Fareed Zakaria is a savvy observer of both domestic governance and international relations, and he makes a very good point in a recent Washington Post column.
It has become a (tiresome) truism that many Americans “vote against their own interests.” This assertion has always annoyed me, because it embodies a couple of arrogant assumptions: first, that the speaker/writer knows better than those voters where their “true” interests lie; and second, that voters’ interests are limited to economic issues.
Zakaria uses the negative financial consequences of the GOP’s tax “reform” bill for Trump voters to make his point:
Congress’s own think tanks — the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office — calculate that in 10 years, people making between $50,000 and $75,000 (around the median income in the United States) would effectively pay a whopping $4 billion more in taxes, while people making $1 million or more would pay $5.8 billion less under the Senate bill. And that doesn’t take into account the massive cuts in services, health care and other benefits that would likely result. Martin Wolf, the sober and fact-based chief economics commentator for the Financial Times, concludes, “This is a determined effort to shift resources from the bottom, middle and even upper middle of the U.S. income distribution toward the very top, combined with big increases in economic insecurity for the great majority.”
The puzzle, Wolf says, is why this is a politically successful strategy. The Republican Party is pursuing an economic agenda for the 0.1 percent, but it needs to win the votes of the majority.
Cue the chorus: why would the people in Trump’s base continue to support him, when his actions (in concert with his party’s) are inimical to their interests? Wouldn’t they desert him if they realized that he is pursuing an agenda that privileges large corporations, wealthy families, and well-positioned rent-seekers? When will they come to their senses and see that Trump and the Congressional GOP are putting in place budgetary policies that will be devastating to the predominantly rural people who voted for him?
Is it that the Republican Party is cleverly and successfully hoodwinking its supporters, promising them populism and enacting plutocratic capitalism instead? This view has been a staple of liberal analysis for years, most prominently in Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Frank argued that Republicans have been able to work this magic trick by dangling social issues in front of working-class voters, who fall for the bait and lose sight of the fact that they are voting against their own interests. Both Wolf and Pierson believe that this trickery will prove dangerous for Republicans. “The plutocrats are riding on a hungry tiger,” writes Wolf.
I fully agree with Zakaria’s rebuttal to that analysis.
But what if people are not being fooled at all? What if people are actually motivated far more deeply by issues surrounding religion, race and culture than they are by economics? There is increasing evidence that Trump’s base supports him because they feel a deep emotional, cultural and class affinity for him. And while the tax bill is analyzed by economists, Trump picks fights with black athletes, retweets misleading anti-Muslim videos and promises not to yield on immigration. Perhaps he knows his base better than we do. In fact, Trump’s populism might not be as unique as it’s made out to be. Polling from Europe suggests that the core issues motivating people to support Brexit or the far-right parties in France and Germany, and even the populist parties of Eastern Europe, are cultural and social.
This is a much more tactful way to explain what the data shows, and what I have repeatedly argued: the majority of Trump’s supporters are White Nationalists (aka bigots), for whom the indignity of Obama’s eight years as President was simply a bridge too far. The real “interests” of these voters aren’t economic; they’re tribal. They are desperately clinging to the white privilege that is diminishing in a rapidly diversifying society. That desperation overpowers any other “interest.”
As Zakaria writes,
What if, in the eyes of a large group of Americans, these other issues are the ones for which they will stand up, protest, support politicians and even pay an economic price? What if, for many people, in America and around the world, these are their true interests?
So long as they see Trump normalizing and justifying racism and misogyny, these voters aren’t going anywhere. Polls suggest that they represent around 30% of Americans voters, a depressingly high number.
Getting that other 70% to the polls has never been more important.