It’s Not the Economy, Stupid

Almost everything you think you know about Donald Trump’s political base is wrong.

His supporters are not poor. They’re not unemployed. They don’t live in places where the manufacturing industry has dried up. Their neighborhoods aren’t dying. Their jobs aren’t being threatened by cheap imports from China. And their communities are not being flooded by hordes of undocumented immigrants from south of the border.

These are among the surprising conclusions contained in a draft working paper written by Jonathan Rothwell, a senior economist at Gallup. “At the individual level,” he writes, “ there was little clear evidence that economic hardship predicts support for Trump, in that higher household incomes tend to predict higher Trump support.” For Rothwell, a careful look at individual level data does not support the idea that Trump supporters “are confronting abnormally high economic distress, by conventional measures of employment and income.”

Instead, what does distinguish Trump supporters from others is where and how they live. Trump’s supporters tend to live in highly segregated white communities relatively distant from the Mexican border. They are

older, with higher household incomes, are more likely to be male, white non-Hispanic, less likely to identify as LGBTQ, less likely to hold a bachelor’s degree or higher education, more likely to be a veteran or family member of a veteran, more likely to work in a blue-collar occupation, and are more likely to be Christian and report that religion is important to them.

For Rothwell, these findings provide strong support for what is known in social science as “contact theory.” Contact theory holds that the more contact a person has with people who are different, the less likely it is that the person will support policies that single others out for adverse treatment due to factors such as race, religion or ethnicity.

Encouraging contacts to end intolerance, of course, is not what Donald Trump’s campaign has been about. Trump is now famous (or infamous) for his determination to deport the 11 million undocumented workers now residing in the United State, to build a wall across our southern border to stop people from crossing into the United States illegally, and to make it extremely difficult for Muslims to enter the United States.

Rothwell’s paper makes an important contribution to understanding what is going on at this political moment. Thanks to Rothwell, it’s no longer possible to look at this election as a battle between people who have benefited from the bewildering changes that have occurred in the national economy over the last 40 years.

Rothwell is too polite to acknowledge the endogeneity problem inherent in his study. By using contact theory for the basis of his hypotheses, he glosses over an important issue regarding causality. Contact theory assumes that intolerance arises out of a lack of contact. But, what if, instead of being an effect of segregation, intolerance is a feature of segregated communities? What if intolerant people simply choose to live in segregated communities?

Bill Bishop’s landmark study, The Big Sort, Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, and Enrico Moretti’s The New Geography of Jobs make it clear that modern American communities do not self-assemble by chance. Over the last 40 years, Americans have relocated themselves to the places where they find like-minded people. People live, work, play and learn in all white communities because they want to. That’s why living close to the Mexican border does not increase support for Donald Trump. The people who live close to the border probably don’t see living in communities that are open to Mexicans and others from central and South America as a problem.

Rothwell’s findings make a lot more sense if they are read in light of Robert P. Jones’s superb new book, The End of White Christian America. According to Jones, demographic and secularizing trends have severely weakened the grip of white Protestants on the culture and politics of the United States. Whereas, in the last century, it was possible to define the American community in a way that excluded anyone who was not a white Protestant, that is no longer possible.

Rothwell’s findings, instead, confirm my finding that this election isn’t about economic dislocation at all, at least in the eyes of the Trump supporters. For them, something much more fundamental is going on. They see this as their last chance to reclaim an America of small towns with homogeneous populations, an America which, if it ever existed at all, existed for very few during a relatively short period of time in American history.

What I see happening is a rearguard action determined to “take America back” from the blacks, the Muslims, the social justice Catholics, the Jews, the Latinos, the intellectuals, the gays and the Asians now aligned with the Democrats and who Trump’s supporters now think call the shots. They know that, with one open seat on the Supreme Court and potentially two or three more in the next four years, the next president will be in a position bring the culture war the political right has been waging to a decisive close. Any possibility that Trump’s supporters will be able to use religion to preserve a way of life that permits discrimination against people on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation will end. Any possibility of a retrenchment in abortion law, general sexual mores or gay rights will end. Any ability to disenfranchise voters will end.

This is why Trump supporters believe Hillary Clinton is a criminal and why she must be imprisoned. It’s also why Donald Trump is already talking about a rigged election. It explains how Donald Trump became the improbable champion for Christians who feel religion is important.

Trump’s supporters are saying that they do not accept as legitimate any system in which white Protestants are no longer privileged. They insist that Hillary Clinton is a criminal because, like the current president, she is an outsider, someone who has violated their sense of who is entitled to be regarded as a true American. They believe that Democrats such as Hillary Clinton have stolen their country.

Jones argues that White Christian America is in the process of grieving for itself. Donald Trump’s candidacy may be a station on the road that ends when the griever can finally accept his or her loss.