How the Rise of Trump Happened: Ideology Versus Interests

Garry Canepa

After Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 elections, Republicans had an existential crisis and were deeply considering a fundamental change of plan. After consistently losing in the popular vote of national elections, Republicans believed that their future laid in inclusivity and modernization. In hopes of attracting the growing diversity of voters, the GOP aimed to become more accepting and to change their platform to be more inclusive of minorities, women and the LGBT community.  They especially wanted to appeal towards the increasing Hispanic vote, by reforming their stance on immigration to become more welcoming of foreigners. Tea-Party leader, Dick Armey, told the Atlantic regarding inclusion that “You can’t call someone ugly and expect them to go to the prom with you. We’ve chased the Hispanic voter out of his natural home”. After 2012, the Republicans looked like they planned on making a move to the left.

This all changed when on June 16, 2016, Donald Trump announced his campaign for the presidency, running on a seemingly futile platform of nationalism and exclusivity which alienated the voters that the GOP hoped to attract. Since Trump’s campaign began, his infamous speech which called undocumented immigrants “rapists” and “murders”, his call for a ban on Muslims, his stance on trade (a cornerstone of conservative economic policy) and so much more has split the Republican base, while attracting a new group of voters. In June, no one had expected Trump to win the nomination and many believed his support would wither, even as his poll numbers went up. This has led many to ask the question: How did Trump Happen?

Trump’s platform and ideology aren’t anything the US hasn’t seen during the 1920s and 1970s. After the Progressive Era, which had ended with the election of Warren G. Harding in 1920, the era of the 1920s was best defined by Harding’s campaign promise as a “Return to Normalcy”. Under the Harding, Coolidge and Hoover administrations, right wing ideology of laissez-faire economics and nationalism had dominated the political sphere caused by the backlash against the progressive policies prior. Anti-immigration sentiment and protectionist trade policy defined the era, through the Immigration Act of 1924 and the Smoot-Hawley Tariffs of 1930. This period in politics runs contrary to the Progressive era prior, which was the culmination of international trade and immigration, especially low-skilled workers from Southern and Eastern Europe.


The Reagan Revolution of 1980 (the pinnacle of the conservative counter-revolution of the 1970s) was following by trade barriers which placed restrictions on auto and steel imports, especially from Japan. This was encouraged by the growing competition from German and Japanese manufacturing, perceived as a threat to the US hegemony. While the Reagan Revolution did not proceed a period of large immigration like the “Return to Normalcy”, the oil shocks, stagflation (high unemployment and inflation), and especially the backlash against the Civil Rights movement during the 1970’s played a critical role in the re-emergence of conservative doctrine. This current wave of populism and nativism, which neither major political party has been able to adjust to, can be viewed as a reaction to recent developments such as globalization, immigration, the 2008 financial crisis and the recent social movements. These factors have created a shift in ideology which has transcended self-interest. So what has fueled the newest wave of far-right ideology? In order to understand the Trump base, we must first know who they are.

Considering that recent trade policy, immigration and the 2008 financial crisis has adversely affected low-income Americans, many of whom struggle finding decent paying jobs, the typical Trump voter is imagined to be the displaced, blue collar worker who has suffered at the hands of the economic policies of the establishment. Trump’s campaign has centered on protecting American jobs, which would resonate with many struggling workers whose vote would be based on their best interests at heart. But the actual Trump base is not what his platform would make many believe. The median household income of Trump voters is $72,000. While less than that of the typical Cruz and Kasich voter ($73,000 and $91,000 respectively) it is still higher than that of the typical Clinton voter of only $61,000 and much higher than the national average of $51,000. Trump supporters are relatively well off and the low-income vote has largely gone to Democrats and has even increased since 2012. Voters with incomes below $30,000 prefer Democrats over Republicans by a 29 point margin opposed to the 24 point margin of 2012. Yet while almost every demographic has leaned more to the left since 2012, men over 50 have moved slightly to the right along with voters with incomes between $75,000 to $100,000. Political Scientist David Brady states in reference to the current Republican voter base “About half are between 45 and 64 years of age, with another 34 percent over 65 years old and less than 2 percent younger than 30”. So not only are Trump voters typically well off financially, but they are also more likely to be retirees than Clinton voters and therefore do not even need the jobs that Trump is campaigning on. So what about the low skilled, poorly educated struggling worker we all imagine when we think of a Trump voter? Most are voting Democrat (Although as Bernie Sanders accurately noted, poor people don’t vote). Since 2012, voters with a high school degree or less currently prefer Democrats over Republicans by a fairly wide margin (7 points as of June 2016). And while Trump has made job creation one of the central themes of his campaign, the average Trump supporter is more likely to already be employed or even in retirement compared to the average Clinton voter, who is more likely to be looking for a job. And while Trump voters do tend to be poorly educated, they also tend to be older, and therefore they at least have work experience under their belt which helps account for their high incomes. Poorly educated youths, on the other hand, lack the same experience and are more likely to be voting Democrat.

