Trumpism: No, it’s not the economy that’s to blame

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by Neil Godfrey

Smith (left) and Hanley — The University of Kansas

I posted on Facebook a link to an article that challenged my own “liberal” spirit of wanting to believe that racists and other bigots were fundamentally fearful and that a sure cure was to be found in strategically administered education and information. I had long believed that one reason people were sometimes fearful was that they believed certain their economic future was being threatened by immigrants, or people on welfare, etc. The article that challenged these hopeful views I have long held was based on an interview with a co-author of a scholarly publication that remains hidden behind a paywall but now someone has forwarded me a copy of that work and I can set out some of its details here. It is

Smith, David Norman, and Eric Hanley. 2018. “The Anger Games: Who Voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 Election, and Why?” Critical Sociology 44 (2): 195–212. https://doi.org/10.1177/0896920517740615.

The hypothesis that the authors set to test was

that prejudice is fueled more by aggressiveness than by submissiveness, and that it is accompanied by the wish for a domineering leader who will punish the “undeserving.”

Previous studies as a rule had interpreted a desire for authoritarian leaders as an indicator that people loved the idea of submitting and following a domineering figure. Smith and Hanley tested for a new view of authoritarianism — one that derived satisfaction from

forcing moral outsiders to submit. . . Authoritarianism is not the wish to follow any and every authority but, rather, the wish to support a strong and determined authority who will “crush evil and take us back to our true path.” Authorities who reject intolerance are anathema, and must be punished themselves.

(p. 196)

The desire for authoritarian leaders arises not from a submissive spirit but from a wish to see in charge someone who is “punitive and intolerant“.

Authoritarianism and prejudice, two sides of the same coin

Previous studies are cited that appear to make a convincing link between authoritarianism and prejudice. There is a strong statistical correlation between authoritarianism and many forms of bias, “from ethnocentrism to misogyny and homophobia”. It appears that people who support intolerant leaders are not somehow playing down their intolerance because they like something else about them; it looks like they support them because they are intolerant.

17 Variables

The researchers examined 1883 white voters in the 2016 election. Of those 1883 around 52% voted for Trump (979) and of 716 of his supporters (73%) “voted for him enthusiastically”.

The variables they measured were five demographics

  1. gender
  2. education
  3. age
  4. marital status
  5. income

and twelve attitudes. Attitudes towards

  1. Child traits (i.e. desire or propensity for submission to an authoritarian leader)
  2. Domineering leaders
  3. African Americans
  4. Reverse discrimination
  5. Immigrants
  6. Muslims
  7. Women
  8. Personal finances
  9. Health of the economy
  10. Liberalism vs conservatism
  11. General religiosity
  12. Fundamentalism

Is it an economic class thing?

Is it a class thing? Is it the “white working class” that are the intolerant supporters of Trump? If so, then don’t we have a cause to excuse a swing to Trump as a fear-for-the-future response? Smith and Hanley address earlier studies suggesting this is so, but their own study led them to conclude that the demographic explanation “does not hold up well under close scrutiny.”

But we find that the effects of class are complex — that pro-Trump voters hail in large numbers from many strata and milieus — and that the effects of class are mediated, in the large majority of instances, through biases and other attitudes. . . .

Whether rich or poor, young or old, male or female, college or non-college educated, white voters supported Trump in 2016 when they shared his prejudices, and very seldom otherwise.

. . . .

In the 2016 primaries, meanwhile, Trump’s voters averaged just three months less education than other Republican voters. They were better educated than the general public, and their incomes were $16,740 above the medians in their states (Manza and Crowley, 2017: 14 and 23–24). In the general election, moreover, Trump outpolled Clinton by a larger margin among voters with annual incomes from $70,000 to $120,000 than he did among any other income group.

(pp. 197f)

But what about perceptions? Are not beliefs more important than the facts? Answer: The study further showed that Trump voters were not just financially secure but they felt reasonably secure. The figures pointed to economic fears and insecurities being pretty much spread across party lines.

The one consistent factor that distinguished Trump and non-Trump voters was attitudes. Yes, “white, male, older and less educated voters” were found more strongly represented among Trump supporters, but the study also showed that they did so because they

they shared his prejudices and wanted domineering, aggressive leaders more often than other voters did.

The correlation is significant:

Why these prejudices and preferences are unevenly distributed remains to be explained. But what we know now is that these attitudes are found across the demographic spectrum, and that wherever they appear, they prompt support for Donald Trump.

The study

The article takes us through the step by step analysis of the data, analysing the figures in different combinations. The authors compare the tools they used with earlier ones that attempted to measure attitudes relating to “right wing authoritarianism”, towards “domineering leaders”, and the “child trait scale”.

The first two attitudes measured, those for “child traits” and “domineering leaders”, are interesting.

