The 2016 elections have been strange to say the least. Previously held political wisdom has been turned on its head and political dynasties have seen their power erode. The manifestation of this? Donald Trump. Trump has created a campaign that capitalizes on the increasing anger amongst America’s white voters. But where does this anger stem from? To answer this question we can look to the foundations of the Trump campaign. Trump’s campaign is built on three pillars: racial politics, economic woes and anti-establishment sentiments in the Republican base.
Race and Demographics
To begin with, the US has gotten polarized on issues of race over the last eight years. While many thought that Obama’s presidency had taken the US into a post-racial era, it seems to have done the exact opposite. Brown University Political Scientist Michael Tesler found that when polled on issues of race today, Republicans and Democrats disagree immensely where 10 or 20 years ago they would have agreed. A comparison between views on the OJ Simpson court case and whether 12 years a slave deserved an Oscar are illustrative of this. Tesler found that while 51% and 41% of Democrats and republicans respectively agreed with the OJ Simpson verdict in only 15% of all Republicans believed 12 Years a Slave deserved the Oscar to 53% of Democrats. This change not surprising when you look at events in the recent past. Whether it was the spate of high profile police shootings or even Bowdoin’s recent Tequila party incident the US is in a highly racial moment of its history. Perhaps, this change explains the rise of Donald Trump as the Republican frontrunner who has risen in polls by at least partly alienating minority voters.
Of course racism has been alive and well for as long as the US has existed. So systemic racism is probably not the whole reason for Donald Trump’s political success. Perhaps the underlying cause for Trump’s rise has been the demographic changes that the US is undergoing. America’s white population is aging. The median white age is at a historic high of 43.1 while Mixed race, Latino, Black median ages sit well below at 19.9, 28.8 and 37.7 respectively. This aging has meant that whites have seen their share of the under-20 population fall immensely. Forty six states saw their white under-20 population fall between 2010 and 2014. The implication of these figures is that as whites are starting to see their share of the population decline and consequently they have they seen their political influence decline as they become a smaller segment of the electorate. Trump’s rise could be a white response to a society of which they are increasingly losing control.
Donald Trump, the real estate tycoon and republican frontrunner for the nomination, is attracting poorer people because he is campaigning to “Make America Great Again”, code for making America rich again. As a wealthy business man, people see him as a symbol for prosperity, and this is driving his success. Trump has economic dissatisfaction of poor areas to thank for his unexpected success in the Republican primaries.
Trump is winning amongst Americans who are facing economic insecurity. Even though America’s number of jobs are increasing and the unemployment rate shrinking, this recession recovery has not been equal for everyone. Those who have not experienced the economic benefits of recovery are voting for Trump. Mainly, these are white conservatives without college degrees making less than $50,000 a year. Trump has the largest gap between supporters who have a college degree and those who do not out of any of the top Republican candidates.
Whereas Cruz’s support does not differ between poorer and richer counties, and Rubio’s support is drawn from the wealthy, Trump support is largely concentrated in poor areas. This signifies an economic dissatisfaction amongst his supporters.
Voters who pay little attention to politics and who are less educated are likely to vote out incumbents, regardless of party, when the economy is bad. These same voters are looking to Trump, who’ statements such as “Make America great again” are speaking to this population and signals to voters that things are going badly.
Those who are affected by these “bad times” are the most likely to vote for him. Those who claim their personal finances are getting worse are 20% more likely to vote for Trump than those who claim their personal finances are improving. Donald Trump would not be doing so well in the race if it were not for the uneducated and poor voters seeking to find economic security and prosperity.
Another factor that has been overlooked throughout the entirety of this election is the civil war that is occurring within the Republican Party. The onus of the Party of Lincoln was to unite the United States but today, they can barely stay united themselves.
We had a small foray of these struggles during the 2009 rise of the Tea Party, an extreme right leaning group within the Republican Party. Many saw it as a hiccup within the electorate and though that it would blow over with time, but today they make up at least 10% of the Republican party. Considering that the republican Conservative base has shrunk to 42%, the lowest since 2005, this grants significant power to small groups like the Tea Party.
Another splintering event that recently occurred is the battle for the nomination of Paul Ryan to be the new speaker of the house. After the freedom caucus, a group sympathetic to the Tea Party, forced out John Boehner they refused to support Ryan’s nomination. Such events also highlight the destruction that splintering is occurring within the party.
The creation of these divisions at the federal level is a result of numerous ideological divisions within the republican electorate. The graph depicting the republicans’ self-description highlights these internal differences. Even of greater importance is the issues facing the party between older and younger members. The issue of marijuana legalization can be used to demonstrate how lines are drawn within the party based solely on age.
These rifts are responsible for the rise of Donald Trump. Without these rifts Donald would have been treated similar to how Hillary is treating Bernie Sanders. Donald would have made a lot of commotion, but would never have a chance to gain a majority of delegates. Instead, the splintered Republican Party could never decide on a front-runner and was thus, hijacked by Donald Trump.
The confluence of these three factors has created the fertile ground in which Donald Trump is now flourishing. While this might seem astounding to political pundits around the country, it should come as no surprise as the same phenomenon occurs the world over. Whether it is Golden Dawn in Greece, the True Finns in Finland or UKIP in the UK, economic woes and racial tensions almost always give rise to anti-establishment sentiments that make right wing populism an appealing alternative to large swathes of the electorate. Donald Trump is phenomenon that has been in the making for at least the last decade and the data is there to show it.