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Stop blaming racism for Donald Trump’s rise

Trump supporters and protesters. (Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)

Throughout this election season, many have seen Donald Trump's success as an expression of white working-class woes. Trump gave voice to the economic struggles of poor white Americans, and his campaign themes aligned perfectly with the grievances of globalization’s losers. He thrilled crowds with his promises to banish immigrants and snatch back jobs lost to trade and offshoring.

Recent evidence seems to have complicated the economy-anxiety argument. Though many Trump supporters are blue-collar workers, they don’t appear to be particularly downtrodden, at least not financially. A major report from Gallup last week showed that lower incomes are actually associated with lower Trump support. Further, the places that have been acutely affected by globalization — where there has been significant immigration or manufacturing job losses — aren't particularly favorable to Trump.

The findings caused some pundits last week to argue that Trump is primarily a phenomenon of white racial resentment. “Economic anxiety is not a very good predictor of who’s a Trump supporter,” Paul Krugman told Bloomberg TV. “Racial antagonism is a good indicator of who’s a Trump supporter.” Vox’s Matt Yglesias made a similar argument, writing that the simplest explanation for Trump's rise "is a basic divide over values and cultural identity.”

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump energized voters during his speech where he called for equality for African Americans, gays and Hispanics. (Video: The Washington Post)

Even before Gallup's study, Salon writers had argued: "Yes, Trump’s biggest asset is racism: Why bigotry (not the economy) is the biggest factor driving his rise."

Attributing racial motivations — either outright racism or the more nuanced concept of racial resentment — to some of Trump's supporters seems to make sense. Trump has used racially incendiary language, white supremacists have flocked to Trump rallies, and polls show that Trump supporters — who are nearly all white — feel they are disadvantaged relative to other racial groups. Yet those who reduce Trumpism to a giant cultural yawp risk misinterpreting not only the data at hand but also decades of research on how and why people vote.

Survey data shows a strong connection between racial attitudes and Trump support. But economic anxiety also predicts Trump support, and it also correlates with racist attitudes. These factors make much more sense taken together rather than parceled out separately.

Consider these three points:

1. It is a mistake to regard income as the be-all, end-all indicator of economic distress.

You do not have to be officially poor to be worried about your finances. Trump supporters may be fairly well off on average, but they still have concerns about their economic futures. This was clearly illustrated by a recent Washington Post-ABC poll, which showed that Trump supporters were more likely to say they were struggling to keep afloat.

The Gallup report emphasized additional dimensions of economic woe. Trump supporters are more likely to emerge from places with low levels of intergenerational mobility, where poor children struggle to move up the socioeconomic ladder. They also tend to hail from places where middle-aged whites are dying faster. There is real suffering in these communities, a real sense that something has gone wrong. Just because Trump supporters have some income doesn’t disqualify them from feeling vulnerable.

The New York Times’s Ross Douthat put it best last week. “It's not a complicated idea,” he wrote on Twitter. “You can have legitimate economic/cultural anxiety among people who are themselves petit bourgeois.”

2. Even if Trump supporters aren't personally struggling, they still have good reason to agree with his messages.

Through the narrow lens of self-interest, it's true that the views of Trump supporters can appear irrational. Why do they find his protectionist messages so appealing when most of them aren’t factory refugees or victims of offshoring? Why are they so upset about immigration when so many of them live in white enclaves, insulated from the nation’s changing demographics?

Proponents of the cultural-anxiety theory of Trumpism say that the root cause must be prejudice.

Perhaps. But this kind of voting behavior is not strange at all — in fact, it's quite normal. Political scientists have long noticed that people tend to think beyond their own selfish desires when they form political opinions. Over the years, studies have discovered, for instance, that the unemployed are not more likely to support redistributive tax policies; whites who oppose affirmative action are not more likely to be affected by such policies. And in general, researchers have failed to find much of a connection between people’s personal finances and their opinions on politicians and economic policies.

“The conclusion is quite clear,” psychologists David Sears and Carolyn Funk wrote in a classic paper reviewing the evidence. “Self-interest ordinarily does not have much effect upon the ordinary citizen’s sociopolitical attitudes.”

So how do people form their political views? Often, they are thinking about a greater good — what would benefit their neighborhoods, their ethnic groups or the nation as a whole. This probably explains why Trump’s promises of economic protectionism have found such a wide audience.

“I don't know that voters are connecting that to an improvement in their own economic situations, so much as they believe that a lot of people are harmed by these trade agreements, that a lot of industries moved overseas, and that those jobs may never come back,” Sears said recently over the phone. “They think it’s bad for people like them, or it’s bad for the working class in general.”