Getting Rid of Rotten Apples and Crushing Evil

The Child Trait scale is intended to measure submissiveness. The Domineering Leader scale measures something different — the wish for a strong leader who will force others to submit. The premise is that evil is afoot; that money, the media and government authority — and even “politically correct” moral authority — have been usurped by undeserving interlopers. The desire for a domineering leader is the desire to see this evil crushed.

At issue here is not simply a preference for strong leadership. Asked whether Hillary Clinton “provides strong leadership,” 71.0% of the overall ANES [American National Election Study] sample agreed, compared to 62.7% who said the same thing about Trump. But when asked whether she “speaks her mind,” respondents agreed only 32.5% of the time, compared to a whopping 81.6% for Trump. Nor were they in doubt about what Trump thinks. Strength of opinion, and the willingness to express opinions strongly, evidently carried more weight than the perception of strength per se.

It is often assumed that voters who prefer authoritarian leaders simply want to submit. But often, what obsevers construe as submissiveness can be better understood as supportiveness; and the support that is offered is generally conditional. Only leaders who pledge zero tolerance for the undeserving are supported, and only as long as they live up to their promises. Authorities who tolerate usurpers are regarded as usurpers themselves. 

(p. 203)

Arlie Russell Hochschild

The Line-Cutters

To clarify what “this way of thinking” among Trump supporters is Smith and Hanley cite an online discussion by Arlie Russell Hochschild, I Spent 5 Years With Some of Trump’s Biggest Fans: Here’s What They Won’t Tell You. The key passage in that article is what Hochschild calls The Line-Cutters vignette:

What the people I interviewed were drawn to was not necessarily the particulars of these theories [e.g. that Obama is Muslim]. It was the deep story underlying them — an account of life as it feels to them. Some such account underlies all beliefs, right or left, I think. The deep story of the right goes like this:

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.

I checked this distillation with those I interviewed to see if this version of the deep story rang true. Some altered it a bit (“the line-waiters form a new line”) or emphasized a particular point (those in back are paying for the line-cutters). But all of them agreed it was their story. One man said, “I live your analogy.” Another said, “You read my mind.”

(my bolded emphasis)

Smith and Hanley comment,

This vignette captures the spirit of many survey statements that Trump voters endorse with enthusiasm.

Other studies that Smith and Hanley cite demonstrated a strong association between enthusiasm for Trump and the following statements:

“It takes a macho guy like Trump, who doesn’t let anyone push him around, to be President of the United States.”


“Because things have gotten so far off track in this country, we need a leader who is willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right.”

That last quote is actually found “considerably lower levels of agreement” among “voters whom pundits often associate with Trump” — white, less educated, fearful of experiencing a terrorist attack, Republicans in general.

Prejudices matter most

Respect for rule-breaking leaders who refuse to tolerate “line-cutting” often coincides with scorn for leaders who play by the rules and reward the allegedly undeserving — the lazy grasshoppers of Aesop’s fable, who cut in line ahead of the hard-working ants. It seems, in short, that the wish for a domineering leader is effectively a prejudice against other kinds of leaders; and that prejudice, in turn, often coincides with other familiar prejudices . . . .

After the narrow comparisons Smith and Hanley come to the larger survey of all 17 variables together. The five demographic variables (those related to class, education, income, etc.) showed no predictive value at all. Rather, the predictors of Trump support were eight attitudes:

Here, once all attitude variables are taken into account, not one demographic variable continues to show statistical strength, with the slight and insignificant exception of marital status. Child Trait preferences also fade into insignificance, and financial worries and non-fundamentalist religiosity play miniature roles.

In all, eight attitudes predict Trump support:

  • conservative identification;
  • support for domineering leaders;
  • fundamentalism;
  • prejudice against immigrants,
  • [prejudice against] African Americans,
  • [prejudice against] Muslims,
  • and [prejudice against] women;
  • and pessimism about the economy.

These attitudes were revealed by responses to scales new and old. Among them were the well-known “racial resentment” scale, which explores attitudes toward African Americans, and similar scales compiled from newer items concerning immigrants and Muslims.

. . . . .

Overall, what we see is that a spectrum of attitudes inspired pro-Trump voting, and that many of these attitudes are particularly common among older, less educated, and male voters. Central among these attitudes is the wish for domineering presidential action against line-cutters and rotten apples.

(pp. 205f, my formatting. The bolded items further significantly distinguish enthusiastic Trump voters from other Trump voters)

It’s the economy, stupid. No, it isn’t…

The data point to a paradox. Trump voters are pessimistic about the economy; but at the same time they have no particular worry about their own personal finances.

The answer, it seems, lies in the well-known finding that pessimism about the economy reflects partisan biases more than personal concerns. Voters who dislike incumbent presidents tend to judge the economy harshly. Further, as Michael Tesler (2016) has shown for both 2012 and 2016, racial resentment plays an especially large role in negative views of the economy. A test with ANES data in 2012 and 2016 showed that pessimism about employment was strongly and significantly associated with racial resentment (.369*** and .416*** respectively). When Tesler controlled for party loyalty and ideology, he found that racial resentment alone accounted for a nearly 40% chasm between the economic views of racial liberals and conservatives. Similarly, Rothwell and Diego-Rosell (2016) found that negative views of the economy are common among older and other white voters not because they are suffering disproportionately economically but as a function of their politics.

