Thursday, April 8, 2021

Trump Supporters Are Driven by Status Anxiety. How Should Democrats Respond?

Ever since Donald Trump was elected in 2016, a debate has raged about whether his white working class supporters are motivated by racism or economic anxiety. That debate has persisted, even after the Public Policy Research Institute found that:

  • White working-class voters who say they often feel like a stranger in their own land and who believe the U.S. needs protecting against foreign influence were 3.5 times more likely to favor Trump than those who did not share these concerns, 
  • White working-class voters who favored deporting immigrants living in the country illegally were 3.3 times more likely to express a preference for Trump than those who did not, and
  • Being in fair or poor financial shape actually predicted support for Hillary Clinton among white working-class Americans, rather than support for Donald Trump. Those who reported being in fair or poor financial shape were 1.7 times more likely to support Clinton, compared to those who were in better financial shape.
Here is what Emma Green concluded after reviewing that research.
Besides partisan affiliation, it was cultural anxiety—feeling like a stranger in America, supporting the deportation of immigrants, and hesitating about educational investment—that best predicted support for Trump.

Buttressing that conclusion is research recently released by Robert A. Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats. He analyzed the 377 insurgents who have been arrested for storming the Capitol on January 6th.

[T]he study would appear to connect Jan. 6 not only to the once-fringe right-wing theory called the Great Replacement, which holds that minorities and immigrants are seeking to take over the country, but also to events like the far-right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 where crowds of white men marched with torches chanting, “Jews will not replace us!”

“If you look back in history, there has always been a series of far-right extremist movements responding to new waves of immigration to the United States or to movements for civil rights by minority groups,” Mr. Pape said. “You see a common pattern in the Capitol insurrectionists. They are mainly middle-class to upper-middle-class whites who are worried that, as social changes occur around them, they will see a decline in their status in the future.”

Based on all of that, it is clear that what motivates Trump supporters isn't necessarily captured by terms like "economic anxiety" or simply "racism." What we should be talking about is their "status anxiety." 

Back in December, Thomas Edsall unpacked what that terms means by talking to a lot of experts about it. He learned that it is a subjective perception that is tied to a person’s sense of identity. As such, it represents how individuals gauge their status based on the cultural hierarchies we’ve constructed around things like class, gender, race, religion, geography, education, etc. 

Some of the experts Edsall consulted for his piece pointed out that the loss of social status is not something Trump supporters actually experience. It’s something they fear. For example, here is how Peter Hall, a professor of government at Harvard, described those who are affected:
The people most often drawn to the appeals of right-wing populist politicians, such as Trump, tend to be those who sit several rungs up the socioeconomic ladder in terms of their income or occupation. My conjecture is that it is people in this kind of social position who are most susceptible to what Barbara Ehrenreich called a “fear of falling” — namely, anxiety, in the face of an economic or cultural shock, that they might fall further down the social ladder,” a phenomenon often described as “last place aversion."

The reason why it is important to be clear about all of this is that our understanding of what motivates Trump supporters becomes the basis of whether a political agenda can appeal to them. Those who assume that Trump supporters are driven by economic anxiety make the case that if Democrats embrace policy proposals aimed at addressing the economic concerns of white working class voters, they can win their votes. But if Trump supporters are primarily driven by racism, they are simply deplorable and can't be reached. 

But what about status anxiety? Is there a political agenda that can address that? No. The truth is that what these folks are experiencing is actually more psychological than political. Their identities have been built on a foundation of supremacy—which is on a collision course with change. The anxiety they are experiencing is not related to what is actually happening, but what they fear might happen. In that sense, white supremacists Richard Spencer was actually the first one to identify Trump's appeal during an interview with Evan Osnos in 2015 (emphasis mine).

He said, “I don’t think Trump is a white nationalist,” but he did believe that Trump reflected “an unconscious vision that white people have – that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country. I think that scares us. They probably aren’t able to articulate it. I think it’s there. I think that, to a great degree, explains the Trump phenomenon.”

That same anxiety about what might happen is what drives men who fear being emasculated by women and Christian nationalists who fear religious persecution. A simple thing like hearing someone speak Spanish at the grocery store triggers white supremacist fears that their entire culture is in the process of being annihilated. 

