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I Started the “Economic Anxiety” Joke about Trump—and It’s Gone Too Far Now

Liberals are quick to cite his racism, but that's not the only factor.

RJ Sangosti/Getty Images

The view that Donald Trump’s political appeal rests in widespread “economic anxiety” has been propounded by everyone from lowly political commentators to President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and continues to dominate retrospective analyses of how he became the GOP’s presidential nominee.

“I respect the fear, the anxiety, even the anger that a lot of people are feeling, because the advance of globalization and technology has really replaced or undermined the future for many jobs,” Clinton told the Washington Post recently, referring to Trump’s supporters.

But because Trump is racist, and because he made xenophobic attacks on Mexicans, Muslims, and other minorities central to his campaign pitch, the “economic anxiety” analysis has also invited a backlash—which I helped to start. As Trump’s coalition was still taking shape, I would take note on social media and in these pages of how, frequently, the economic anxiety supposedly animating Trumpism ends up being expressed as undisguised hostility to minorities.

Today, “economic anxiety” is a running joke on Twitter, brandished widely whenever Trump rallies descend into group therapy sessions for people experiencing racial panic. The idea is to mock the lengths politicians, centrist pundits, and others will go—out of a sense of timidity or in the spirit of generosity—to pretend economic insecurity and other pocketbook factors explain the Trump phenomenon in its entirety.

This is still funny; and as long as the media continues to overinterpret the role “economic anxiety” plays in propping Trump up, I will keep writing tweets like this one.

But the backlash to the economic anxiety copout has led some liberal critics to swing too far in the other direction—to declare that economic factors do no work explaining Trump’s popularity with GOP voters. This conclusion is also wrong, and an important error to correct. Because when the election is over, we’re going to want to be as clear-eyed as possible about what steps we can take to prevent the same thing from happening again.

Vox’s Matthew Yglesias argued on Monday that  “economic anxiety” is a “fake” explanation for Trumpism. “While plenty of people, including plenty of Trump fans, certainly have concerns about the economy, it’s racial resentment that drives who does and doesn’t support Trump,” he wrote. “Adding an economic anxiety factor to your account doesn’t actually help to explain anything.”

There is more than superficial plausibility to this claim. After all, whites haven’t cornered the market on economic anxiety, but Trump has almost no appeal among working class or economically stressed non-whites. Likewise, plenty of Trump’s supporters have no financial difficulties whatsoever, but they support Trump on the basis of his appeals to white identity. If nearly all downscale whites support Trump, but nearly all downscale non-whites oppose him, then race, not economics must be the key determinant of support for him.

And indeed race is the most important determinant of who does and doesn’t support Trump, especially at the bottom of the income scale, where many whites believe policymakers are giving blacks and Latinos a leg up on them. But the things that make the explanation “parsimonious and simple,” as Yglesias put it, also make it reductive. You can’t derive from them that financial concerns don’t drive some amount of Trump’s support independent of white racial resentment.

Trump has millions and millions of supporters, some more enthusiastic than others. He is the patron saint of white voters who resent ethnic minorities, of course. But he is also the lesser of two evils for many committed Republican voters who, as privileged whites, have decided to overlook his racism. By the same token, some of his supporters surely aren’t racists, but don’t view his racism as disqualifying, or have decided to accept it reluctantly, because existing political and economic arrangements haven’t worked out well for them, and they believe (wrongly, I’d argue) that he might improve things.

The question is how prevalent these other factors are, and to what extent they overlap. If racism completely dwarfs all other sources of Trump’s appeal, it will have different implications for the future of American politics than if it was simply the largest factor among several.

We need better data if we’re going to ballpark how many people support Trump for reasons unrelated to racism. But even if, like me, you’re of the mind that race is driving the Trump phenomenon, and that racism is widespread and enduring, it can still be the case that Trump’s support derives from something like this hastily created Venn diagram:

A couple simple thought experiments can help underline the point.

First, imagine we lived in more prosperous and equitable times: Would Trump have gained a foothold in politics as easily as he did?

Second, imagine a non-racist populist were running in the general election today: Would some economically anxious minority voters support such a candidate over Hillary Clinton? Would some economically anxious whites support such a candidate over Trump, revealing a preference for non-racism over racism? 

I think the answer to the first question is self-evidently “no,” and the answers to the second questions are self-evidently “yes” and “yes.” Trump’s racism explains why he has essentially no support from poor minorities, but, at a time of stagnant wages and high inequality, it doesn’t necessarily explain his appeal entirely. Even if, as I suspect, his stated empathy for the white working class is purely affected, some white workers believe it is sincere and support him for it.

And the breakdown matters. It may even determine whether Republicans can wrest themselves from Trumpism in the near future by helping improve economic conditions of the working class.

As Clinton said in that Post interview, it is likely true that what some “people are feeling is that the economy failed them, their government failed them. They just are looking for somebody who will explain, in a way they will accept, what’s happened. So Trump comes along and he blames immigrants and he blames minorities and he blames women, and people are responsive to that because these are hard times that folks are going through.” Some people, in other words, are likely susceptible to racist appeals when they’re struggling, but aren’t committed white nationalists like other Trump supporters. Liberals should be interested in improving economic conditions for everyone, even the most loathsome racists in the Trump coalition, but if we overinterpret racism’s role in Trump’s support, and then find that 40 percent of Americans support him, we will draw inaccurate conclusions about the extent of racial discord in our society, and our inclination to work in tandem with chastened Republicans to lift up downscale whites will start to diminish. 

If I’m wrong, it won’t matter anyhow. The GOP will continue its evolution into a white nationalist party. But if I’m right, and the opportunity to weaken the spell of Trumpism slips past us, Republicans will find themselves trapped in a thrall to white ethno-nationalists for years to come, and eventually, a more disciplined, strategically gifted version of Trump will come along. And he will win.