That kind of pulls a rug out from the view that fear that “the other” will be a cause for hurt is the root of bigotry.

What, then, is Trumpism?

What, then, is Trumpism? Many liberals have hoped that 2016 was an aberration, that many middle-of-the-road voters cast their ballots for Trump without really sharing his views. Proponents of the “white working class” thesis, in particular, say that many Rust Belt factory workers, left behind by globalization, voted for Trump in the hope that he was sincere about his populist rhetoric. If that were true, then winning these voters back to the liberal fold would be fairly straightforward, since Trump’s fidelity to Wall Street would soon disillusion them. Other liberals have hoped that a good many voters, in the sluggish aftermath of the 2008 recession, were simply fearful about the uncertain future and willing to gamble on a risk-taker. Still others have hoped that hostility to Clinton and the Democratic leadership was the key to Trump’s appeal, and that this hostility can be overcome by well-crafted and appealing initiatives.

These scenarios strike us as unrealistic. Most Trump voters cast their ballots for him with their eyes open, not despite his prejudices but because of them. Their partisanship, whether positive (toward Trump and the Republicans) or negative (against Clinton and the Democrats), is intense. This partisanship is anchored in anger and resentment among mild as well as strong Trump voters. Anger, not fear, was the emotional key to the Tea Party (Banks, 2014), and that seems to be true for Trumpism as well. If so, the challenge for progressives is greater than many people have imagined. Hostility to minorities and women cannot be wished away; nor can the wish for domineering leaders. The anger games are far from over.

(p. 207)

Smith, David Norman, and Eric Hanley. 2018. “The Anger Games: Who Voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 Election, and Why?” Critical Sociology 44 (2): 195–212. https://doi.org/10.1177/0896920517740615.

The dataset on which the study was made is available online at

Smith, David Norman, and Eric Allen Hanley. 2017. “The Anger Games: Who Voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 Election, and Why?” Association for Critical Sociology. September 28, 2017. http://criticalsociology.org/the-anger-games-who-voted-for-donald-trump-in-the-2016-election-and-why/.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2016. “I Spent 5 Years with Some of Trump’s Biggest Fans. Here’s What They Won’t Tell You.” Mother Jones, September/October. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/08/trump-white-blue-collar-supporters/.



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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Trumpism: No, it’s not the economy that’s to blame”

  1. I largely agree with this assessment, but I think the role of explicit racism and misogyny is overplayed. I think it’s correct that there is anger, and I think that ultimately that anger is economically focused. The issue isn’t necessarily that Trump supporters are themselves poor, it is that they can see that the economic system is unfair.

    The issue is that they attribute the unfairness to minorities and women, and thus their anger at minorities and women is directly linked to their perception that the economy is rigged against them. I’ve basically recognized this for a long time, and this drives a lot of my approach on how I write about economic issues.

    For example, in this “article” (book) I try to make the case that it’s not women and minorities that are the problem, it’s the structure of capital ownership: http://www.rationalrevolution.net/articles/capitalism_evolution.htm

    I try to do that in a way that I imagine someone like a Trump supporter could get it (though I’ve probably lost that cause by creating a book length web page :p).

    A new article in the Atlantic also makes the point that the anger of Trumpers is misdirected (though I’m not sure that’s the intent): https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/06/the-birth-of-a-new-american-aristocracy/559130/

    Figure 1 shows what those of us on the left have been saying all along, which is that it’s the top 1% that’s undermining the working class. So, my view, and I think the view of Bernie Sanders, is that it is possible to redirect the anger of some Trumpers, and that it can be redirected at corporations and the 1%, which is where it should be directed.

    I think that there is a huge commonalty between Trumpers and Sanders supporters (for lack of a better classification), which is that both groups agree that the economy is unfairly rigged. So that’s the common ground that has to be the starting point of engagement.

  2. Completely agree with this. I think Clinton was a bad candidate to run because she represented more of the same while Trump sold himself as being something different and a lot of people don’t want more of the same. I think Sanders would have probably won against Trump. Although with what seems to be a rise of right-wing views, I’m not so sure anymore. People will watch youtube videos saying things like Sanders would turn the US into Venezuela and they’ll believe it.

    1. Trump got elected for a few reasons: b/c of (i) low voter turn-out b/c of voter apathy; (ii) Clinton didn’t go to so didn’t campaign in key states, (iii) crap about ‘her emails’, (iv) sexism, (v) Bill, and (vi) the US’s dysfunctional political system, and it’s dysfunctional capitalism (when many full-time teachers and Walmart employees have to get 2nd jobs, things are pretty crap).

      Dysfunctional health and health insurance systems were also a factor.

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