Was Economic Populism the Key To Trumpism?

“The GOP is now a working-class party.”

You’ve probably heard that a million times since 2016. Trump’s surprise win convinced many that the Republicans had completed a demographic realignment. The GOP was no longer the country club party; it is the working man’s party, and economic populism is its credo. Or so the reasoning goes. 

This attitude has only grown stronger after the 2020 election, with many presidential aspirants repeating the new mantra. 

“The future of the party is based on a multiethnic, multiracial, working-class coalition,” Marco Rubio said in an Axios interview.

“We are a working-class party now. That’s the future,” Josh Hawley tweeted on Election Day.

“Today’s Dems are the party of the rich,” Ted Cruz tweeted last week. “GOP is and should be the party of the working class.”

There is indeed some truth to this. The tweet Cruz quoted showed how rich counties voted in 2020; 57 percent of them went for Joe Biden. In 1980, only 9 percent of the wealthiest counties were blue. Meanwhile, Donald Trump was the beneficiary of a massive turnout in rural and economically beleaguered counties. Trump’s GOP certainly is more blue-collar in both its image and demographics than was the party of George W. Bush. 

But what drew the working class to Trump? Was it economic populism, as Hawley and many others tend to believe? Or was it cultural warfare that brought blue-collar voters into the Republican fold?

A new and persuasive study argues it was the latter. “The data show that most voters who supported Trump were overwhelmingly driven by cultural rather than economic concerns,” write political scientists George Hawley and Richard Hanania. “[T]he idea that there has been a major shift towards Republicans becoming the ‘working-class party’ is mostly a myth. Republican success in the future will depend on the party speaking to the cultural, rather than economic, concerns of its voters.”

The study seeks to correct national populists like Hawley, who place undue emphasis on economic concerns. One of the study’s authors believed in 2017 that economic populism played a large role in Trump’s victory and said the GOP must embrace similar issues to compete in future elections. But the data convinced both political scientists that cultural anxiety played a much bigger role in Trump’s popularity. 

The future of the GOP depends on turning out Trump’s white working-class base. The best way to do that is to follow Trump’s example and stand up for them in the culture wars.

Hawley and Hanania found that views about immigration reduction were a much better indicator of Trump support than income. Among whites who were most accepting of immigration, fewer than 10 percent were Trump voters. At the same time, 80 percent of the whites most opposed to immigration were Trump supporters. These factors were found equally among all income groups and differences between income brackets were negligible. An immigration hawk who made less than $30,000 and an immigration hawk who made over $100,000 a year were both far more likely to vote for Trump than members of their respective income brackets who love mass immigration. 

While many national populists claim income and educational attainment define Trump voters, the study shows that they are the two least predictive factors for Trump voters. Along with support for immigration reduction, the authors find opposition toward political correctness, favorability toward white identity, and identifying as a Protestant as strong indicators of Trump support.

They also argue that “the kinds of technocratic, byzantine policies promoted by the smartest national populists are not likely to garner much interest from the electorate.” Their research finds that while voters are motivated by economic concerns, it’s mostly related to basic areas such as growth, employment levels, and inflation. Anything more specific than that, such as trade policy, and voters do not seem to understand it or care much about it.

“While the national populist wing of the conservative movement has exhibited energy and creativity, a major realignment of working-class voters into the Republican ranks is unlikely in the near future, even if the party shifts its economic priorities to the center or left,” Hawley and Hanania say. They believe the economic policies that will most benefit Republicans are those that result in low unemployment and high growth—“whether or not those policies can be reasonably described as ‘populist.’” They suggest it’s preferable to offer simple proposals such as direct payments to offset COVID losses rather than grand plans to revolutionize the economy.

“Culture remains the center of our politics, which means that neither party is going to gain much by adopting a new economic agenda,” Hanania says. “Any hope of gaining an electoral windfall would have to be through leaning in on popular cultural positions, or ultimately shifting the culture.”

The study may not be the final word, but it does offer a necessary corrective to those who wish to inherit Trumpism. The future of the GOP depends on turning out Trump’s white working-class base. The best way to do that is to follow Trump’s example and stand up for them in the culture wars. They’re tired of mass immigration, political correctness, and Black Lives Matter. They didn’t go to the polls based on a promise of some obscure family tax credit or some belief that they are members of a “multiracial working class.” They voted for Trump to restore the America they know and love. 

And you can’t achieve that with one measly tax credit. 

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