Why America's white working class will vote for billionaire Donald Trump

When Donald Trump announced his presidential bid earlier this month in front of a crowd of supporters and hired actors, he gave it The Full Donald. There was his escalator-to-podium descent at the Trump Tower in Manhattan, with Melania, his model wife. There was his trademark braggadocio: "I will be greatest jobs President that God ever created." And there was his truculent talk on trade: "When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let's say, China in a trade deal?" Trump said. "I beat China all the time."

With his preternatural self-confidence and king-size combover, it would be easy to dismiss Trump as a showman (which he is). But the bloviating billionaire could be an important player in the Republican presidential primaries even if he never wins a single contest.

For a start, he has plenty of money – maybe not the $8.5bn net worth he claims on the one-page statement of assets and liabilities he recently released. But the 69-year-old certainly has enough to complicate the race. He can deliver a fusillade of negative ads, crippling others while promoting his agenda.

In two months, he's also likely to make the cut for the first Republican presidential debate. (The Fox News broadcast in August will include only the 10 candidates who poll highest nationwide.) If only by being on that stage, Trump could scuttle the hopes of more established politicians like former Texas governor Rick Perry or Ohio governor, John Kasich. And, while on stage, he could make the other candidates squirm and cringe, berating them as "losers", one of his frequent barbs, and remaining unfazed by their retorts. What are you going to call The Donald that he hasn't already heard? An egotist? Wrong?

But the most important reason Trump matters has to do with a significant shift in the Republican Party: the influx of white working-class voters. Many of them have been devastated by the loss of manufacturing jobs, and they could be receptive to Trump's anti-free-trade message.

The decline of white, blue-collar support for Democrats isn't new, but it has accelerated. It began during the late 1960s, with the backlash to the rise of the counterculture, and was perhaps best captured by All in the Family, the popular 1970s TV show about a conservative, white working stiff. In the 1980s, the rift expanded as so-called Reagan Democrats abandoned the New Deal coalition. In the 1990s, it slowed as Bill Clinton won back many of these voters, thanks in part to his ability to seem tough on welfare, crime and the death penalty.

But since 2000, driven by issues like gun control and coal regulation, white, working-class voters have abandoned the Democrats in greater numbers. Only 33% of non-college-educated white voters – the best proxy that pollsters have for the "white working class" – supported Barack Obama in 2012. In the 2014 midterms, 64% of non-college educated white voters favoured Republicans. "You are talking about people who are deeply alienated from American life, both culturally and economically," says Ronald Brownstein, a political analyst who has written extensively on the subject.

These new blue-collar Republicans are more sceptical of free trade than the Right's traditional base. And that's created a major shift in the party. A Pew study in May found that Republicans, more than Democrats, believe free trade agreements cost them jobs, which bodes well for Trump since the leading Republican candidates largely support free-trade agreements.

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz voted for fast-track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership – an essential step for ratifying the agreement. And Jeb Bush and Scott Walker support it, too. Others oppose the deal, mainly due to the secrecy involved in the negotiations. But none are as vocally opposed as Trump.

Free trade isn't Trump's only appeal to Republican voters; he's also in line with most of the GOP's base on entitlements. A majority of voters in both parties oppose reducing programmes such as Medicare and Social Security. Not surprisingly, whites who haven't gone to college tend to be adamantly opposed to slashing the safety net.

Trump is vulnerable on a key GOP issue: taxes. He threatens to raise taxes repeatedly – not income tax rates, but tariffs on products from countries he believes aren't playing fairly with the US. If Ford built an automotive plant in Mexico rather than the States, he said at his announcement, he would slap a 35% tax on cars from that facility. The threat, he said, would make the automaker keep jobs in the US.

Raising tariffs isn't the same as raising income tax rates, which Trump and all of the GOP candidates oppose. But it's still a tax. If there's anything that unites the diverse strains of Republican voters, it's opposition to higher taxes, even import duties. And the dreaded T-word could easily prove to be a distraction for The Donald, and diminish the allure of his more popular policies. Supporting quotas on imported goods, as opposed to tariffs, is one easy way for Trump to get around this dilemma.

Many non-college educated whites are also evangelicals, and it's hard to see Trump's family story playing well inside America's small-town, fundamentalist churches.

In 1990, the New York Post ran a headline saying The Donald 's then-girlfriend boasted Trump gave her the "Best Sex I Ever Had". In some settings, that might be cause to boast, but probably not at the Iowa Caucus. Then again, Trump has declared his support of traditional marriage, and he's had three of them.

The billionaire real estate mogul clearly isn't a perfect Republican candidate, but he doesn't have to win to be important. In 1992, Ross Perot garnered 19% of the vote in the general election.

His platform was simple – and similar to Trump's. Perot adamantly opposed free trade and claimed his business acumen would turn the economy around. His eccentricity and penchant for conspiracies was also part of his appeal; much like Trump's obsession with Barack Obama's birth certificate, the Texan claimed George HW Bush tried to ruin his daughter's wedding.

If Perot could win 19% of the vote in a general election, who's to say The Donald can't get 5% to 10% in critical Republican primaries, perhaps dimming the chances of other anti-establishment candidates such as Cruz or hurting a tough-on-immigration frontrunner like Walker? Thanks to his anti-free-trade message, Trump doesn't need his name on the White House to play a role in deciding who next lives there.