05.14.2016
  • United States

From Slump to Trump

  • Christopher Phelps

To explain the rise of Donald Trump — and his Mexican-bashing, Muslim-baiting, violence-condoning, woman-denigrating, trade-skeptical, insult-driven, blustery kind of politics  — Andrew Sullivan offers us this pearl of wisdom: blame democracy.

Perhaps only a sophisticate steeped in Anglo-Catholic conservatism, having left behind the old neoliberal New Republic for New York magazine, could imagine our new Gilded Age to be a time of excessive democracy in which “barriers to the popular will” are “now almost nonexistent.” Though delivered with unique aplomb, Sullivan’s condescension merely echoes a more general view now common in the corporate press: that Trump’s base of support is a rabble of no-nothing ignoramuses at the bottom of society, the losers left behind by globalization.

Trump himself has fed this myth. “I love the poorly educated,” he said after one victory, prompting Edward Luce of the Financial Times to write, “Mr. Trump knows his market.”

Actually, Trump’s aim is upmarket. His instincts, after all, were honed in selling garish real estate and running gaudy casinos, followed by years of reality TV. If white working-class voters play a definite part in his surge, they are not where the real money is to be made or the real votes are to be found. Exit polls confirm that the primary force in his success is not the working class.

Any class analysis of American electoral politics must inevitably make its way through an informational haze, given that pollsters measure only income and education, not wealth or occupation. Still, what the data reveal is pretty clear.

In a majority of the GOP primaries and caucuses to date (fifteen of twenty-seven) — including such northern states as Maryland, Illinois, and Massachusetts as well as southern states such as South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee — Trump swept to victory in every single income tranche, from lesser-paid to wealthy.

In Connecticut, for example, he won 59 percent of those making $50,000-100,000, 55 percent of those making $100,000-200,000, and 52 percent of those making more than $200,000. (No data is reported for that state on those making below $50,000.)

In New York, he actually gained in strength as the wealth scale moved upwards. There he took 52 percent of the votes of those making less than $30,000 and $30,000-50,000, but 62 percent in the $50,000-100,000 band and 63 percent of those making more than $100,000.

Poor and working-class voters make up only about a third of the GOP electorate, measured by an income below $50,000. (Again, a crude gauge: most graduate students make less, some unionized steelworkers more. But median household income is about $52,000, so in the aggregate an income below $50,000 does help approximate the working class. Full-time minimum-wage employees, the lowest rung of the working population, make $15,000.)

Upper-income citizens are far more likely to vote and therefore comprise an outsized portion of the electorate, particularly the GOP electorate, compared to their proportion in society.  Again consider New York, where the 28 percent of GOP voters whose income is under $50,000 went for Trump by 52 percent. By contrast, those who make more than $50,000, a group that voted for him by 63 percent, made up 72 percent of the electorate. That’s huuuge.

In short, Trump’s plurality or majority among upper-middle and wealthy voters, because it carries more weight, has propelled his rise more than his popularity with those in the lower tax brackets where his popularity, speaking generally, is greater.

As for level of education, in 70 percent (nineteen of twenty-seven) of the GOP primaries and caucuses college-educated voters preferred Trump by either a plurality or majority. This again included such northern states as Illinois and Michigan as well as southern ones such as Georgia and Virginia.

Voter surveys measure college education in the following categories: none, some, a completed degree, or post-graduate studies. Notably, Trump did better or the same among those with some than among those with none in Indiana, Maryland, and Missouri, and virtually the same in others, such as West Virginia. In Vermont and Mississippi, he actually did better among college graduates than those with merely some college.

The data demonstrate, in other words, that if Trump is the preferred candidate of the GOP working class he has also been the preferred candidate of the GOP’s upper-middle-class, college-educated, and even wealthy constituents.

The only group that Trump consistently does not fare very well among is those with post-graduate education. For as long as the primaries were competitive they split their vote across the remaining field (Kasich, Cruz, Christie, Bush, and company).

What does it mean that Trump has done well among middle-income and higher-income voters but not the most-educated? This suggests that his real base of support is small-business owners, supervisory and middle-management employees, franchisees, landlords, real estate agents, propertied farmers, and so on: those who are not at the executive pinnacle of corporate America (who largely have MBAs and other similar degrees) and those who are not credentialed professionals (doctors, lawyers, and the like), but the much wider swath of those people whose livelihood is derived from independent business activity or middle-band positions in the corporate hierarchy.

This corresponds, of course, to the classic scenario in which the petty bourgeois — the middle class whose ownership of small parcels of property does not protect them from vulnerability in the business cycle and the need to exact self-exploitation — experience worry and insecurity following a financial crisis and economic slump, making them receptive to right-wing authoritarian solutions and scapegoating of ethnic-racial minorities.

The presumptive Republican nominee is running into flak from his party’s own leadership, particularly the powerful Chamber of Commerce faction represented by Mitt Romney and Congressman Paul Ryan which seeks to bring him to heel on trade and immigration. These tensions are likely to be papered over, perhaps by backroom assurances by Trump that it’s all for show, but they are reminiscent of the classic tensions between big and petty bourgeois — or, in American terminology, big and small business — in central European politics during the worldwide slump of the 1930s.

Although he resists releasing his tax returns, most likely because they might show his wealth to be less than claimed, Trump offers “art of the deal” business savvy as his answer to capitalism’s problems.

A malfunctioning bourgeois politics can be solved, this projects, by a billionaire megalomaniac who will suspend his class’s self-interest because he cannot be bought, a scenario particularly attractive to a small-business mentality that resents taxes, minimum wages, and “red tape” and seeks someone who knows “the real world.” Those who have run their own little domains are prone to seek answers in a strong leader.

The great shock of 2008 left a punctuation mark in popular psychology. A less-than-persuasive economic recovery and lower rates of unemployment have not altered a situation in which most of the population feels itself to be scraping by, still fears business failure or the scythe of unemployment, is uncertain about retirement, groans under student and consumer debt, and waxes pessimistic about their children’s prospects. The entire population apart from the super-rich top one percent has suffered flat or declining incomes across four decades.

Such conditions breed not only anxiety but resentment, explaining the appeal of Trump’s bellowing about Mexicans and Muslims. The significance of this development is not to be minimized. Not since the campaigns more than four decades ago of George Wallace, the Alabama segregationist, has such naked bigotry attracted such mass support in American presidential politics. Then it was a desperate, declining revanchism. Now its popularity is fresh and gaining.

But if Trump has resonated with some parts of the white-male working class, the GOP’s upper-income voters put him over the top. The electoral ascent of this billionaire is not the fault of unbridled democracy, but of unbridled capitalism.