Explaining the Trump Phenomenon
Americans are unhappy with various facets of current institutions and politics. Over two-thirds of us believe that the economic system favors the wealthy and that government wastes a lot of our money.
In addition, over 60 percent believe that special interests use their money to get their way most or all of the time and that the government does not care about people like them. This perception was already rising by the time of the economic crisis of 2007-2008. Afterward, it began accelerating rapidly. Is the rise of Donald Trump a product of this displeasure?
In order to test this theory, the Economist/YouGov has surveyed its panel of 3,000 Americans monthly since May, asking how many of them believe America is run by a few big interests and whether they thought a significant portion of politicians are crooked.
According to polls conducted by ANES (the American National Election Study) over the last 16 years, those believing the worst have increased dramatically during that time. The two figures below show that in 2002 only one-third of respondents believed America was run by “a few.” In February, 2016, three-quarters of Americans believed it—and the differences between Democrats, Independents and Republicans were minimal. In the early 21st century, about 20 percent of Americans thought that quite a few of those running the government were crooked, but in 14 years, that number had tripled to 58 percent with Republicans and Independents holding this view more than Democrats.
If Trumpism is fueled by people who have become disillusioned with Washington, then it stands to reason that Republicans who believe that government is run for a few and that the politicians are crooked will be more inclined to support Trump over his opponents. This turns out to be exactly the case.
The Economist/YouGov results show that among Republicans who believe that the government is run by a few big interests (75 percent), Trump is preferred by 39 percent to Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, at 16 and 22 percent, respectively. (Numbers for John Kasich and Ben Carson are insignificant and not included here.) Among Republicans who believe that quite a few people running government are crooked (67 percent), Trump has 41 percent preferring him, as compared to 19 percent and 17 percent for Rubio and Cruz.
In both instances, Trump’s margin is double-digit and impressive. When income and education levels are factored in, the correlation becomes even sharper.
Table 1 shows a comparison of all Republicans who believe the government is run by a few big interests and crooked people, compared to Republicans who make less than $50,000 per year and have a high school education or less, and Republicans who have a college degree or higher and make over $150,000 a year.
The results show that among less-affluent Republicans, Trump has three to four times the support of any other Republican among those believing that government is run for a few, and almost seven times the support for either Cruz or Rubio among those believing that there are quite a few crooks in Washington. The jump in the preference for Trump shows that the phenomenon is partly a result of the less affluent being most supportive. Affluent partisans who are cynical about the government support Trump less than the other groups but their negative opinion of the government keeps their Trump support levels higher than they would be without their doubts about the government. Affluent Republicans who don’t think the government is run for the few and think there are hardly any crooks in Washington prefer Rubio over Trump by double digits. The trouble is that the number of Republicans who have don’t distrust the government is less than 30 percent.
Many conservatives have complained that Trump has in the past advocated social and economic views, including praise for Planned Parenthood and opposition to free trade, which are not conservative positions.
This is true, but perhaps irrelevant—as he keeps winning anyway. Is it simply the case that his supporters do not hold traditional conservative positions?
When asked in January which issues are most important, the less affluent chose Social Security (29 percent), terrorism (15 percent) and education (12 percent) over the economy, income inequality and budget deficits. Their affluent counterparts focused on almost the opposite issues -- the state of the economy (32 percent) and budget deficits (12 percent) over immigration and terrorism, and they do not mention Social Security and education.
These groups also differ on policy: 62 percent of less-affluent Republicans favor raising taxes on those making over $250,000, while for prosperous Republicans the number is only 11 percent. On immigration, 66 percent and 75 percent of the less affluent believe illegals should be required to leave the country and favor building a wall on the southern U.S. border while for affluent the numbers are 47 percent and 52 percent.
On social issues such as abortion, 63 percent of the less affluent say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, while for the affluent the number is 45 percent. The split on gay marriage is similar with a majority (57 percent) of the less affluent favoring a ban, and less than 25 percent of the affluent favoring one. Even on issues where the majority of both groups are in agreement, the less affluent take more liberal positions, favoring increasing the minimum wage by a 3-1- ratio, and they favor free college tuition at nearly similar levels. Regarding gun control, the less-affluent are more conservative than prosperous Republicans, with about 23 percent saying we should have fewer or no restrictions on guns.
In sum, much of Donald Trump’s support appears to come from Republicans who have lost faith in Washington. Republicans’ attitudes on trust and corruption in the capital help determine their candidate preferences. In addition, the less-affluent are concerned with a different set of issues and are not as conservative as other Republicans when it comes to taxes on the well-to-do, while they are more conservative on immigration and social issues.
These voters are turning out in large numbers in the early primaries. Turnout through the first 14 Republican primaries in 2016 was more than double 2012 levels. Donald Trump has in his camp voters who are less affluent and highly committed—and they are sending the GOP establishment a strong signal that some of the the politics and policies it has been pursuing are not in sync with a significant portion of the voters the party acquired in the Reagan era.