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Why Trump’s “Betrayal” of His Voters Won’t Stick

Trump's budget would punish the rural poor and working class. But his base is broader than advertised, and they're sticking with him for myriad reasons.

Andrea Morales / Getty Images

The observation that President Donald Trump’s economic policies will hurt his base has been so widely repeated this year that even Trump himself seems to agree with it. Tucker Carlson raised the issue in an interview with the president on Wednesday night, noting that “a Bloomberg analysis shows that counties that voted for you, middle-class and working-class counties, would do far less well under the [proposed health care] bill than counties that voted for Hillary.” Trump responded, “Oh, I know that,” adding that “these are going to be negotiated.” 

The harsh austerity budget the Trump administration put forward on Thursday, with its cuts to programs like Meals on Wheels and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, only confirmed these criticisms. “Trump campaigned as a champion of rural America and small and midsize Rust Belt cities, but ... his budget brings the hammer down on the very people who put him in office,” Mother Jones’s Tim Murphy wrote, listing the many ways in which Trump’s policies will hurt people in rural America, the Upper Midwest, and West Virginia. On CNN, Van Jones said Trump’s budget “drops a bomb financially and economically on his own supporters.” 

Behind these observations lies the hope, largely implied, that Trump’s supporters will abandon him over this betrayal. The New York Times’ Charles Blow, citing analysis showing that the people who “stand to lose the most” from the Republican health care reforms are Trump’s own voters, argued, “The many lies Trump told ... have only compounded his flaws and his betrayals. But now, the bill is coming due. A price must soon be paid for these deceptions.” 

Will Trump’s voters in fact feel betrayed by his economic policies? There’s good reason to think not. Trump’s plutocratic tendencies have been startling clear in the early stages of his presidency (given his cabinet of billionaires and push for tax cuts for the rich) but haven’t affected his standing with his supporters. Trump’s approval ratings have been remarkably stable since the first week of his presidency, hovering at 43 percent. This is low for a new president, but suggests that the people who voted for Trump are mostly sticking with him. 

Reporting on Trump voters supports this theory. Trump supporters at his Nashville rally on Wednesday told The Washington Post that they trust the president on health care. Charla McComic, a 52-year-old former first grade teacher, said that a steep drop in her recently unemployed son’s health-insurance premium was a “blessing from God,” and she credited Trump. In fact, an Obamacare subsidy was to thank for it.

“So far, everything’s been positive, from what I can tell,” she said, waiting for Trump’s rally here to begin Wednesday night. “I just hope that more and more people and children get covered under this new health-care plan.”

McComic says she has never trusted a president the way she trusts Trump. 

In reality, tens of millions of Americans will lose insurance under the GOP’s proposed alternative. 

While people like McComic are holding fast to Trump’s promise of economic populism, it’s important to realize that the steadiness of support for the president is the diversity of his base, which is too often reduced by the media to the white working class in economically distressed areas like Appalachia and the Rust Belt. Trump’s base is instead a coalition of different economic groups, each of which sees distinct benefits from his presidency.

Trump won the presidency not simply because he drew an increased share of the white working class vote, but because regular Republicans (who are wealthier than average white people) never defected to Hillary Clinton or abstained from voting en masse, as Democrats had hoped they would. Talk Poverty, a website from the Center for American Progress, notes:

According to exit polls, Hillary Clinton won by 12 points among voters making less than $30,000 a year—53% to Trump’s 41% —and by 9 points among people making between $30,000 and $49,999. Trump’s support was the inverse. He won every group making $50,000 or more—albeit by smaller margins....Trump did perform a lot better than previous Republicans with low-income voters, who historically have supported Democratic candidates by large margins.  For example, Trump improved upon Mitt Romney’s margin with voters making under $30,000 a year by 16 points. But he still lost them—by 12 whole points.

These numbers make clear why a large chuck of Trump’s base won’t object to a budget that punitively targets the poor. Most of his voters are not poor, but regular old Republicans, for whom the budget released Thursday is just the latest version of policies they’ve supported since the Reagan era.

To be sure, some of Trump’s white working class supporters might become disillusioned once they realize the consequences of his policies. But it’s just as likely that they’ll be pleased, as will Trump’s larger coalition, by the restrictionist and isolationist aspects of his agenda, like his targeting of Muslim immigrants and plan to build a wall along the Mexican border.

Trump’s gamble, if indeed this is a witting strategy, is that he can hold his base together on a shared support for ethno-nationalism, with the bulk of economic benefits going to well-to-do Republicans. So far, to judge by the even keel of his poll numbers, his bet is working. This might change when Trump’s economic policies move from the realm of proposals to actual policies that affect everyday lives. But for now, the argument that Trump is betraying his base is just a rhetorical meme that has little bearing on how his voters feel about him.