The Republican, white-nationalist Donald Trump slanders and insults Latinos, Muslims and women. He promotes violence. He mocks the disabled. He refers to himself as brilliant, citing his fortune—obscenely accumulated over decades of predatory business practices that cheat workers and consumers—as “proof.”
He feuds with the gold star parents of a Muslim U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, claiming that he too has “sacrificed” (like the dead soldier and his parents) by employing “thousands and thousands of people.” It was a remarkable comment: Being born into wealth and in a position to hire a large number of people is not a “sacrifice.” If Trump isn’t reaping profits from all those workers under his command, he must not really be the brilliant, capitalist businessman he claims to be.
A military veteran gives the Republican presidential candidate his Purple Heart medal, bestowed on soldiers injured in battle. Trump quips, “I always wanted a Purple Heart. This was a lot easier.” Unreal. Donald Trump, Mr. Sacrifice, used college deferments to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War.
How is this noxious candidate even within shouting distance of Hillary Clinton? Let’s separate the fact from the fiction.
The Donald and the White Working Class
One easy, elite answer is to blame the supposedly stupid and racist white working class. It is common to hear mainstream (corporate) media talking heads proclaim that Trump is the candidate of the white working class and “low-income whites”—those that The Wall Street Journal and Trump himself like to call “the forgotten Americans.” These are who Barack Obama described in 2008 as people who “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”
How accurate is this narrative? According to exit polls, the median household income of Trump’s primary voters was $72,000, $11,000 higher than the corresponding figure for Bernie Sanders’ and Clinton’s primary voters.
In his analysis of survey data gathered from more than 70,000 interviews in June and July, Gallup economist Jonathan Rothwell found that Americans who favor Trump have incomes that are 6 percent higher than that of nonsupporters.
Trump is less popular with the white working class than Mitt Romney was four years ago. In 2012, Romney garnered 62 percent of votes by “non-college-educated whites” (researchers’ and journalists’ longstanding, if imperfect, stand-in term for the white working class). According to the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, Trump isn’t even backed by a majority of this group, with just 49 percent on his side. Earlier this summer, his support among these whites hovered around 60 percent, suggesting that they are capable of processing information on his toxicity.
When you consider that the nation’s abysmally low voter-turnout rate falls the further one moves down the U.S. income scale, it seems highly improbable that Trump—currently behind Clinton in national polls—will ride some great wave of white-proletarian, Brexit-like sentiment to victory in November.
Still, Trump is doing better than Clinton with working-class whites. In the aforementioned NBC-WSJ survey, she trails him by 13 percentage points among whites without a college education and by 21 points among men in that group. In former union strongholds and deindustrialized, white working-class enclaves like Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County and Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, Arun Gupta recently reported on teleSUR English that voters are “flocking” to Trump.
Where did Trump do best in the primaries? A New York Times analysis found that his strongest base was in predominantly white areas where a proportion of workers toil in jobs that involve “working with one’s hands, especially manufacturing”; a big share of working-age adults are jobless; an unusually high number of people live in mobile homes; and all but a few residents told the U.S. Census Bureau that their ancestors were “American.”
Jon Flanders, a retired railroad machinist and former union leader, told me that he recently “asked a question about who the union workers in the railroad shops predominately supported. The question was asked on a Facebook page with about 1,000 members. The answer? Trump, overwhelmingly.”
Rothwell, the Gallup economist, determined that “the prototypical Trump supporter” is white, male, Christian (but not Mormon), heterosexual and without a college degree. He found Trump supporters significantly correlated with low intergenerational mobility, weak income growth and employment in “blue-collar occupations that have been exposed to competition with immigrants and foreign workers.”
The higher-income figures of Trump supporters relative to Democratic primary voters and non-Trump supporters is largely explained by race. Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to be white, and whites receive considerably higher average incomes than nonwhites.
The Elite Liberal Thesis
So what’s this white working-class preference for the bombastic Trump all about? It might seem counterintuitive, even absurd, that a vicious, opulence-flouting, uber-narcissistic plutocrat and Republican like Trump garners more support than a Democrat from working-class people of any race. We can be sure that many residents of affluent, liberal enclaves nodded their heads in approval when Obama said this about Trump at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia: “Does anyone really believe that a guy who’s spent his 70 years on this earth showing no regard for working people is suddenly going to be your champion? Your voice? … If so, you should vote for him. But if you’re someone who’s truly concerned about paying your bills, if you’re really concerned about pocketbook issues and … creating more opportunity for everybody, then the choice isn’t even close. … You should vote for Hillary Clinton.”
Then why are so many white workers failing to vote in accord with their purported obvious economic interests, Mr. President? How do we explain this great anomaly? When it isn’t simply writing non-college-educated whites off as irredeemably racist, the standard, elite, liberal-Democratic, campus-town line is that all those poor, pitiful, xenophobic, gun-clinging white proles have been tricked into foolishly “voting against their own pocketbook interests” by clever Republican strategists who divert white workers with convenient scapegoats and social issues—inner-city black criminals and “welfare cheats,” Mexican immigrants, guns, gay rights, abortion and religion. All these ugly cards are played to prevent the white working class from fighting the selfish billionaires who profit from the plutocratic agenda of the Republicans, “the party of big business.”
WAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
Donald Trump at a rally in Reno, Nev. (Darron Birgenheier / CC -BY-SA 2.0)
If you're reading this, you probably already know that non-profit, independent journalism is under threat worldwide. Independent news sites are overshadowed by larger heavily funded mainstream media that inundate us with hype and noise that barely scratch the surface. We believe that our readers deserve to know the full story. Truthdig writers bravely dig beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that tells you what’s really happening and who’s rolling up their sleeves to do something about it.
Like you, we believe a well-informed public that doesn’t have blind faith in the status quo can help change the world. Your contribution of as little as $5 monthly or $35 annually will make you a groundbreaking member and lays the foundation of our work.