Is economic populism now the new normal for the Republican Party?
Donald Trump ran, and won, on an economic platform that spurned many policies advocated by Republicans since the Reagan Era — and one that could redraw the electoral map in the Great Lakes region for years to come.
Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton was unprecedented for many reasons, not least of which was the way the renegade billionaire flipped formerly Democratic-leaning counties throughout the Great Lakes states.
Clinton supporters, professional pundits, and a significant portion of the nation’s political media were confident that the Democratic candidate had thrown up a so-called “Blue Wall” — a line of pro-union, industrial states including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan that would give her an insurmountable, built-in vote advantage. The electoral redoubt also included Wisconsin and Iowa, which were carried by President Obama in 2008 and 2012.
In his upset victory, Trump wielded a message of economic populism and used it as a sledgehammer to smash down that firewall. He earned the support of the region’s blue-collar voters by denouncing the bi-partisan Washington establishment for its supposedly unfair economic policies — a line of attack that turned an erstwhile Democratic stronghold mostly red.
The triumph was all the more stunning because Trump’s positions on trade and immigration reform were a direct rebuke to the Paul Ryan wing of the Republican party, which prides itself on its pro-business policies. In one memorable example, Trump earned the scorn of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce when, in a June trade policy speech, he ripped the Trans Pacific Partnership as a “death blow” to American manufacturing.
Some Clinton partisans and liberal analysts were quick to attribute the election result to what they saw as America’s latent racism or sexism, but exit polling data indicate a different reason for Trump’s win. Quite simply, Rust Belt and rural Midwestern voters agreed with Trump on his core policy positions, in particular the economic drawbacks of free trade deals and immigration.
Jeffrey Anderson, a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning Husdon Institute think tank, crunched the exit numbers and found convincing evidence that, at the end of the day, Trump won because he targeted those issues. Especially striking, Anderson says, was Trump’s decisive edge among independent voters who didn’t like either candidate.
“Those who viewed Trump favorably and Hillary Clinton unfavorably voted for him, of course, just as those who viewed Clinton favorably and Trump unfavorably voted for her,” he wrote in a November 18 article for RealClear Politics. “But among the 18 percent of voters who viewed neither candidate favorably, Trump beat Clinton by a whopping 20 points — 49 percent to 29 percent.”
Breaking down the exit data by issue, Anderson discovered that trade and immigration were the two areas that put Trump over the top in the swing states that Democrats assumed they would keep.
Nationwide, voters viewed trade unfavorably, with 42 percent saying it kills more American jobs than it creates versus 38 percent who believe the opposite. That disparity was much wider in the Great Lakes states that went for Trump — according to Anderson, voters viewed trade as bad, rather than good, by 19 points in Pennsylvania, 16 points in Ohio, 15 points in Wisconsin, and 19 points in Michigan.
On the campaign trail, Trump excoriated NAFTA and U.S. trading partners such as China and Mexico, whom he believes utilize unfair trade practices and entice corporations to offshore American jobs. That rhetoric clearly resonated with voters in the industrial Midwest, even if it is far from certain that Trump will be able to buck leaders in his own party and renegotiate U.S. trade commitments.
If Steve Bannon’s elevation from Trump campaign CEO to chief White House strategist is any indication, though, the new administration is certainly going to try. In an illuminating profile of the much reviled Trump advisor, Hollywood Reporter columnist Michael Wolff highlighted the economic populism at the center of Bannon’s world view. He believes that both parties, but especially Democrats, have abandoned whatever concern they previously had for the working class, voters he intends to incorporate into a new right-of-center electoral majority.
“If we deliver, we’ll get 60 percent of the white vote, and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote and we’ll govern for 50 years,” Bannon told Wolff.
“That’s what the Democrats missed. They were talking to these people with companies with a $9 billion market cap employing nine people. It’s not reality.”
The Trump administration’s new reality supplants a second Republican orthodoxy: the need to support immigration reform in order to avert permanent electoral minority status. Using language that made the Republican establishment squirm, Trump railed against unfettered illegal immigration and even legal work visa programs that he said put Americans in the unemployment line. Just like his trade populism, Trump’s immigration hawkishness resonated with voters in Great Lakes states who worry about the economic and cultural costs of rapid demographic change.
A pre-election analysis by The Wall Street Journal found that Trump polled especially well in rural counties across five Midwestern states — Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota — that experienced the fastest rise in the diversity index of anywhere in the U.S from 2000 to 2015. The index measures the chance that any two people in a given county will have a different ethnicity or race.
When it went back to look at post-election results, the Journal found that two-thirds of voters broke for Trump over Clinton in counties that saw their diversity index grow by 150 percent or more in that time period.
The nascent Trump administration is betting that the appeal of economic protectionism and limited immigration will translate into a new center-right majority in the Great Lakes and Upper Midwest regions. Whether or not that is a viable long term strategy will become a matter of debate among Republicans, but there is little doubt that populism delivered them the White House this year.