By Jason McDaniel and Sean McElwee
What explains the rise of Donald Trump?
There are many potential answers, but over the course of the campaign two competing theories have emerged. The first holds that Trump’s message appeals to working-class white voters who’ve seen their incomes remain stagnant, manufacturing jobs vanish, and inequality skyrocket in recent decades. The root cause of Trumpism, in this view, is economic insecurity. The other, blunter theory is that Trump’s fans flock to him for the same reason elites view him as an existential threat to American democracy: his open appeals to racist, white nationalist sentiment.
Both of these theories have some truth to them. But polling data suggests that racial attitudes, including racial resentment and explicit racial stereotypes, are the more important factor.What’s more, the evidence presented below shows that racial attitudes uniquely predict support for Trump, compared to the other Republican candidates.
The American National Election Studies 2016 Pilot Study, a presidential primary extension of a long-running election survey, asked 1,200 eligible voters about the election, and their views on race, from January 22 – 28, 2016. The poll had a number of questions designed to measure racial animus. First, it asked respondents how important their race is to their identity. Second, it asked respondents whether they think the words “lazy” and “violent” describe black people, Muslims and Hispanics, “extremely well,” “very well,” “moderately well,” “slightly well,” and “not well at all.”
Finally, it included several questions meant to measure what scholars refer to as “racial resentment”. Developed by Donald Kinder and Lynn Sanders in 1996, the concept of racial resentment is designed to capture less overt, but still real, forms of racism. The concept is particularly useful for measuring racism these days, when most racism tends to “colorblind” or “dog-whistle racism.” That is, racist attitudes that are expressed in a way that is seemingly neutral, but still animates racial anger. The survey asked respondents their level of agreement on four statements related to racial resentment, which we then combined to a single metric:
- Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Black people should do the same without any special favors.
- It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if black people would only try harder they could be just as well-off as whites.
- Over the past few years, black people have gotten less than they deserve.
- Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for black people to work their way out of the lower class.
When analyzing this survey data, we threw in a number of statistical controls for individual race, age, income, education, partisan identification, political ideology, level of political interest, church attendance, perceptions of economic performance, and opinions about free trade and whether government should provide fewer or more services. That was meant to isolate the extent to which respondents’ views on race affected their views on the election, independent from other factors related to government policies and political attitudes.
On just about every measure, support for Trump increased along with measured racial animus. As the chart below shows, increased levels of overt racial stereotyping among white respondents — as measured by belief that black people, Muslims, and Hispanics are “lazy” or “violent — strongly increases support for Trump, even after controlling for other factors. The opposite is true, however, when it comes to support for Marco Rubio. Among white respondents, support for Rubio decreases significantly with belief in racial stereotypes. There is no correlation between racial stereotypes and support for Cruz or Kasich.
The same story is true for racial resentment. The more troubling respondents’ answers on the four resentment questions were, the likelier they were to support Trump. There is no such relationship between racial resentment and support for Marco Rubio or the other major Republican contenders.
While the racial stereotyping questions covered black people, Hispanics, and Muslims alike, we also analyzed the impact on Trump support of stereotypes towards Muslims. Once again, Trump support increases significantly among those who describe Muslims as “violent,” while the same does not hold for the other Republican candidates.
Other polling has found different results. A Vox/Morning Consult poll, for example, found that Rubio and Trump supporters were about equally likely to score high on racial resentment, with Rubio supporters potentially looking slightly worse. Dylan Matthews wrote, “Trump supporters were not unusually racially resentful compared with Rubio supporters.” But we think our analysis of the ANES survey is more reliable. Our analysis uses a model with controls, which helps isolate the effect of racism. In addition, , the similarities between Trump and Rubio partially stem from collapsing together the “strongly agree”/“somewhat agree” and the “somewhat disagree”/ “strongly disagree” variables. When those categories are disaggregated, it becomes clear that Trump supporters are far more likely to strongly endorse racial resentment.
Worryingly for the GOP elite, our analysis also suggests one reason stopping Trump has proved so difficult: his support is highest among those who do not follow politics very closely. Support for Trump in January was strongest among those who said they followed politics “hardly at all,” while Kasich and Rubio performed best with those who follow politics more frequently. This means they may have missed, or simply don’t care about, many of the events (like the recent Chicago protests) that have pushed many away from Trump. In addition, Trump’s supporters are strongly anti-establishment, so even if they were aware of recent events like Mitt Romney’s denunciation of Trump, it’s unclear why they would care.
From Reagan’s talk of “welfare queens” to Rick Santorum saying “I don’t want to make Black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money” many GOP leaders have used racially charged rhetoric to undermine support for the social safety net. The result has been to empower a demagogue like Trump. A recent New York Times investigation showed that one of the most powerful predictors that a county would vote Trump was share of the citizens living in mobile homes. In the New York Times investigation, the strongest predictor of support for Trump was not jobs, but rather the share of population who were non-Hispanic whites without college degrees. The GOP certainly has not done itself any favors by pushing for highly unpopular policies that have benefitted their donor class while showing little benefit to the wider population. While we accept that all of these factors help explain Trump support, we find that racism is the main driver of support for Trump. The model presented here accounts for all of these attitudes and still finds an incredibly strong relationship between racism and support for Trump. The centrality of racism to the Trump phenomenon should not be obscured.
This piece originally appeared on Salon.
Jason McDaniel is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at San Francisco State University. You can follow him on Twitter @ValisJason.