Of course, right wing politicians and media play on those fears every day. They fan the flames in order to maintain power and influence. As long as that continues, it is difficult to imagine how status anxiety can be allayed. That's why there aren't any grand solutions on the horizon. 

What Democrats shouldn't do is allow this drama to influence their policy decisions. As the Biden administration is doing, they must analyze real-world problems and propose pragmatic policies to address them. That includes everything from stimulating the economy via infrastructure to immigration reform.  Someone needs to be the adult in the room while these folks throw their tantrums about imagined fears. 


  1. "Their identities have been built on a foundation of supremacy—which is on a collision course with change."

    Well said.

    Although the other night, for just a second, I was capable of feeling what MAGAs feel (I think), like Counselor Troi but with hairy man-boobs. And here is what I picked up on. You know that feeling when your high school football team loses the big game to their rivals, and how burned that makes you feel? How it bugs you that, somewhere, someone's gloating over your loss? What motivates MAGAs is that they don't want to feel that feeling. More tangible explanations, like demographic changes, I think are missing that simple emotional appeal: MAGAs don't want to feel like their rivals have beaten them and are out there somewhere calling them "losers".

    I could be wrong, but it fits. Certainly fits better than me in one of Marina Sirtis's costumes.

    1. Thanks for that image ;)

      In subtler terms, your driving down the highway making good time--then someone passes you. You still get to your destination as fast as you would have, or faster, without that person passing you--but it just doesn't feel that way. Next time, it's peddle to the metal...and a car missing a curve.

  2. There's also an element of fear that they will be treated as they have treated the Others in the past.

    1. This is much more on point than even they will admit to themselves.

  3. i have grown so weary of all this psychoanalysis of Trump voters...what about giving a inch about the folks who are the target of Trump and these one seems the least concerned...and now there is the attack on this same group...I am Here to Say...That America does not only belong to white belongs to all of us...ALL OF US....and WE Will NOT Go Back..

    1. Yeah, me too. I don't know what made them racists, or values voters, or Heartland Americans®, or economically anxious, or status anxiety or whatever shiny new euphemism that academics & press/media want to use to cover for them. What I do know is they produce & support evil things. And I know that there are more of them than I imagined or feared and we cannot get rid of them.

      The only thing we can do is work very hard to keep them from having power over others.

    2. The only reason I want to understand them is so that maybe I can do a better job of foiling them.

      I'll understand them if I can, but I won't sympathize with them.

  4. This is accurate, though I have to admit I don't see a meaningful distinction between being a person who fears losing status to folks with a different skin color and racism. If your perception of your place in society depends on your being elevated over folks who look different from you in this obvious but ultimately meaningless way, I'm going to call that racism.

    I'll also echo the commenter above who points out, without directly referencing it, that the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal treatment of all citizens under the law means that we all deserve the same right to participate in civic life. All citizens means exactly that, and pretending that one group warrants a privilege another does not, whether because of skin color or time one's ancestors have "been Americans" is antithetical to the Constitution's definition of who warrants that privilege.

    1. I wanted to clarify that what drives Trump's supporters is not simply racism. That is certainly a big part of status anxiety. But so are things like sexism and religious bigotry, etc.

  5. Good call...what may look obvious, economic stress, is not the overriding concern of the is like Ms. Nancy says, they fear the unknown...the fear of losing status...this is not a new concept...It is as old as mankind itself..Once upon a time, there was a Neanderthal tribe, who's leader was a hairy guy named Benny...Who was at the top of his tool making career....until, one day, a young, good looking and hairy guy, shows up with a new kind of axe...but Benny, fearful of losing his position, planned and plotted the overthrow of the tribal council...he recruited several of his hairy hoard, to storm the Campfire gathering of the leadership...but as events unfolded, Benny, was struck down by his own supporters...he was stripped of his weapons, and status, and was forced into exile...
    The moral of this story seems to be...Fear the unknown, unless it is known...Fear the Other, unless they fear you...Fear is the mind killer...Fear is what drives the republican tribe...
    PS...I have noticed, WaMo, has not been the same without you...I can't put my finger on it, but it seems "lacking"...

