Where sedition is rewarded
In spite of the now clear threat posed by continued disinformation about the legality of the 2020 election, a majority of House Republicans affirmed their overriding loyalty to President Trump and his political movement by objecting to the certification of electoral college votes from the swing states of Arizona and Pennsylvania. Even though their claims of widespread voter fraud were found to be entirely unsubstantiated by independent fact-checkers and rejected by nearly every elected official and court to which they addressed their complaints, they were unmoved in insisting on the merit of President Trump’s claims.
These representatives chose to persist in objecting to the results even after being forced to flee the House chamber by a mob of thousands of Trump supporters — among them white supremacists and paramilitaries — who overran the Capitol grounds, hundreds of whom forced their way into the building bringing the certification process to a halt.
That well over half of the House of Representatives’ Republican caucus would continue to endorse President Trump’s “Stop the Steal” conspiracy, even after its adherents had proven their willingness to use violence and intimidation to thwart recognition of the president’s loss, is a sobering reminder of the extent to which the white Christian nationalist movement incubated within the Republican Party has become actively hostile to democratic processes they now see as threatening their political power, personal wealth, and established social hierarchies.
A demographic and economic analysis of the constituencies represented by the 139 Republicans who objected to the certification of at least one states’ election results helps to clarify the social and material conditions in which this right wing authoritarianism has taken root.
In particular, the evidence cuts strongly against the conventional wisdom of Trumpism as “lumpen” Rust Belt rage, originating in the country’s shrinking rural hinterland. Rather, the picture that emerges of districts represented by the most committed Pro-Trump Republicans is one of fast-growing, rapidly diversifying greenfield suburbs where inequalities between white homeowners and their non-white neighbors have been shrinking and low voter turnout has helped deliver large margins to Republican candidates.
Growing and diversifying exurbs
In addition to being considerably more suburban, as all Republican districts are, residents of objectors’ districts are more than twice as likely as residents of other Republican districts to live in exurban “sparse suburban areas.” These are districts like North Carolina’s 9th, which runs from Charlotte to Fayetteville. Representative Dan Bishop of NC-9 was the author of that state’s infamous 2016 legislation prohibiting transgender individuals from using the gendered public facilities of their choice and preempting local minimum wage ordinances. He was also a signatory to the brief in support of Texas v. Pennsylvania, President Trump’s final direct appeal to the Supreme Court to forestall the certification of his loss.
These are also among the fastest-growing districts in the country, their population growth on average outpacing that in districts represented by Democrats or other Republicans over the last twenty years. Almost all of this growth has been among non-white groups, specifically Latinos and Asian Americans, resulting in a dramatic shift in the demographic composition of these districts.
Being on average younger, this growth in non-white residents has also meant age and race have become increasingly correlated. Residents under the age of 18 are 3.6 times more likely to be Hispanic and 1.6 times more likely to be Black or Asian American than those over the age of 65. Concretely this has meant debates over policies involving a transfer of resources between generational cohorts — Social Security and Medicare, public education, housing — have also become highly polarized by race.
In their work studying the Tea Party protests of the early 2010s, Vanessa Williamson of the Brookings Institution and Theda Skocpol of Harvard identified this nexus of racial and generational resentment as central to the ideology animating its white middle class activists. Gabriel Winant, historian at the University of Chicago, has also written about the ways in which the concentration of wealth among older American has allowed the authoritarian right to stoke fears about youth-led political movements challenging their direct and indirect claims on younger Americans’ labor and income as employers, landlords, lenders, and pensioners.
White middle class stagnation, Latino and Asian American upward mobility
That constituents of Republican objectors tend to have the lowest levels of formal educational attainment in no way flatters their pretensions as working class heroes. While partisan polarization by education has risen dramatically over the last forty years, voters with higher incomes and who own more wealth, are still significantly more likely to support Republicans. This correlation may have weakened slightly in the last two presidential elections, but it remains to be seen whether this represents a durable trend of wealthier suburban Republicans abandoning the party.
The conflation of educational attainment with class obscures the extent to which many white Americans without a four-year degree receive middle class incomes and own some wealth, primarily in residential real estate and pensions.
Republican objectors represent districts where on average 68 percent of white homeowners did not have a four-year degree. It is also worth noting that a majority of all white homeowners nationwide do not possess a college education, real estate being the most equally distributed class of asset.
Since 2000, strong demand for housing due to relatively fast population growth has put upward pressure on housing prices in Republican objectors’ districts, shrinking the gap in home values between their districts and other Republican districts . One such case is Texas’s 17th, which snakes through the northern Austin suburbs to include Bryan-College Station and Waco and saw median home values rise by an inflation-adjusted 3.3 percent a year from $108,000 to $199,000 in constant 2019 dollars.
In Republican districts, home ownership rates over the last twenty years were largely stable for white households, plummeted to less than half among Black households, rose modestly among Hispanic households, and rose considerably among Asian Americans. The latter two groups have been the main beneficiaries of real estate appreciation in these districts and also saw the fastest income growth over the same period.
The persistence of low home ownership among Black households is both the near-term legacy of the 2007–09 housing market crash and recession and the longer-term legacy of redlining and Jim Crow segregation. Virtually no progress has been made in the last 50 years in closing the Black-white wealth gap, the expansion of home ownership among Black households in the 1990s and 2000s having been fueled by the expansion of fraudulent subprime mortgage lending that left them saddled with high debt burdens after housing prices collapsed.
