Since I’m not an economist or an expert in British and European affairs, I won’t pretend to have any particular insight into what the practical effects of this vote will be over the short, medium, or long term. The answer to the question of how these events will affect our own economy seems to be that it might be significant, but it’s too early to tell. Nevertheless, it can help us think about the ways cultural resentment and nostalgia will play out in our own election.
Yesterday, the Public Religion Research Institute released a major report on how cultural concerns are affecting the 2016 election, and it’s full of fascinating results about Trump voters in particular. Here are just a few:
- 68 percent of Trump voters say the American way of life has gotten worse since the 1950s
- 83 percent of Trump voters say foreign influence over America should be curtailed
- 77 percent of Trump voters say they’re uncomfortable when they come in contact with immigrants who don’t speak English
- 72 percent of Trump voters say we need a leader who’s willing to break the rules
- 80 percent of Trump voters say immigrants create a burden on society
- 81 percent of Trump voters say discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against minority groups
- 77 percent of Trump voters say discrimination against Christians is a big problem
Just as we’re seeing in Britain, cultural anxieties are often expressed as economic anxieties; the two aren’t completely separable. You can have a sincerely felt concern that immigrants will take your job, at the same time as what really bugs you is the feeling that they’re changing the character of your country, making it feel like it’s no longer your place. If we could just stop the flow of outsiders, many believe, we could return to the time where everybody talked like me and looked like me and thought like me.
It’s clear that this same feeling drove much of the sentiment in Britain in favor of the vote to leave the E.U. Particularly striking was the divide by age: in one poll, 60 percent of those over the age of 65 wanted to leave, compared with only 20 percent of those under 25.
A few weeks ago, Trump was asked his opinion about Brexit, and was unfamiliar with the term. When it was explained, he quickly answered that he was for it — after all, if his campaign theme is “America First,” it stands to reason he thinks other countries should also be insular, suspicious of immigrants and fearful of outsiders, whether he knows or cares about the details. But it’s important to understand that Trump will not alter his basic appeal. He’s driven above all by impulse and what he sees right in front of him. So when he holds rallies and hears his supporters whoop and holler at the most visceral cultural appeals he serves up, his conclusion is that those are the things that will win him the election. If anyone were to tell him to tone that stuff down, he’d surely find the idea absurd. Isn’t that exactly what people are so excited about?
His voters will not be swayed to abandon him by the argument that electing Trump will bring uncertainty and instability. They don’t much care. Is it possible that some series of events in the world could increase the level of instability and anxiety we’re experiencing here in the United States, convincing enough undecided voters to roll the dice on an agent of chaos like Trump to push him past 50 percent? It’s absolutely possible. But they’d have to sign on to his resentful view of today’s America, and his promise to turn back the clock. The good news for Democrats is that for the moment, the people willing to do that remain a minority of the voting public.