Not only that, but Trump’s healthcare plan would also adversely affect the elderly, his own base. NPR correspondent Joe Neel states “Trump would repeal and replace Obamacare with Health Savings Accounts. HSAs are being more widely adopted by employers as a way to save money. According to the Mayo Clinic, HSAs have pros and cons. Basically, if you’re young and healthy, you’ll come out ahead; if you are older and have chronic health problems, probably not”. If voters voted solely based on personal self-interest, Trump’s healthcare plan would attract younger voters while alienating the older ones. Yet the opposite holds true, emphasizing the role ideology plays over that of self-interest. Trump’s own immigration policy would harm his base as well. While the current immigration backlash is viewed as the fear of losing jobs or having wages reduced as foreigners come into the US, the low skilled labor immigrating from across the border isn’t competing with the typical Trump voter who makes $72,000. But instead, they would more likely be competing against the workers who makes $30,000 or under, a group that leans strongly towards Clinton (however evidence is scant on whether low skill immigration harms the wages and employment of low skill domestic workers). And the low-wage labor caused by immigration has benefited Trump’s base, as their cost of living has been reduced due to the savings for businesses who are able to hire cheaper foreign labor. Trump supporters aren’t low-income workers voting for their best interests. Many are high-income retirees voting against their own interest. This wave of ideology overpowering self-interest is similar to the “Reagan revolution” of 1980, and while Trump is certainly a unique candidate in terms of how explicit he is with his views, the connotation is still similar to that of Ronald Reagan’s. During Reagan’s 1980 campaign, he gave a speech at Neshoba County Fair, in Philadelphia Mississippi on the issue of “States Rights”, just a few miles away from where three civil rights activists had been killed in 1964. He stated “I still believe the answer to any problem lies with the people. I believe in states’ rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level, and I believe we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment”. “States’ Rights” was the justification for George Wallace’s segregationist platform, and the South’s justification  for slavery, which had led many to believe that Reagan had utilized the “Southern Strategy”, to attain to vote of southern whites by using the backlash against the federal Civil Rights Act (Or “Civil Wrongs Act” as it was dubbed by many Reagan voters). Parallels can be drawn between Reagan’s speech and Trump’s announcement of his presidential campaign, which he refers to undocumented immigrants coming from Mexico as murderers and rapists. Both use the discontent of inclusiveness to attract voters who are angry at the changes of the nation, and in both elections, wanted to “Make America Great Again: The current backlash against immigration is quite similar to the previous backlash against Civil Rights. And while the justification of the backlash laid in seemingly legitimate grounds, like states’ rights and the call for secure borders, the connotation behind them are very clear and present. The Southern Strategy was also a major factor in causing the South, which traditionally voted Democrat for economic interests, to vote reliably Republican, against those very same interests. And the “Trump Strategy” also seems to be attracting voters from across party lines just the same.

Considering many members of the Trump base had voted Democrat in 2012, what explains their current shift in ideology? There are several factors responsible for the change. The financial crisis of 2008 has eroded the trust many have for the banking system. The deregulation of the financial sector carried out under the Reagan, Clinton and Bush administration were touted as a pathway to economic growth. Unfortunately, it led to an increase in inequality and financial instability which had been responsible for causing the financial crisis. Voters of all demographics found themselves unemployed and many haven’t forgiven the political establishment, both Democrats, and Republicans, for peddling the American people policies which benefited Wall Street at the expense of Main Street. The crisis proved significant through its reinforcement of public discontent towards the government, the status quo of the economy, immigration and foreign imports. The extremist ideology that came as a response to the crisis, from the Occupy movement to the Tea Party movement, have found their outlet in the political outsider, Donald Trump. Also, the recent wave of Civil Rights movements has outraged many older conservative voters, who feel threatened by the changing ways of the nation. The third wave of feminism, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the LGBT rights movement, which culminated in the landmark Supreme Court case of Obergefell v Hodges, effectively legalizing gay marriage (leading to further distrust of the federal government) have taken the US on a path that the Trump base is resisting. Just like how the Civil Rights protests and riots of the 1960s lead to the rise of conservatism in the 70’s and to Reagan’s election in 1980, the current social movements are triggering a strong counter-response from more conservative Americans, especially from the politically influential baby-boomer generation. Also, similar to the fear of the rise of Japan during the conservative revolution of the 70’s, Trump voters hold a fear of the rise of China. Trump’s base is far more skeptical of trade and tends to hold a more negative view of globalization. Trump’s platform on high tariffs, leaving the World Trade Organization and his rejection of NAFTA and the TPP reflect a growing concern Americans have towards the benefits of international trade. Free Trade has been a major goal for by Republican and Democratic administrations alike. The reaction of Trump’s base can be viewed as a backlash against the mainstream political agenda which both sides of the aisle agree on. And of course, there’s immigration. As shown by the graph earlier, a large influx of immigration since the end of the Cold War and especially since NAFTA has fueled an anti-immigrant backlash similar to the “Return to Normalcy” era of the 1920s. And economic self-interest fails to play a role. If there’s any argument that low skill immigration would hurt employment and wages, it would be towards the low-income Clinton voters, rather than the upper-middle-class Trump voters. There’s also the fear of terrorism, the second biggest concern Americans have, just below the economy, which many view as radical Islam. Also, the false perception of crime in America, creating a similar backlash as well. It is not the economic self-interest which explains the Trump base, but rather their views, especially on diversity. According to the Pew Research Center, “Clinton supporters (72%) are far more likely than Trump supporters (40%) to view the nation’s increasing diversity positively”. As the nation becomes more ethnically diverse, the appeal of the Trump campaign becomes more attractive towards more conservative and especially white voters. Trump is addressing issues that the GOP establishment has failed to do, for fear of being viewed as racist, xenophobic, sexist and intolerant.  But his views resonate so strongly with many Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, that view Trump as an outlet to voice their “not-so-PC” opinions. So what does this movement mean?

