For the better part of two years now, reporters have been trying to find the issue or offense that could fracture Donald Trump’s base of support. They have traveled to “Trump country” for regular updates from working-class whites and other key Trump constituents, only to find that those voters have been unmoved by each controversy. But if there’s anything that could break the president’s hold on his base, it might be an economic agenda that harms their pocketbooks and hurts their livelihoods.
The story of Trump’s victory in 2016 is relatively straightforward. He offset historic losses among college-educated whites with huge gains among white voters without college degrees, giving him a narrow but decisive advantage in key swing states where those voters dominate the electoral landscape.
Trump geared his campaign around those voters, elevating the blue-collar, working-class white man as the “forgotten” American, ignored and maligned by political elites. “We will end the war on coal and the war on coal miners,” he said during the election, highlighting one archetypal blue-collar job. He promised to “bring our jobs back” and go after companies that “move to other countries, firing their employees along the way, without consequences.” He even called himself a blue-collar worker, of sorts, during a campaign stop in western Pennsylvania. He chose a Midwestern governor, Mike Pence of Indiana, as his running mate.
Trump rejected Republican orthodoxy on the economy and tied his blue-collar identity politics to support for Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, as well as benefits for his supporters. “I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican, and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid,” he said during the campaign, also promising universal health coverage. “Everybody’s got to be covered. This is an un-Republican thing for me to say,” he told CBS News in 2016. “I am going to take care of everybody. I don’t care if it costs me votes or not.
Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now.”
His voters expected Trump to deliver. “Our bridges are the worst,” said one supporter who attended Trump’s inauguration. “I think what Trump’s going to do is really get this infrastructure built again. He’s going to rebuild it.” Ahead of his first speech to Congress, one supporter told USA Today that he expects the president to “make health care affordable.”
None of this has happened. Rather than bring jobs back, Trump started a burgeoning trade war that threatens to raise prices on consumer goods, undercut business investment, and produce thousands of layoffs. And those losses may hit Trump voters hardest. “Tariff-exposed jobs are more than twice as likely to fall in counties that voted for Republican Donald Trump in 2016 than in counties won by Democrat Hillary Clinton,” reports the Washington Post. “There are more than 1 million jobs exposed to China tariffs in more than 2,600 counties carried by Trump, and fewer than 564,000 exposed jobs in Clinton’s counties.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s tax cuts have done little to stimulate economic growth or improve workers’ wages. “Worker pay in the second quarter dropped nearly one percent below its first-quarter level,” reports CBS News. The New York Times notes that “[h]ourly earnings have moved forward at a crawl, with higher prices giving workers less buying power than they had last summer.” Corporations have largely used the windfall to repurchase their own stock, spending nearly $700 billion in “buybacks” that boost company value and produce profits for shareholders and senior executives.
Not only has Trump tilted tax policy even further toward the wealthiest Americans, he’s also taken active steps to sabotage the Affordable Care Act, leading to steep premium hikes and lower insurance rates—millions of people no longer have health insurance as a result of congressional and administration actions. Oh, and there’s no infrastructure bill, either.
But the question remains: Has any of this hurt him?
Judging from his recent approval ratings in predominantly white, blue-collar Midwestern strongholds, the answer is yes. In Ohio and Wisconsin, for example, Trump saw his approval fall 18 points since inauguration for a net rating of minus 4 and minus 12, respectively. In Iowa it fell 16 points to a net rating of minus 7. Trump has also suffered in Michigan, Minnesota, and demographically similar states like Pennsylvania.
Democratic incumbents who once seemed in danger of losing this year, like Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Tina Smith of Minnesota, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan are now considered relatively safe. “In special elections held in the Midwest since Trump’s inauguration,” notes the Washington Post, “Democrats have improved on their 2016 performance by an average of 11 points.” Democratic House candidates have also recovered lost ground, running competitive races in Republican-held districts.
The best hope for Republicans is that the other part of Trump’s appeal to these white voters will take precedence over the lack of economic progress. By now, most observers agree Trump ran on blue-collar identity politics geared toward working-class white communities and vicious racial scapegoating against Muslims and Hispanic immigrants. This wasn’t a separate appeal so much as two sides of the same coin; Trump tied his racist demagoguery to an interventionist economic message, activating racial resentment while promising jobs and assistance. Often, they were part of the same pitch: “When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically,” said Trump in his announcement speech, before making his infamous claim that “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.”
