Ever since Donald Trump was elected president, pundits have been trying to understand and explain exactly why so many American voters chose to support and cast a ballot for a man with no government experience and numerous business failures who has been dogged by reports of immoral behavior for decades.
The most popular theory was that Trump had tapped into economic anxiety felt by millions of lower and middle class voters. Trump promised to restore economic glory to them and to the nation, which resonated with workers fearful they would be replaced by immigrants, robots, or their jobs outsourced to another country.
But a new study conducted by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Diana C. Mutz has an alternative answer for the question of why Trump is now president, and it’s much more than just a matter of dollars and cents.
Race, Status, and Fear
Specifically, Mutz’s study shows:
“Traditionally high-status Americans, namely whites, feel their status in America and the world is threatened by America’s growing racial diversity and a perceived loss of U.S. global dominance. Under threat by these engines of change, America’s socially dominant groups increased their support in 2016 for the candidate who most emphasized reestablishing status hierarchies of the past.”
As the New York Times notes, Trump supporters didn’t respond to his message because they were upset with their own finances, and they weren’t acting on anger toward Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. Instead, they voted out of the fear that white Christians were becoming a minority in the United States.
Dominance and Power
After a close examination of Mutz’s groundbreaking study, the Times came to the following realization:
“Losing a job or income between 2012 and 2016 did not make a person any more likely to support Mr. Trump, Dr. Mutz found. Neither did the mere perception that one’s financial situation had worsened. A person’s opinion on how trade affected personal finances had little bearing on political preferences. Neither did unemployment or the density of manufacturing jobs in one’s area.”
And Mutz echoes that statement when she reports in her summary:
“Political uprisings are often about downtrodden groups rising up to assert their right to better treatment and more equal life conditions relative to high-status groups,. The 2016 election, in contrast, was an effort by members of already dominant groups to assure their continued dominance and by those in an already powerful and wealthy country to assure its continued dominance.”
Railing Against Globalization
One of the themes Trump used most often in 2016 was that other countries were taking advantage of the United States when it came to economic and social factors. He railed against China for its unending economic expansion and urged a total ban on Muslim immigrants, tapping into fears of “others” who want to attack Americans overseas and here at home.
And while Trump was successful with his message of fear and anxiety, demographic trends suggest that a return to the American past is fleeting, as Mutz reminds us:
“In many ways, a sense of group threat is a much tougher opponent than an economic downturn, because it is a psychological mindset rather than an actual event or misfortune. Given current demographic trends within the United States, minority influence will only increase with time, thus heightening this source of perceived status threat.”
Fear can often prove to be more powerful than hope, and in 2016 Donald Trump perfectly tapped into the darker angels of the American psyche. But can he maintain power and possibly win reelection in 2020 by continuing to beat that same drum? Only time will tell.