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No, ‘Economic Anxiety’ Doesn’t Explain Donald Trump

To root his political success in the economic travails of the working class is to misunderstand that class’s makeup.

Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s surprise presidential win has many people wondering: How could so many voters have supported a candidate famous for questioning the legitimacy of the first black president and calling Mexican immigrants rapists?

A common response is economic anxiety. An angry working class, left behind by the economy and the elites who run it, voted for a radical candidate who promised them change, the rationale goes. But to say that Trump won because of economic outrage is to misunderstand today’s working class and to erase a huge portion of it entirely. 

Bernie Sanders has frequently offered up this particular explanation, releasing a statement the day after the election saying that Trump “tapped into the anger of a declining middle class” and that his message resonated with “people [who] are tired of working longer hours for lower wages.” He wrote an op-ed arguing that Trump supporters had “registered a protest vote ... expressing their fierce opposition to an economic and political system that puts wealthy and corporate interests over their own.”   

Others agree. David Cay Johnston wrote the day after the election, “Trump won because many millions of Americans, having endured decades of working more while getting deeper in debt, said ‘enough.’” He pointed to decades of income stagnation for most while wealthy pocketbooks fattened. This was the explanation offered up by Stephanie Coontz as well: a hollowing of incomes and jobs in the middle and lower ends of the economy. 

These trends are real. Incomes have stagnated for the majority of Americans while they’ve bloated at the top. The workweek has stretched far past the limits of a 9-to-5 job. And many feel they live on the precipice of financial ruin. But not everyone who’s endured the brunt of these forces voted for Donald Trump.

There are many ways to define a working class worker, but a common one is someone who doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree and is in the labor force, either working or looking for a job. Today more than a third of that group is made up of people of color, according to Tamara Draut, author of Sleeping Giant. It is 20 percent Latino, 13 percent black, and 4 percent Asian, far more diverse than in past eras. These workers are also increasingly female: two-thirds of women without a college degree are in the labor force, up from half in 1980, while the share of their male peers in the same situation has declined over the same time. 

And the work they do is not the kind that Trump talked about most. The jobs he promised to bring back are male-dominated, blue-collar work: manufacturing and coal jobs, both of which have declined significantly over the past few decades. But today just 13 percent of the working class is in manufacturing, while instead about 20 percent work in retail and 20 percent in services, which includes health care jobs like home aides. 

The face of the working class is increasingly a woman of color standing behind a cash register or caring for an aging relative.

And while the white working class does have plenty of economic gripes, people of color have fared worse. It’s true that among all workers, including whites, wages fell or stagnated for the vast majority over the last several decades.

But black workers have long been paid less, on average, than white ones, and that gap has actually increased over the last three decades, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Wages for the poorest 10 percent of white workers managed to increase a paltry 0.7 percent since 1979, but black people in the same income level saw theirs actually drop 8.5 percent. Similarly, white workers in the middle of the income distribution made about 12 percent more by 2015, but the same black workers were just 1.8 percent better off.

Hispanic workers have experienced a similar pattern, with those at the bottom seeing wages rise by just 50 cents per hour between 1973 and 2013 and those in the middle actually seeing a decline of 72 cents. 

Women have also always made less than men—with women of color experiencing the largest gaps—and that picture hasn’t improved in some time. The gender wage gap actually widened in 2015, and in the decade before that the gap only closed 0.3 percentage points, flattening out from the more rapid progress made in the 1980s and 90s.

If any trends would be expected to produce economic anxiety, it should be these—stagnant or even falling wages, particularly in comparison to one’s more privileged peers. But these are not the people who overwhelmingly sent Trump to Washington. According to exit polls, he won more than half of white voters, but squarely lost non-white ones. He won white women but lost all women of color. And while he won among those without college degrees overall, that wasn’t true for everyone; Hillary Clinton won easily among people of color with no degree. Similarly, Clinton won those making less than $50,000, while Trump won everyone who is better off. Median income across the country is about $56,000. 

Trump may have won the white working class, but Clinton won the rest of it.

This growing share of the working class—women and people of color getting by on service sector jobs—has not remained silent about its own economic fragility. The Fight for 15 campaign demanding a higher wage and the ability to unionize has spread like wildfire, starting from one daylong strike in New York City and morphing into a day of action that hit 320 cities. While it originated with fast food workers, it has brought in many other workers who constitute the new face of the working class: home health aides, retail workers, and childcare providers. They are angry too—but have expressed it differently and made their own demands.

And while Trump’s supporters may have been voicing outrage at the state of the economy, that’s not the only factor that fueled his victory. A wide variety of polls found that his supporters were more likely to express racial resentment and agree with racial stereotypes. Other surveys found that hostility toward women was a major factor that predicted support for him. Even those who may not agree with these views but voted for Trump anyway backed a campaign steeped in racism and misogyny. They also rejected the agenda of the country’s first black president and stymied the chances of the first female one. 

Racism and economic worry aren’t necessarily separate phenomena, and they have twisted together many times in the country’s history. They fueled the bloody backlash to Reconstruction that reversed gains toward racial equality. Most calls for literacy tests to reduce the influx of immigrants in the late 1800s and 1900s came just after economic downturns. White supremacists organized best in the 1980s in areas with declining agricultural and manufacturing jobs. And these two forces appear to have been fused together in the run-up to this election as well. One model found that economic worries, racism, and sexism all combined to predict Trump support in the weeks before the election.

To explain Trump’s victory as the end result of an economy that has failed to reach the working class eclipses other, more diverse workers and their own anxieties. Who is the working class and what does it want? Given its complex makeup there is no one answer—but it certainly is not only Trump supporters who wanted to make America great again in this election.