  6. I get four takeaways from another fine post and uniformly helpful comments. First, this isn't just race, but it is inseparable from race. Second, you may not be able to win over those who feel threatened by addressing weaknesses in the economy, whatever centrists at the Monthly or leftists alike say. Third, you may not be able to win them over either by backing off on equal justice for all, and you'd be betraying core principles, your base, and broader public support as well. And fourth, faced with a tacit racism and the right-wing propaganda machine, you may not be able to halt the identification of those core principles with wokeness and other nonsensical labels, but you can at least refuse to accept the lies.

  7. So, who are Trump's supporters?

    Part of the problem is that people tend to be very sloppy when it comes to defining "working class." Traditionally, the term referred to people who earn an hourly wage but these days it is used to describe people who lack a four year college degree.

    Is the working class really Trump's base? This exit poll indicates that the only income group that Trump won in 2020 was those making $100-199K and he won it by a wide margin (58-41). Biden won every income group making less than $100K and the two candidates split the vote of those making more than $200K.

    In fact, Trump's base is what old-school lefties called the "petite bourgeoisie." They tend to be small business owners, skilled tradespeople, independent contractors and the like. They identify with their economic betters and they despise the people below them on the economic ladder. And they have an intense fear of falling down and joining the ranks of the working poor that they despise.

    I've read that the bulk of the supporters of France's National Front come from this same economic class, as well as Duterte's supporters in the Philippines. In America, everything is intertwined with race so this fear of falling down often manifests itself in ugly bigotry.

    I don't see a politcal way to address their fears. I think it is foolish to think that some wonky, new economic program (rural broadband!) will win them over. That doesn't mean we shouldn't do things like rural broadband; we should do what's right for the country and its people, but don't expect an immediate politcal payoff.

    We simply have to organize and beat them at the polls.

  8. Kenneth AlmquistApril 9, 2021 at 3:19 PM

    This reminds me of the argument that slaveholders made in the run up to the American Civil War. Here is a typical example, from John Townsend's address to the Edisto Island Vigilant Association, October 29, 1860:

    “In countries where negro slavery does not exist, (as in the Northern States of this Union and in Europe,) the most menial and degrading employments in society are filled by the white poor, who are hourly seen drudging in them. Poverty, then, in those countries, becomes the badge of inferiority, and wealth, of distinction. Hence the arrogant airs which wealth there puts on, in its intercourse with the poor man. But in the Southern slaveholding States, where these menial and degrading offices are turned over to be per formed exclusively by the negro slave, the status and color of the black race becomes the badge of inferiority, and the poorest non-slaveholder may rejoice with the richest of his brethren of the white race, in the distinction of his color. The poorest non-slaveholder, too, except as I have before said, he be debased by his vices or his crimes, thinks and feels and acts as if he was, and always intended to be, superior to the negro. He may be poor, it is true; but there is no point upon which he is so justly proud and sensitive as his privilege of caste; and there is nothing which he would resent with more fierce indignation than the attempt of the Abolitionist to emancipate the slaves and elevate the negros to an equality with himself and his family.”

    This argument didn't convince everyone in the South; the Union Army had units composed of men from every state in the Union except South Carolina. But it is what the leaders of the secession movement considered to be their strongest argument to convince non-slaveholders to fight and die to preserve slavery.

  9. The Republican trick is to find a way to get their supporters to blame someone else for their problems, esp. those caused by the Republicans. They just have to get more extreme and their game gets exposed.
    Obamacare was great. The Republicans attack was mainly to get their supporters to blame it for any and every problem they might have with insurance or medical care, or for decisions their employer made to cut their subsidies to health care.
    Obama got our economy on track from the mess that happened under G.W. Saved the auto industry, etc. But he didn't save every factory and it was not done immediately, so all their troubles were his fault.
    The pandemic has hurt a lot of people--so blame those who want you to wear masks, or get vaccinated, or do anything that could stop the spread. Blame China, blame the literati, blame anyone but the dismal response by Trump and the Republicans.
    You didn't get into college--it's all affirmative action's fault. You didn't get a promotion, it's all the equality talk. You can't find a job, it's all those illegal aliens and immigrants.
    One would think the Satan worshipping baby eaters would have been their jump the shark moment....but....


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