By Paul Atkin
A conventional trope of mainstream discourse about Donald Trump’s base of support – from Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” onwards – is that they are primarily rustbelt rednecks. People who in France – with due allowance for the superiority of American dentistry – would be referred to as ‘les sans dents.” This is reflected in a certain discourse on the left that portrays his vote as primarily that of the “left behind”.
This is not the case.
The figures are very clear. Biden had clear majorities among people earning below $100,000 a year. Trump a clear majority among those better off. A similar mystification happens in the UK about the Brexit vote; with mainstream commentary – and some left currents – reinforcing the notion that its heartland was in places like the former Red Wall – whereas in fact its strongest concentration of support was in prosperous small towns Southern England – Hampshire having the edge over Hartlepool.
Biden’s support among the worst off in fact increased by 4% over Hillary Clinton’s result in 2016.
Polarisation by ethnicity is even more pronounced. Ethnicity overlaps with class. The median white household income in 2018 was $66,000. The median Black household income was $42,000. Putting these two together makes it clear that the bulk of Trump’s working class support is likely to be white. The potency of racism in Trump’s base – with dog whistles increasingly replaced by trombones – should never be played down.
However, given the depredations of the pandemic and the shambolic response to it by the administration – with casualties in eight months running at four times the level of total US losses in eight years of the Vietnam war – the question has to be asked: why did anyone vote for him at all? Further, there was a slight increase in Trump’s support among Black and Hispanic men and white women.
The proportion of the electorate made up by these groups is this.
Some of the explanation for this is economic.
Trump has never been a ‘sound money’ Republican. He is a real estate chancer who doesn’t pay his taxes or settle his debts – and he took that approach to the economy as a whole. So, while the main gainers from his huge tax cuts were the wealthiest of the wealthy, his failure to be remotely concerned with ‘balancing the books’ meant that he did not carry out an austerity programme. The resulting natural growth in economic activity meant that average wages went up across the board, from £63,900 median income in 2016 to $68,700 in 2019. Although this is simply a continuation of a trend started under President Obama – and the same goes for economic growth and employment rates overall – this appears to have influenced a significant number of voters who are grateful for any small mercy they can get.
The result of that is a budget deficit of staggering proportions, which is coming home to roost for the next administration. Trump’s approach here could be seen as the application of an imperial Labour aristocracy strategy – the economic equivalent of “We’re going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it.” The US economy is going to expand, and the rest of the world is going to pay for it. “USA! USA!”
The implications of all this for what’s going to happen next are also stark. Voters who voted for Trump were 75% motivated to vote for him. This was less the case with Biden, far more of whose voters were motivated primarily to vote against Trump. This was not by accident. Biden ran on a ‘character and competence’ ticket – more concerned to show himself to be a safe pair of hands than give many firm commitments about what he’d do with them – something that might strike us in the UK as familiar.
This is underlined by votes for the House and Senate, in which expected Democrat gains were not achieved.
The centre and right in the Democrat Party blame the left for this. This ignores something fundamental. AOC has put round figures showing that every single Democrat candidate for the House of Representatives who campaigned for universal health care got elected – whether they were in previous Democrat or Republican strongholds. Universal health care is supported by 72% of Americans – but it was not mainstream Democrat policy, which is represented more faithfully by Blue Dog West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin who proclaimed to MSNBC news that “We (sic) can’t afford Medicare for all. We can’t even afford Medicare for some.” This approach plays well with the Democrat Party’s corporate donors but is hardly a motivator for its working class supporters. Similarly, a $15 an hour minimum wage is Democrat policy – but they did not campaign on it in a series of crucial areas – like Miami Dade County, where it was on the ballot as a specific proposal for local law and was passed by 25 points, while Biden barely scraped a majority by three points.
Even while mobs of Republican hard core protestors were demonstrating outside counts chanting “Stop the count!” or “Count the votes!” – depending on where they were – Trump confidant Chris Christie blithely announced that the challenge for Biden was whether he wanted to “unite the country” – with the people trying to steal the election from him – or “unite the Democrat Party”. This was echoed by mainstream media commentators who argued – and perish the thought that there was any self-interest involved here – that the election result showed that the USA was a “centre-right country” and Biden should now unite with the Republicans to isolate and crush the wing of the Democrat Party that actually has some answers.
Take that course – looking for national consensus on the terms of the right – and disaster looms in the mid-terms and then the 2024 election.
Paul Atkin blogs here.
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