who had previously voted for Barack Obama. If you voted twice for the first black president, this argument goes, your main political motivation probably isn’t racism, and the fact that Trump ran as an economic populist seems like a more important explanatory fact.
The rebuttal, the case for privileging race, relies on a raft of studies, the most recent one summarised by Vox’s Zack Beauchamp just weeks before the midterms, which show that those Trump-Obama switchers were more likely to express racially conservative attitudes and hard-line, anti-immigration views than they were to have suffered recent economic setbacks.
The hypothesis floated by these studies’ interpreters is that the combination of Obama’s presidency and Trump’s deliberate race-baiting had an activating effect on white anxiety. Racial backlash against the first black president was more limited in 2016 because Mitt Romney didn’t play to racial fears, but the backlash escalated, and flipped more white voters, once the next Republican nominee did.
I’ve taken swipes at these studies, but I’m more frustrated by the way they’re used by pundits than by the work itself, which does tell us two important facts – that Trump probably won getting-by-OK, working-class Americans rather than the truly desperate, and that Obama-to-Trump switchers had to have a certain indifference to minority concerns (which is what many social-science measures of “racial conservatism” pick up) to tolerate his more bigoted appeals.
At the same time these kind of studies often treat immigration as a strictly racial issue when it’s understood by many voters as an economic one (which is why African-American and native-born Hispanics can be immigration hard-liners). They elide the fact that you can base your vote on economic issues without being maximally economically anxious. (Given the GOP’s historic brand as the party of business, you might expect a successful Republican economic-populist pitch to pick off the less anxious working class voters first.) And they encourage a slippage in liberal analysis where a voting bloc’s susceptibility to identity politics get described starkly as a “white nationalism” that implicitly places those voters beyond the reach of reason – even when they voted for Barack Hussein Obama four short years before.
Which brings me to the recent midterms, which offered a natural experiment in the race-versus-economics question – because, as president, Trump has been more plutocratic than populist on many issues, even as he has kept up the tribalist provocations and, just before the midterms, used the migrant caravan as an excuse for race-baiting.
If the Obama-Trump voters were primarily motivated by racial anxiety, you would expect his approach to consolidate them for the GOP – especially with a strong economy, with the Democrats putting up lots of minority candidates, and so on.
But white identity politics failed to hold Trump’s gains. Some of the biggest swings against the GOP were among middle- and lower-income Americans, not just among affluent suburbanites. The Upper Midwest swung back toward Democrats. And among whites without college degrees, Democrats improved on Hillary Clinton’s showing by eight percentage points – identical to their gains among college-educated whites.
This doesn’t mean that the racial fears Trump stoked didn’t bring some Republican voters to the polls. But it proves that white-identity politics isn’t simply destiny, that Democrats can reach wavering white-working class voters instead of writing them off, and that if Republicans want to hold them, then actual economic populism – with its potential pan-ethnic rather than racially polarising appeal – is a better bet than what we’ve gotten too often from his White House.
In what is not the most optimistic time for race relations in America, I call that good news.