Trump didn’t just appeal to Republicans with strongly negative attitudes toward Muslims, immigrants, and black Americans—he reached some white Democrats too. The stark racial polarization of American politics can obscure the extent to which neither party has completely sorted itself according to racial views. In a recent working paper titled “Partisanship in the Trump Era,” Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels finds a substantial number of Democrats with “culturally conservative” beliefs, extending to highly racialized views like “discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”
This echoes findings from the Voter Study Group, which after the 2016 election conducted a survey of 8,000 Americans who had been previously interviewed in 2011 and 2012, as well as earlier in the election year. In his analysis of the data, George Washington University political scientist John Sides found a substantial number of Obama voters with “less favorable attitudes” toward Muslims, illegal immigrants, and black people. These white Democrats, Sides argues, were less likely to hold college degrees and would eventually become “potential or actual Trump voters.”
In 2012, negative racial views weren’t particularly salient to voters’ choices; by 2016, they were highly salient. Indeed, some white Obama voters had defected from the Democratic Party before Trump entered the scene in 2015. That time-horizon suggests backlash against an increasingly visible immigrant rights movement—which eventually pushed then–President Obama to give legal protections to young undocumented immigrants—as well as to Black Lives Matter, the protest movement against police brutality. Writing in the New York Times in 2016, Nikole Hannah-Jones describes a conversation with a Trump voter who supported Obama in the 2012 election. “Obama really turned her off when after a vigilante killed a black teenager named Trayvon Martin, he said the boy could have been his son. She felt as if Obama was choosing a side in the racial divide, stirring up tensions.” After white supremacists marched through Charlottesville last summer, NPR spoke with a voter who saw no difference between white racists and black activists. “I didn’t hear anything from Barack Obama about Black Lives Matter and that was another hate group,” he said. And there’s the fact that, as a candidate, Trump regularly inveighed against protests for criminal justice reform. “The war on our police must end, and it must end now,” he said during a campaign speech in Wisconsin.
These voters appear to have forged a personal connection with Trump, who drew them in with an unambiguous pitch to white racism. They might want the promised benefits and economic programs, but they may stick with Trump regardless of whether he delivers. For them, the symbolic politics of white identity—as well as the concrete actions against Muslims and Hispanic immigrants—may hold more weight than immediate material gain.
According to the weekly Reuters-Ipsos poll of presidential approval, Trump still wins the majority of noncollege whites—52 percent—and Quinnipiac University shows Trump with 54 percent approval among whites without college degrees. This is a decline from the two-thirds support he won in the presidential election, but it’s still meaningful and well above his support from voters writ large—as of this writing Trump is at 43 percent in Real Clear Politics’ average and 42 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s.
In practical terms, Democrats don’t need to win back every one of these voters who were lost to Trump in the 2016 presidential election. They just need to win a few, in the right places. And while that appears to be happening so far, with Democrats gaining ground in Trump territory, there are still opportunities for Democrats to claw back more of these voters.
If Trump won some white noncollege voters by muddying the waters between his platform and Hillary Clinton’s—where Hillary Clinton proposed a $600 billion infrastructure plan, he floated a $1 trillion one—then Democrats can now sharpen their differences with the president, with clear evidence based on his record. In embracing the radical anti–safety net vision of House Speaker Paul Ryan and budget director Mick Mulvaney, Trump has done some of this work himself, showing voters that he is a typical Republican, with little interest in expanding the welfare state or actually delivering benefits to voters.
Democrats should also embrace proposals to expand Medicare, raise wages, and guarantee employment, without fear that they will be viewed as too left-wing for the Midwest and other Trump-friendly regions. Conor Lamb’s campaign in western Pennsylvania is instructive: He emphasized his support for government programs, winning some Trump voters to his side while activating Democratic voters who may have stayed home in 2016.
Democrats should cut their losses on those who can’t be won back. Maintaining their multiracial, multiethnic coalition is more important than trying to soft-pedal Trump’s politics of cultural rage and white identity. The idea that Democrats should reject “identity politics”—typically defined as the claims of marginalized groups—misses the fact that America already has a party of white grievance and white hegemony; it doesn’t need another.
Had Donald Trump governed as he campaigned, providing the racially exclusive safety net he promised as a candidate, the political landscape would be very different. Trump would have retained his hold on blue-collar and working-class whites, darkening the red tint of the Midwest. Democrats would be in a genuine bind, forced to confront a politically successful president.
As a policy program, Trumpism is a dead letter, and the president now stands for little more than demagoguery, scandal, and profound incompetence. His inability to govern—or even consolidate his political gains beyond his strongest supporters in the evangelical movement—has made him vulnerable to a backlash that might bring his presidency to a screeching halt. His most significant accomplishment has been to offer a foothold to open racists—white supremacists, white nationalists, even neo-Nazis—in mainstream politics. Americans motivated by explicit prejudice and bigotry now have a clear choice for their vote.
President Trump has lost voters and will likely lose more if he stays on his present trajectory. But he can at least count on those who care more about their resentments than they do about their jobs.