Editor’s note: This post is part of a summer-long series, The Sociology of Trump. Every Friday RI Future will feature an essay written by a Brown University sociology student on an aspect of Trumpism. Read the introduction: Culture, power, and social change in the time of Trump.
Is Trump a movement or a moment? His opponents certainly hope the latter, and they do all they can to mark his danger for the country and for the most vulnerable living in the USA. But even if Trump ultimately resigns or is impeached as a result of investigations by Congress, state governments, and/or the Special Prosecutor, that does not mean the movement he has come to embody will disappear. Those politically aware might point to the ideologues continuing to animate that movement, but sociology invites us also to consider the social structural conditions making for a receptive audience for such political articulations. Michael Danello draws on an exceptional number of sociological studies to clarify the economic and political structures that make Trump more than a moment, and rather a movement that will outlast its living symbol. Whether one is a proponent or opponent of what Trump brings forward, knowing the conditions of his success is a critical part of political engagement. – Michael Kennedy, professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs, Brown University.
The day after Donald Trump’s election, Barack Obama gathered bleary-eyed staffers in the Oval Office to reassure them that their progress over the last eight years would not vanish. History, he promised, “does not move in straight lines; sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it goes backward.” The former President was not ruling out the transformational hope that he had trumpeted in his 2008 campaign—rather he was laying out an implicit and comforting assumption that history moves towards a progressive destination—arcs towards justice—and with enough patience and dignity, America could wait out the dark times. Despite the anxiety that the election provoked, this sentiment soon spread widely. The “solidarity of opposition,” evident in the Women’s March a few months later, struck hopeful tones about the ability of protest to affect change. Despite Trump’s current institutional power, mobilizing love seemed like a force that could turn his tenure into a blip, stealing the national narrative, and resolving the uncertainty of history into a tidy victory for a Democratic predecessor. In that scenario, Trump’s presidency would not even qualify as an event by Sewell’s definition of a happening that re-shapes the structures of society. But, simultaneously a darker possibility predicted that the concerns of Trump voters would fester after their president disappears. Then, 2018 midterms and 2020 elections may shift political power without addressing the underlying social issues and hate.
These divergent scenarios hinge on a single question: will Trump’s presidency represent a movement or a moment? The coherence of his voters’ concerns suggests the latter. Racism and economic distress usually crop up separately to explain Trump’s rise. However, the sociological imagination suggests that the two intertwine, and aided by Trump, wrap into a common and overarching narrative of loss of control for his core constituency, white uneducated voters. In other words, Trump’s voters comprise social movement.
To qualify as a social movement requires shared perceptions or purpose. This condition derives from the functionalist school of thought, where social movements “emerge when there is a dysfunction in the relationship between systems.” Those dissatisfied must “work towards a common social goal.” Since voting counts as a form of action, Trump partisans are clearly engaged. To determine the extent of their ideological similarity, however, it is also critical to draw in the Thomas theorem, which suggests that if people perceive an object as real, it becomes real in its implications. In politics, the natural by-product assumes that people vote equally on what they perceive and what is true. In other words, examining Trump’s voters requires using the sociological imagination to achieve interiority—seeing the world from their own eyes, and determining whether salient similarities exist. Otherwise, without these common goals, the voters who propelled Trump into office instead represent a moment—a temporary expression of solidarity or emotion—but nothing more.
Accounting for the members of Trump’s base begins to hint at their ideological similarities. According to exit polls, white voters, many of whom lived in racially homogenous areas, largely propelled Trump to victory. Less intuitively, education level mattered more than income. On non-political issues, looking at some of the most fervent Trump voters—the vanguard of his movement or moment—samples their general flavor. R/TheDonald, an internet forum hosted on Reddit provides one area where these voters mass. There, Trump supporters have championed his campaign since its inception; Trump has reciprocated, once logging on to answer questions. Using a tool that investigates the similarities between two subreddits, statisticians can subtract one subreddit from another. When R/Politics is subtracted from R/TheDonald, the results are striking: the most similar forums are ones that mock women, African-Americans and overweight people. A common anti-thread unites Trump’s campaign.
Nonetheless, these findings alone cannot validate Trumpism as a social movement. After all, despite his fringe support, Trump also received a higher percentage of the general Republican vote than Clinton could of the Democratic. And, despite perceptions, the households in counties that approved of Trump had mean household income a few thousand dollars higher than those who favored Clinton. Adjusting for the purchasing powers in the states in which Trump voters live, this difference becomes more extreme. These incongruities illustrate the central paradox of Trump voters: despite being slightly better off than Clinton voters, they voted for the candidate who promised economic overhaul; despite living in areas of relative racial segregation, they voted for a candidate who built his campaign on tighter borders and fewer immigrants. Perhaps Trump voters displayed reckless neglect in examining their candidate’s policies, or perhaps he displayed the sort of charismatic leadership that distracted from the substance of his proposals. More likely, Thomas’ rule is at play, and these false perceptions drove the elections. Consequently, parsing out how the Trump core constituency—white, uneducated and rural—becomes the work of sociology as much as economics.
To begin with, adaption level theory suggests that satisfaction depends on the context for comparison. In other words, people vote based on how they perceived their fortunes have changed, and the motivations of Trump voters stretch back to their parents, a generation that experienced a kinder economic reality. To grow up white, middle class, and undereducated in the 1950s meant inheriting a groundswell of economic hope as a birthright. Real wages grew steadily through the end of the 1960s and 79 percent of those born in the 1950s would go on to earn more than their parents, proving not just that could not just do well but do better.