While the home ownership rate among Latinos remains well below that for white households, the gap in median home values between white and Latino homeowners in these districts has closed in the last twenty years. This indicates that strong housing price growth largely benefited existing Latino homeowners rather than new buyers. Latino homeowners in Republican districts are also on average more likely to identify as white and to have been born in the United States than Latinos residing in other parts of the country. These facts go some way in explaining President Trump’s modest inroads among Latino voters in 2020.
White homeowners’ perception of a loss of status relative to upwardly mobile Hispanic and Asian American households is the social context out of which has emerged the nativist politics at the center of Trumpism. Middle class whites in Republican objectors’ districts are nevertheless considerably more likely to own their own home and receive higher incomes than any other racial group except Asian Americans. It is whiteness itself that has lost salience as a signifier of social status and class and it is to this status anxiety that Trumpism is addressed.
Evangelicalism and local dependence on resource extraction, heavy manufacturing, and law enforcement employment
The sense of status threat among white suburban homeowners in Pro-Trump districts is compounded by their religiosity and disproportionate employment in industries the President has portrayed himself as “protecting,” either through trade policy or by excluding the left from political power.
White evangelical Christians have been integral to the Republican coalition since the 1980s and remain President Trump’s most unwavering base of support. In more than half of Republican objectors’ districts, evangelicals account for at least a fifth of constituents, making them far more likely to represent evangelicals in Congress than other Republicans or Democrats.
Public opinion surveys reveal just how much white evangelical Protestants stand apart in their politics. The Public Religion Research Institute’s 2020 American Values survey found that they are the only group among whom a majority expresses a preference for living in a country “made up of people who follow the Christian faith” and who believe that “God has granted America a special role in human history.” Fifty-three percent believe “society punishes men for acting like men,” and they are the only group for whom abortion and terrorism rank in their top three most important issues. They are also the least likely to agree that President Trump has encouraged white supremacist groups, though a majority of Americans overall do, and the most likely to claim that he “models religious values with his actions and leadership.”
White evangelicals’ aversion to religious pluralism and providential view of the United States stands in stark contrast to the reality of a secularizing country where regular attendance of religious services is declining and younger Americans are increasingly less likely to identify as Christian. Evangelicals defend their support for President Trump on the grounds that he is an “imperfect agent,” chosen by God to use the powers of the American state to proselytize and defend a divinely-inspired social hierarchy with white Christians at its top.
Workers in Republican objectors’ districts are more likely to be employed in sectors of the economy President Trump has routinely identified as most threatened by the political left — mining and oil and natural gas extraction, heavy manufacturing, and law enforcement. While the average share of workers employed in these industries is small, they loom large in regional economies dependent on them to provide relatively high wage employment to workers without a four-year degree. In his analysis of the 2020 election, geographer Mike Davis notes how both large concentrations of workers employed in border security and the region’s expanding shale oil industry created new opportunities for Republicans to grow their vote share in south Texas’s Rio Grande valley.
Despite his transparently pro-corporate policies, President Trump has burnished his support among workers in these sectors by instead emphasizing the potential threats posed to them by demands to decarbonize the economy, prosecute police violence, and defund local and federal law enforcement agencies (off-duty police officers are alleged to have participated in the January 6th riot on Capitol Hill).
Trumpism and antidemocratic politics
The willingness of the most fervent Pro-Trump constituencies to embrace more openly antidemocratic politics on the part of their elected representatives reflects a recognition of their reliance on minoritarian features of our constitutional system to wield political power.
Republican objectors’ districts had some of the lowest voter participation in the country in 2018 (see Table 3). Turnout in these districts averaged less than fifty percent of voting-age adults in a midterm election when voter turnout nationally was the highest it had been in forty years.
The Mississippi 4th, covering the southeastern part of that state around Biloxi, was one such low turnout district. A mere 39 percent of adults in the district voted in 2018. Its representative, Steven Palazzo, won 68 percent of the vote, meaning he was elected by the votes of only 26 percent of his district’s constituents. He was reelected in 2020 and is currently under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for improper use of campaign funds.
In 2018, only five representatives in the House of Representatives were elected by votes from more than 50 percent of voting-age adults in their district, all of whom were Democrats that received more than 80 percent of the vote.
The Republican Party’s most Pro-Trump members have been elected by higher income white homeowners in the fast-growing exurban fringe. They feel the social status traditionally associated with their identity as white Christians is being degraded and that left wing political movements pose a threat to their livelihoods and political power. In reaction, they have lashed themselves to a movement within the Republican Party led by President Trump that seeks to defend the privileges of property-owning white Americans in our political system, economy, and public life.
President Trump’s incitement of his supporters to disrupt the electoral process by force is the culmination of the Republican Party’s decade-long campaign to maintain minority rule by depressing political participation and diluting the vote of their political opponents. Having secured control over governor’s mansions and both houses of state legislatures in 23 states, Republicans are now positioned to once again ensure district boundaries maximize their representation in Congress for the next decade as well.
Bleak as this prospect is, Democrats’ dual Senate victories in the state of Georgia have vindicated a strategy of organizing and mobilizing the latent majority of voters who will reject white Christian nationalism and its antidemocratic politics, even in a state where voter suppression efforts have been infamous.
The fact that Republican objectors command the least popular support among their own constituents of any congressional elected officials in the country is both a testament to their effectiveness in entrenching their own power and also the foundation on which we must ground our hopes for political change to end minority rule.
Note: Data and Stata code is available on request (please leave a private comment with contact details).