A Cute Joke Gone Too Far

For weeks now, Vox columnist Matt Yglesias has been mocking the idea that “economic anxiety” is a substantial factor in the Rise of Trump. Here’s one of dozens of examples:

It’s understandable where this particularly highbrow putdown (also used by other twitterers) came from. Belittling the economic anxiety explanation has two understandable if not entirely pure motivations. One is the idea that chalking up Trump’s success to economic factors minimizes the central role of racism in his campaign; pointing out other reasons people might have for voting Trump distracts from the main issue or can even be seen (in an illogical sort of way) as an apology for Trump’s racism. The second motivation is that, since Hillary Clinton decided to run on the poorly worded “America is already great” theme, talking about economic insecurity only plays into the hands of the enemy; instead, we should just pretend everything is hunky-dory. (Yglesias does not share this second motivation.) But to many people, including me, it seems bizarre to insist that economic anxiety has nothing to do with Trump’s success, and much simpler to simply acknowledge that some of his voters are racists, some are worried about their economic prospects, and some are both.

Today, instead of letting the by-now-stale joke simply fade away, Yglesias decided to double down with a column arguing that Trump is all about “white grievance politics,” not economic anxiety.

Yglesias’s first point is this:

not only is white racial resentment clearly a statistical correlate of support for Donald Trump, it’s a perfectly good reason to support Donald Trump.

(He uses “good” to mean reasonable given your perceptions of the world, not morally good.) That’s completely true.

Then he goes on to claim that “adding an economic anxiety factor to your account doesn’t actually help to explain anything.” But here his arguments don’t make any sense. Here’s the first one:

Trump’s supporters, for example, are considerably whiter and considerably older than the American population at large. If the economic problems of the past decade had been unusually hard on the white and the old, then an economics-focused explanation could be valuable. In reality, things have been rougher on nonwhites and rougher on younger cohorts.

To see how silly this argument is, consider the racial dimension. The fact that Trump has less support among nonwhites is explained by the fact that he is a Republican and a racist. Let’s say there is such a thing as economic anxiety, and it makes you more likely to be a Trump supporter. African-Americans are somewhat more likely to have economic anxiety, so more of them should vote Trump, all other things being equal. That’s Yglesias’s point. But other things aren’t equal; being African-American makes you much, much less likely to be a Trump supporter for other reasons (party, racism). Add those factors together, and voilà! Trump has better numbers among whites than among African-Americans. This is entirely consistent with the economic anxiety interpretation. (Conceptually, Yglesias is using race as an instrument for economic anxiety when the dependent variable is Trump support. This only works if race has no effect on Trump support other than via economic anxiety.)

The age dimension behaves the same way, just less obviously. Young people skew liberal and non-racist compared to old people. (For the record, I’m middle-aged.) So they will support Trump at lower rates than old people, even though they are poorer.

Besides, while it is true that Trump runs better among whites than blacks, the question should be: relative to what? I don’t place a lot of faith in poll breakouts (low sample sizes), but it’s not clear he’s doing better among whites (or old people) than Mitt Romney did in 2012, and he may be doing considerably worse. That comparison is complicated by the fact that Barack Obama is himself African-American. But if anything, the poll data (which, again, I am not convinced by) tend to undermine the idea that this is an election about white privilege.

Wait — I just reread the column, and that was the only actual argument against the economic anxiety explanation. Most of the rest is Yglesias acknowledging that people do have real economic grievances.

Here’s a half-argument, near the end:

But when Trump voters say they’re upset about needing to press one for English, mad that Black Lives Matter protesters are slandering police officers, and worried that Muslim and/or Mexican immigrants are going to murder their children, it’s perverse to interpret them as secretly hankering for a refundable child care tax credit.

First of all, do we know what proportion of Trump voters are worried that brown people are going to murder their children? This doesn’t rebut the idea that different people vote Trump for different reasons. It’s possible that there are people supporting Trump because they are worried about the cost of child care.

Second, there are many reasons to think that insecurity, economic or otherwise, makes people more receptive to racial appeals. See, for example, the relative support for Hitler among small businesspeople and industrial workers. (I believe that Godwin’s Law has been suspended until November 8, and perhaps — though hopefully not — beyond.)

There is a hint of another argument here:

If Clinton becomes president and has the opportunity to enact her agenda of higher minimum wages, expanded Social Security benefits, expanded Medicaid eligibility, subsidized child care and college tuition, and$275 billion in new infrastructure spending, a huge share of the benefits will flow to economically struggling white people — and rightly so.

The argument would be that since Hillary Clinton’s policies are more likely to actually help poor people than Trump’s, it doesn’t make sense that economically anxious people would support Trump. But this argument is so silly that I don’t think the very smart Matt Yglesias is making it, because it assumes that people know and vote their economic interests. Ronald Reagan disproved that, and I’m sure he wasn’t the first one.

The simple economic anxiety argument goes like this: Many Americans face real economic insecurity — stagnant real wages, higher health care costs, lower homeownership rate, “gig economy,” low workforce participation rate, etc. They think “the system” — whatever they mean by that — isn’t working for them. Hillary Clinton represents “the system” much more than Donald Trump, particularly since she’s claiming most of the legacy of Barack Obama. So they vote Trump. And to repeat: The reason white people support Trump at much higher rates than black people, even though white people are richer than black people, is that Trump is a racist. Is that so hard to understand?

It was a clever joke. But it’s time to move on.

James Kwak is an associate professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, the vice chair of the Southern Center for Human Rights, and a co-author of 13 Bankers and White House Burning. He previously worked at McKinsey, Ariba, and Guidewire Software. Find more at Twitter, Facebook, Medium, The Baseline Scenario, The Atlantic, or jameskwak.net.