The political zeitgeist tends to act like a pendulum, and while Trump’s policies will likely be overall harmful to the US economy and especially to the Trump base, a rise in populism helps remove the political discontent created by more liberal and internationally focused policies. They also force policymakers to question the mainstream agenda. Free trade agreements, overseas military bases and our relationship with China are not sacred cows which should be free from debate, especially when they have garnered criticism from the populous, and Trump’s campaign has brought them closer into the political spotlight. Professor Dani Rodrik of Harvard University’s School of Government stated in reference to the protectionism of the 1980s “What looked to contemporaries like damaging protectionism was, in fact, a way of letting off steam to prevent an excessive buildup of political pressure”. While Trump’s policy prescription will harm the US, the issues he highlights have the potential to let off the political steam if they are addressed, which will allow our congress to be more open-minded and productive in the future. And history has shown that policies which have addressed the concerns of the populous, allow the political pendulum to keep swinging. The Smoot-Hawley tariffs highlighted the failures of nationalist policies in the 1920s and led to the formation of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), where nations were successfully able to negotiate in an international forum to expand trade. Reagan’s protectionist policies led to the globalization of the modern age which has been accompanied by high levels of economic growth and an influx of cheaper goods. And the current reactionary zeitgeist can help us reevaluate and question conventional policies, like trade deals and foreign relations, to have more successful and well-received policies in the future. When the two major political parties begin to converge in ideology and move against the sentiments of the masses, it’s healthy for a functioning democracy to question the established values. And the political steam that this movement can let out has the potential to pave the way for a more inclusive and progressive ideology in the future.

The Trump base is well aware that their candidate is far from perfect, with a new controversial statement and scandal from the real estate mogul being brought to light regularly. But this has had little effect on the movement. As conservative pundit Ann Coulter recently told Bill Maher “No one is voting for Donald Trump because of his character or personality… it was always about his issues”. The Trump ideology resonates too strongly with Americans of both political parties, that they would be willing to vote against their own interests as well as vote for a dangerously flawed candidate, so this ideology can be represented. Hopefully, the Trump movement will also teach the established politicians that they can’t ignore the wishes of their base, as it will only come back to haunt them. Regardless of how people feel about the Trump movement, the voices of millions of frustrated voters do need to be addressed, especially one as strong politically as the baby boomer generation. According to recent polls, it is more than likely that Hillary Clinton will become the next president and she will have a responsibility to appease the Trump vote in order to have anything passed. Otherwise, her presidency will be met with a potentially stronger wave of populous emotion which will feel even more ignored and betrayed than today, and the pendulum with remain stuck in gridlock and dissatisfaction.

The field of economics focuses on incentives and how people make decisions. This election focuses heavily on the role ideology plays, even over self-interest in the choices that voters will make come November 8th. Political and social forces play a large role; a role many tend to overlook in favor of economic incentive. But history has shown that these forces have been responsible for fundamental changes to the US, making them critical to focus on in order to understand how future politics will become shaped. This wave is likely to be short term, but only if it’s addressed and concessions are made. If they are, the US has the potential to have a less gridlocked congress and more progressive public policy.  If not, it will only get worse.

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