In the last few weeks, Americans (and the media) have watched in awe as a New York real estate magnate prone to bellicose behavior and hyperbole has become the GOP's leading candidate for the White House.
But how did this come to be? A lot of it has to do with education.
Trump's support is strongest with Republicans in the Midwest, conservatives across the country who do not have a college degree and (perhaps not surprisingly) those who report the most negative views of immigration and Mexican immigrants in particular, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week.
To be clear, the poll found that 60 percent of all Americans support the idea of offering undocumented immigrants currently in the United States some form of legal status, and 57 percent told pollsters they believe that immigrants strengthen the country. But there are plenty of people who see things differently. And those people appear to be concentrated among whites, Republicans and those with lower levels of education. Take note of the peaks below.
Trump has certainly distinguished himself as the candidate willing to express outrage and horror about the nation's immigration challenges. He has also espoused a range of demonstrably false, unproven and outright conspiratorial ideas about immigration.
Those ideas might sound outrageous and even xenophobic to some Americans. But when you look at who told pollsters that they share at least some of Trump's concerns, that same pattern mentioned up above — white, Republicans with more limited education — shows up in a slightly more subtle way. Pay close attention to the blue bars below.
It seems that education really matters here. Even when pollsters took race out of the equation — to the extent that that is possible since the Republican base is overwhelmingly white — and looked at all Republicans, the relationship between education and Trump support was pretty clear.
Witness the following:
So, what's going on here?
Economic worries as well as anxiety about a shifting cultural landscape have long been hard to separate from this. American immigration policy has even been directly shaped by these forces. And people who face the most direct competition with immigrants for jobs or see large numbers of immigrant workers entering or working in their fields have repeatedly fueled or responded to political movements in the United States that center around concern, fear and or loathing of immigrants.
Today, workers at the top of the education and income scales face some increasingly well-documented competition from well-educated immigrant workers and workers abroad. But it's Americans at the bottom who tend to face job competition most intensely.
Here's why: The majority of immigrant workers in the United States today arrived with limited education and can perform the same tasks as American workers who do not have college degrees or specialized training. And even some immigrants with training in medicine, the sciences, engineering and other fields can not readily practice their profession in the United States without significant time and money to invest in education, training and testing in the United States. So immigrant workers are clustered in manual labor jobs, service industry work and some factory and retail positions. These are, of course, jobs largely held by American-born people of color and whites with limited education.
In regions such as the Midwest and South, where globalization and American trade deals have arguably ravaged industries that once provided family-sustaining wages for some of these same sets of workers, the competition for even these often low-wage jobs is intense. Adding to the situation, when the nation's most recent immigration surge — much of it illegal — began in the 1990s (and ended around 2007, according to Pew Research Center data), many immigrant workers found jobs in the Midwest and South. These are areas of the country that had not seen large influxes of immigration for more than 100 years. Perhaps an ongoing, if smaller, trickle of immigrants to the Northeast has something to do with why attitudes about immigration seem far different there than in other parts of the country.
None of that is to say that this read on immigration and immigrant labor is totally accurate, logical or properly channeled. Labor unions, whose members tend to vote for Democrats, now champion immigration reforms that would extend some some sort of legal status to the nation's estimated 11.3 million undocumented immigrants.
Their thinking: This will relieve some of the downward pressure on wages and level the playing field between immigrant and native-born workers. Big business interests and many economists insist that immigrant workers largely fill roles that American workers don't want or are no longer practical and, in this sense, help to fuel opportunity and even some pressure for American workers to gain more skills, education and training.
Those are two ways to view things. The Trump way is another.
So there you have it. In a nutshell, the people pushing Trump to the head of the polling pack in the very crowded Republican field, the people who have assured Trump a position on the debate stage next month and the people fueling Trump's candidacy are — overwhelmingly but not limited to — white, Republicans with limited education. They have their reasons.