Subsequently, what mattered for the economics of the generations that followed was not only that they would do poorly but worse. Factories shuttered, moving south or overseas a process that financial deregulation hastened. Whole cities foundered in the process, because as companies grew into conglomerations, they also grew leaner. The number of industry jobs started to decline in 1970 and have not stopped slipping since. In 2017, all automotive manufacturing—Ford, General Motors and Chrysler included– employed fewer than one million people. Walmart alone nearly twice that number, netting the spot as the nation’s largest employer. Across the economy, service-sector jobs had rushed to fill the void. The shift away from industry made gains from productivity more difficult—assembly lines cannot make cashiers more effective—in turn triggering wage stagnation. Even worse, job insecurity was rampant in the service sector: the retail industry turns over more than two-thirds of its workforce every year. Crippled unions hemorrhaged high-skill jobs and nearly lost the power to negotiate: in 1974 there were 424 labor stoppages involving more than 1,000 workers. In 2009, there were five. From an economic perspective, their weakness beat down wages and aggravated job insecurity. From a sociological perspective, enfeebled unions stripped workers of the symbolic power of representation, leaving them powerless against large, multinational corporations for which they worked. By 2015, more than a quarter of Americans pegged big business as the greatest threat to the country. To compensate for the loss in wages, Americans increasingly fueled their standards of living with debt, adding another layer of vulnerability. The average personal debt has mushroomed ten times in real dollars since 1950. Unsurprisingly, saddled with debt and strangled by limited opportunity, only forty percent of those born in 1980 would earn more than their parents in real income. Working in a low-wage service sector job with a pile of debt and no representation crystalized into a sense of hopelessness.
Trump appealed to this emotion powerfully. Some of the best predictors of a Trump vote were high mortality rates, poor health, and little intergenerational mobility. Unemployment did not accurately predict Trump voting, but rates of working age population on social security was a near fit. The loss of prospects worried Trump voters more than the loss of the jobs, and the long-term trends caused more consternation than current economic conditions. This preference may explain why Trump’s promise to return America to a supposedly glorious past appeared like such an attractive future to his supporters. This coalition of helplessness may also explain why, despite mocking a disabled reporter, disability rates also strongly correlated with Trump votes. The irony, of course, is that white Americans owned the second highest median household income, and still received the greatest benefits from the color of their skin. Only their comparative perception of loss—the sense that their lives had slipped out of control—attracted them to Trump. In fact, black Americans are more optimistic about how optimistic they will be in five years.
Political institutions seemed to be inching away from the middle class too. Although the city machine, whose graft indirectly benefitted the suburbs, had largely disappeared by 1970, centrist politics provided white working class people a seat at the political table. Big labor could flex political muscle to the point where in 1970 almost twenty percent of Americans believed its overreach was the largest threat facing the country. But the ascendancy of well-meaning civic partnership ended that access. As Josh Pacewicz details, the partnership that replaced partisanship valued leaders who would compromise instead of contesting. Although the public benefits of partnership are many, “much of the action did not happen in public interaction,” and as a result there is little accountability. Partisanship privileges the collective needs of the powerless. However, partnership by its structure and secrecy, promotes a ruling elite capable of advancing interests of the already powerful. Just as dangerous, the hyper-partisanship which replaced partisanship offered few benefits to residents. The extreme ideological focus cut off access to practical needs. Trump’s core constituents felt stranded; their distrust partly helps to explain why only 51% of Americans believe that the government is doing a good job stimulating the economy, why only 36% that the government is helping people to get out of poverty, and why only 19% trust the government all or most of the time.
Donald Trump’s campaign proposed racism as the solution to this economic and political loss of control, and his election legitimated it for his voters. He posed Mexican immigration as economic terror, complicit in stealing jobs and committing crimes. China became an unambiguous enemy for ruining the U.S. with unfair trade deals; Islam threatened national security. Yet, net Mexican immigration is zero, China also harbors concerns about trade, and an American is more likely to die choking than from foreign terrorists. Trump’s answers ignore the complexities of the issues at hand. Nonetheless, they fit snugly into the long American ascriptive tradition of singling out a scapegoat as a cheap solution. Suddenly, the white middle class which perceived itself as down-trodden, could lash out at the “other” in a politically powerful and satisfying way. Trump voters’ relative isolation exacerbates their propensity for racism. Intergroup contact suggests that “limited interactions with different ethnic outgroups may contribute to prejudicial stereotypes against” them. Trump voters were blending fiction seamlessly into real concerns about loss of control. These feelings were exacerbated by their feelings of economic and political distress and then fanned into flames by a candidate who provided national legitimation. Trump voters understood their symptoms, but Trump diagnosed them with false causes. When he did, their conditions deeply intertwined and their racism bled into their political and economic concerns and vice versa. Trump voters finally coalesced into a social movement.
Donald Trump’s voters feel little hope about their future, so they turned to a man who promised simple explanations for complex problems. Maybe conservatives do struggle with systems level thinking. Donald Trump and sociology share a belief in personal truth. They diverge in that sociology acknowledges a multiplicity of truths, while the 45th President and those who support him seem to only understand their own. Facts may not change these stances—unless American culture shifts to resemble Canada’s pluralism, Trumpism may persist. Social movements disband when they achieve their goals, or when their members come to believe that achieving their goals is impossible. Trump’s voters have entrenched themselves in their perceptions, the latter may not happen. The former, meanwhile, proves far more concerning especially as Trump pursues policies may create the world in which his voters think they live. Suddenly, their concerns may not be inflated after all.