Trump's Win Was About More Than the Economy, Stupid

Donald Trump rally
Signs lie discarded following Donald Trump's election night rally, Manhattan, New York, November 9. Andrew Kelly

We all like to cling to familiar comforts in a time of uncertainty. So whenever something unusual happens in politics, many politicians and commentators are desperate to tie it to economics. Ever since 1992 when James Carville, a campaign aide to some guy called Bill Clinton who was president what feels like 1,000 years ago, coined the phrase “the economy, stupid,” it’s been flourished before the public as the most reliable explainer and predictor of voter behavior.

Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States on Tuesday night was a political event that stretched things beyond “unusual” and well into the zone of “What the hell just happened?” But from the moment he started surging in the Republican primary Trump’s success has been deeply shocking. And so, one go-to explanation for politicos has been an economic one; that voters “left behind” by globalization and frightened by widening inequality turned to the billionaire practitioner of the “art of the deal” who said he’d bring back their jobs from China.

A look at the exit polls shows that cannot be the whole story. Hillary Clinton beat Trump among voters in the bottom two income brackets (all those earning under $49,999 a year) by a margin of around 10 percent. Many of Trump’s biggest leads over Clinton, meanwhile, had a distinctly racial and/or cultural flavor; he thrashed her by 39 percent among whites without a college degree and by 65 percent among white evangelicals. Clinton destroyed Trump with a 64 percent lead among LGBT voters, an 80 percent lead among black voters, and 36 percent leads among Hispanic and Asian voters.

So some truths that should be self-evident need to be restated: economic insecurity cannot be the sole driver of Trump’s victory when many minority citizens are also economically insecure. Many immigrants also feel “left behind.” The pace of change and the destruction of communities associated with globalization afflict all races and groups, not just the white working class. Real household incomes fell about as sharply for black and Hispanic people after the 2008 recession, and took longer to rise again.

You don’t have to look any further than Trump’s own words to get that his appeal is at least as much cultural or racial as economic. For Trump, opposing globalization was as much a nativist as an economic program, and his prescriptions for it included economic shifts such as a turn toward protectionism, but also a temporary ban on Muslim immigration and a massive, useless, staggeringly expensive wall to keep out Mexicans. Whole swathes of Trump voters are not badly off, they just think differently to liberal America.

Still, the economy is not irrelevant here. While Trump lost among those low-income voters, he did substantially better with them than Mitt Romney did in 2012, with a 16 percent better vote share among those earning less than $30,000, and he made key gains among blue-collar counties in states like Ohio. He led by 65 percent among voters who felt the condition of America’s economy is “poor.” But his ability to convince some desperate voters is also summarized by his colossal lead in a much broader category: he beat Hillary by 69 percent among voters who felt the ability to “bring needed change” was the most important quality in a candidate.

So a desire for “change,” ironically the same factor that swept Barack Obama into office on a wave of optimism in 2008, helped get Trump where he is. We don’t know yet quite what change those voters want, or why they want it. But analysis of Britain’s Brexit vote, another seemingly populist uprising, by the focus group company BritainThinks found that cultural attitudes were a stronger predictor of how someone voted than pure economic factors: “leavers” were “patriotic, nostalgic and community-focused,” while “remainers” were “confident, outward-looking and optimistic.”

It’s too early for such analysis of the U.S. vote, but assuming similar cultural factors were in play somewhere doesn’t seem far-fetched, especially given Trump’s strong performance in rural communities (his data guru described “urban-rural splits” as “the big story” on Twitter after the vote).

This is a complex election that will keep better minds than mine busy for months and years to come. But explaining Trump only as a champion of the “left behind” ignores those most deprived voters that plumped for his opponent, and neglecting to mention the racial aspects of the vote ignores a key part of his appeal. “Nothing we want for our future is beyond our reach,” Trump said in his victory speech Wednesday. The world is waiting anxiously to find out what he wants, but I’m betting it’s more than just economic renewal. To think anything else really would be stupid.