3. Plenty of evidence suggests that economic anxiety can cause racism, by amplifying resentments and fostering suspicion of outsiders and racial minorities.

Those who have studied the white supremacy movements in the United States point out that hate groups tend to take root in economically marginalized places. “Declines in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors of the economy during the 1980s provided fertile recruiting ground for white supremacist organizations within communities that bore the brunt of the changes,” sociologist Rory McVeigh noted a few years ago.

The economic grievances of these racist organizations bear resemblance to themes in Trump’s own campaign. There is the same sense of decline, the skepticism of international trade, and the suspicion of establishment figures and the “elite.” McVeigh writes in a 2004 paper:

White supremacists believe that the white race is losing ground to other groups and that extreme measures are required to reverse the trend. They also resent white Americans who are enjoying economic prosperity. Prosperous whites are seen as beneficiaries of, and even conspirators in, the social changes that are leading to the declining position of the white majority. Promotion of free trade and a global economy are viewed as part of a plot that benefits the elite, as well as other races throughout the world, while reducing the standard of living for ordinary white Americans.

People’s views of immigration, too, are shaped by their perceptions of economic circumstances. The nation’s own history illustrates this relationship. In a study of the late 1800s and early 1900s, a major period of immigration for the United States, economist Claudia Goldin found that recessions loomed large in the political fights over the nation’s newcomers. “Almost all serious calls for the literacy test [to stem the flow immigrants] were preceded by economic downturns. … and few economic downturns of the era were not accompanied by a call for [immigration] restriction in the halls of Congress,” she writes.

More recently, political scientists have noticed that on general opinion surveys, pessimism about the overall economy correlates with xenophobic attitudes. “The effect of economic hardship is to activate prejudices that are latent, adding fuel to the fire of preexisting views,” Peter Burns and James Gimpel concluded in their analysis of American polls from the 1990s.

We can even see the correlation in data from this year.

In the 2016 pilot study of the American National Election Survey, a poll that asked people detailed questions about their personal lives and political views, I find that racial resentment and anti-immigration sentiments are highly correlated with opinions of the general economy. Those who think that the nation’s economic performance is worse or getting worse also tend to think that immigration is generally bad for the nation, and that black people are just “not trying hard enough” to get ahead. This is true even among a sample of white Republicans only, controlling for education and age.

The chart below gives a sense of the relationship. I combined the different questions about racial resentment and created an index centered on the sentiments of the average American. These violin plots show the distribution of racial resentment scores among people with the same opinion of the economy. The red dot marks the median level of racial resentment in that group. Bulges indicate significant clumps of people. The inner box spans the 25th—75th percentiles.

Most people who believed that the economy was doing "much better" than a year ago had below-average levels of racial resentment. Of the people who believed that the economy was doing "much worse," the bulge at the top of the violin plot shows that most of them are extremely racially resentful, much more so than the average American.

This same connection, by the way, holds true in Europe as well. Europeans became much more skeptical of immigration after the Great Recession, particularly those who worked in sectors the most affected by foreign workers. It is probably no coincidence that European far-right nationalist parties have surged in recent years. These radical groups have long been a presence in European politics, but the misery of the Great Recession added weight to their complaints about cultural decline.

While economic anxiety may lead to racial resentment, it's not the same as racism. Many may mistake the two as interchangeable. But what political scientists call “racial resentment” has less to do with notions of genetic superiority and more to do with a sense of unfairness, a sense that others are getting what they don’t deserve.

"A variety of statistical analyses show that, rather than being a measure of racism, racial resentment measures primarily racial policy attitudes," researchers at Indiana University and Stanford argued in a 2011 study. This is not a knee-jerk animosity, but a bitterness stemming from perceived grievances.

If you think about it that way, much of the debate over Trumpism starts to feel a semantic game. Is Trump support rooted in economic concerns or cultural ones? Both, of course. But it’s not just that these twin anxieties act through each other. On some level they describe the same feeling. When pundits credit the Trump campaign’s success to the “resentful views of people upset about declining white privilege,” doesn’t that sound a lot like economic anxiety? Isn’t economic status the essence of privilege?

Yes, Trump stirs feelings of white ethnic solidarity. Yes, there are racist aspects to Trump’s appeal, and many actual racists among his supporters. But more often than not, such ideas connect to deeper economic concerns. None of this excuses the racism at Trump rallies. Prejudice triggered by economic anxiety is still prejudice. But whether he wins or loses, it suggests that the best strategy to ease the racial resentments among Trump's supporters is to address their economic concerns.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.