Despite its apparent and self-proclaimed contempt for identity politics, the modern Republican Party is fueled by labels, many of which have little substance or bearing on genuine political discourse. Take, for instance, the Trump administration’s recent 25 percent tariff on steel, which will shift new costs onto the auto industry and is predicted to cause a 1.6 to 3.6 percent decrease in the global sale of American-manufactured cars, resulting in between 18,000 and 40,000 potential job losses in that industry by the end of 2019. This impact would significantly overshadow any possible gains in the steel industry, without even accounting for possible losses in other industries from a tariff war with America’s foreign trade partners.
Another example is the effort to deregulate and subsidize the coal industry, when in reality that sector employed only 76,572 workers in 2014, roughly 3,000 less than Arby’s and only slightly more people than the bowling industry. Furthermore, much of the decline in American coal-mining has been the result of recent shifts to more desirable energy sources – namely natural gas and renewables – rather than any so-called “war on coal.” If these policies are clearly ineffective at improving the conditions of many Americans, why is there so much attention being drawn to them? It’s all tied to the traditional conservative ideal of a white, working-class rural voter, despite the increasing difficulty of finding such an individual in America’s increasingly urban, multiracial society, where the romanticized era of coal-mining is now confined to voters’ imaginations.
Since the 2016 presidential campaign, one major narrative, widely supported across the political spectrum, is that President Donald Trump’s victory can be attributed to his addressing the concerns of common, working-class people, who felt alienated by a wealthy, elitist Left. While some Democrats have challenged this interpretation, many have not, being disinclined to upset or further alienate Trump voters, a group described by The Atlantic in 2015 as a “blue-collar foundation.” Frustrating memories of the media backlash surrounding Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment certainly aren’t helping either. The issue, however, is that despite posturing by right-wing groups to justify the more extreme aspects of the Trump platform, the idea that the majority of Trump voters were simply dissatisfied, working-class Americans looking to reclaim the people’s power from Wall Street is demonstrably false.
Contrary to media claims, most Trump voters were not what most Americans would classify as working-class. A pre-election Gallup study reported that Trump supporters tended to have higher mean household incomes at $81,898, compared to non-Trump supporters, at $77,046. Those who supported Trump were also “less likely to be unemployed and less likely to be employed part-time.” Furthermore, exit polling from the presidential primaries estimated the median household income of a Trump voter at $72,000, which is $15,000 more than the American median and nearly double the national median household income of African Americans , who overwhelming disapproved of Trump.
While many voters tend to have higher incomes than nonvoters generally, due to lower voting rates among those with the lowest incomes, Trump voter median incomes were still higher than those of Clinton or Sanders voters – both groups had median incomes of $61,000. The divide was the most noticeable in states with large nonwhite populations, such as South Carolina, where Trump voters’ median household income of $72,000 dwarfed the $39,000 median household income of Clinton voters. In fact, nationally only 12 percent of Trump voters had incomes below $30,000, compared to 20 percent of Clinton voters, and the percent of GOP voters of household incomes below $50,000 actually declined since 2012, contradicting claims that the 2016 election represented a movement of the working-class. The real unifying identity behind Trump voters was their whiteness, not any shared economic situation.
Donald Trump’s politics have been rooted in white supremacy since before his campaign was first announced at Trump Tower in June, 2015. In 2008, he enflamed racist fringe theories that former President Barack Obama was not a United States citizen, and, after the president’s birth certificate was released, Trump publicly offered $5 million for the president’s grades, claiming that he lacked the intelligence to attend two Ivy League institutions and that his memoir, Dreams From My Father, had been ghostwritten by activist Bill Ayers. As president, Donald Trump responded to violence and a fatality at a white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, by claiming both sides were at fault, justifying white supremacism and equating the grievances of Klansmen and neo-Nazis to those of anti-nationalist counter protesters, whom he referred to as the alt-left. Moreover, his former Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon – a key figure in Trump’s rise – is a man widely viewed as a hero of the alt-right, who encouraged the far-right French National Front Party to wear the descriptors xenophobic, racist, and nativist “as a badge of honor.” Despite this, the staunchest Trump supporters continue to be described merely as frustrated, normal working-class Americans. These extreme events are not normal for any candidate, however, and if any analyses of the Trump coalition and electorate are to be serious, they must address the underlying root of the issue: that Trump voters, even if not avowed nationalists themselves, permitted white supremacism and nativism to grow more accepted and prominent in today’s society.
As writer Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in “The First White President,” the claims of many prominent leaders that Trump’s rise to power is a “natural outgrowth of the cultural and economic gap behind Lena Dunham’s America and Jeff Foxworthy’s” knowingly overlook very real white supremacism, instead blaming a perceived liberal elite derision of the working class. This argument, however, fails to address why nonwhite working-class Americans have not flocked to Trump, whom media outlets, in a strange contortion, have attempted to portray as more accepting and relatable than his millionaire background would otherwise suggest. According to the Pew Research Center, by the first June of his presidency, Trump’s approval ratings had dropped dramatically in nearly every demographic group. The one holdout? White voters.
With over a year since Donald Trump’s inauguration, it is beyond time for Americans to drop the escapist narrative that the 2016 Republican sweep was the result of dissatisfied working-class voters simply alienated by the political elite. Instead, a reactionary surge of white Trump voters regardless of class – only a third of whom were under the $50,000 national median household income and a third of whom earned over $100,000 – lies at the heart of the situation.
Liam Lonergan is a high-school student at Indian Creek Upper School in Crownsville.
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