Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks in Pittsburgh on Sept. 22. Trump’s status as a Washington outsider fuels his fiery populism and is helping to shield him from the scrutiny House Republicans are devoting to Hillary Clinton, a former U.S. senator and secretary of state. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything.

In an essay for the Economist, President Obama writes, “It’s true that a certain anxiety over the forces of globalization, immigration, technology, even change itself, has taken hold in America.”

You can’t blame him for writing this. Congressional resistance threatens to scupper Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, much to the confused delight of China. Obama’s assertions feed into an overall spate of commentary that either celebrates or bemoans the rise of economic populism in the United States — but certainly presumes that it’s happening.

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts would like to question the president’s premise, however. Indeed, one of my running themes this election cycle has been that Donald Trump’s brand of economic populism is not all that popular. And today we have a big honking new Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey to demonstrate why this is the case.

The bad news first: The Chicago Council survey undeniably demonstrates that there is a constituency for this kind of economic message, and that constituency is concentrated in the Republican Party. As my Washington Post colleagues Scott Clement and Jim Tankersley note:

One of the big policy questions for the Republican Party, in the heat of this presidential election, is what it will do if Donald Trump loses come November. Will it retrench to its traditional positions and focus, stressing free markets, low taxes and social conservatism? Or will it continue along Trump’s more populist path, critiquing globalization and, in particular, immigration, at increasingly high volume?

Newly-released polling from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs suggests the populism is here to stay. Concerns about immigration, refugees and globalization predate Trump in the GOP — and thus appear unlikely to dissipate whether he wins or loses.

It is a cycle of nativism and economic pessimism that has been building for years among Republicans, particularly those who form the core of Trump’s support. As the Council puts it, “Those Americans who feel more threatened by immigration, favor deportation, and feel unfavorably toward immigrants believe that the next generation will be economically worse off than adults today. Unease with immigration and pessimism about the next generation’s economic prospects reinforce each other and have proven to be key factors in support for Donald Trump.”

This is true. Indeed, the Chicago Council report highlights that economic populism is the area where GOP elites are most out of step with the base of the party:

On two core areas — globalization and jobs — Trump has been able to take advantage of an opinion gap between the Republican public and Republican leadership. The 2016 Chicago Council Survey reveals that 85 percent of core Trump supporters and 78 percent of Republicans say protecting American jobs is a very important foreign policy goal. In contrast, the 2014 survey of foreign policy opinion leaders found that only 37 percent of Republican opinion leaders think protecting American jobs is a very important foreign policy goal.

If the thenation consisted only of Republicans, the dominant narrative about rising economic populism would be accurate.

The United States is more diverse than that, however, and a glance at the aggregate data shows some more powerful countervailing trends. Consider this chart about American attitudes toward immigration, for example:


Over the past two years, the chart shows that the issue of illegal immigration has strongly resonated with Republicans, but not with the rest of the nation. Democrats and independents are less concerned about illegal immigration as a threat now than they were two years ago — which, by the way, is consistent with actual facts about illegal immigration.

The trend lines on the illegal immigration question are emblematic of the overall findings of the report. Republicans, particularly Trump supporters, have mostly shifted in a more economically populist direction. The rest of the country, however, has shifted in the opposite direction. This might just be a function of raw partisanship, although the movement of independents suggests not. Consider the following data points culled from the report:

  • “Just three in 10 among the overall US public (28 percent) say that illegal immigrants should be forced to leave the United States and leave their jobs — half the percentage of core Trump supporters who feel this way.”
  • “Overall, the number of Americans who prefer there be a pathway to citizenship [58 percent] has increased since 2013, when 50 percent were in favor either immediately (25 percent) or after a waiting period and paying a fine (25 percent). This result is in line with the findings of other polls, which have found that a majority of Americans favor a pathway to citizenship and have since at least 2014.”
  • “The gap between Republicans and Democrats on support for globalization has grown from four percentage points in 2006 to 15 percentage points in 2016.”
  • “Core Trump supporters have different views than other Americans on trade and globalization. But some of core Trump supporters’ demographic groupings — namely predominately white, less-educated and older Americans — are shrinking in America.”

There are also the areas where public opinion polling flatly contradicts the notion that the country has embraced Trump’s zero-sum worldview:

  • “With a negative outlook on international trade, it is somewhat surprising that half of core Trump supporters support the TPP (49 percent support, 46 percent oppose). Nonetheless, this puts them at lower levels of support than the overall U.S. public (60 percent), Republicans (58 percent) and Democrats (70 percent), and on par with independents (52 percent). Surprisingly, despite [Sen. Bernie] Sanders’s vocal opposition to the TPP, 56 percent of his core supporters favor the agreement, as do 74 percent of [Hillary] Clinton’s core supporters.”
  • “Americans overall — and across party lines — have grown more positive toward Mexican immigrants since a 2013 Chicago Council survey. In 2013, 55 percent reported favorable views of Mexican immigrants living in the United States — a sentiment that rose to 60 percent in 2016.”
  • “Among the overall public, 89 percent say that maintaining existing alliances is very or somewhat effective at achieving U.S. foreign policy goals. That view has bipartisan support: Democrats (94 percent), Republicans (88 percent) and independents (86 percent) all view maintaining existing alliances as very or somewhat effective, as do 84 percent of core Trump supporters.”

My point here is the same point I’ve been making this entire election cycle. President Obama has described the wave of populism the way it is normally described: as an inexorable rising tide. The data suggests otherwise, however: For every American who is attracted to Trump’s message, there are more Americans who are repelled by it. Whether because of political polarization or common sense, this trend is worth stressing again: Economic populism simply isn’t terribly popular.