Blogs > Steve Hochstadt > People Keep Asking “Why Trump?”

May 1, 2018

People Keep Asking “Why Trump?”

tags: election 2016,Trump,white resentment

Seventeen months after the 2016 election, people still wonder why Donald Trump won. As in any presidential election, there were many overlapping reasons why Trump won a majority of electoral votes, although he lost the popular vote.


Clinton’s negatives are easy to see. Conservatives had hammered at Hillary for two decades, creating a fictional monster whom some voters hated so much that they wanted to lock her up. James Comey’s decision to announce just before the election that her emails as Secretary of State were again being investigated played into these beliefs that she was unusually dishonest. Her campaign ignored warning signs in key northern states,

choosing to chase votes in solidly Republican states.


The positives for Trump are more puzzling and controversial, and will occupy social scientists for decades. A new study by Diana C. Mutz, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, offers valuable insight. Mutz argues against the idea that has become a commonplace in discussions of 2016: that working-class voters, who had been left behind by economic change, voted for someone who seemed to promise them economic redemption. According to this theory, key voters thought about their “pocketbooks”, to use familiar political jargon.


Instead, Mutz supports a different explanation for Trump’s victory, one that also has been much discussed since the election: groups of Americans with traditionally high status felt threatened and voted for the candidate who seemed to support their continued dominance. White Christian men who were concerned about social changes in recent decades gravitated to Trump, whose rhetoric and behavior consistently prioritized whiteness, maleness, and Christian belief.


Enough voters were pushed into the Trump camp by the efforts to reverse traditional discrimination against blacks and women, by the increasing diversity of American society and a future when whites will be a minority, by the fact that Democrats had produced a black President and a female presidential candidate. Mutz summarizes her findings by noting “a sense that white Americans are under siege”.


Trump said things during the campaign about Mexicans and women and other people whom he did not respect that could raise doubts about his character, but in the overheated atmosphere of a presidential campaign, supporters tend to ignore any negatives about “their” candidate. Since then, however, Trump’s character has been displayed much more clearly: he lies about everything; his ego overwhelms all other considerations; he is ignorant about most areas of public policy; his treatment of women, including his wives, is despicable. Trump’s blundering performance as President brings up the second big question about current American politics: why do his voters keep supporting him?


Gallup weekly polls show little change in approval of Trump for the past year: 38% to 40% approve of him as President, and 56% to 59% disapprove. Among Republicans, his approval rating has bounced around between 81% and 89% for more than a year.


The theory that status threat motivated many of his voters offers a partial explanation. Every day the news about Trump offers support for white men and evangelical Christians who long to regain unchallenged dominance: his criticism of all organized efforts by black and white Americans to identify and resist racism; revelations about his pumped-up masculinity; his continued support for preventing Muslims from entering the US and for the evangelical political agenda. No other politician embodies so publicly the conviction that white Christian men should always be in charge in America.


But doesn’t character count? In particular, how could Trump continue to be so popular among evangelical Christians, who constantly talk about morality?


I have no study, no variables, no surveys to support the following idea, just intuition. I think Trump’s low character is in fact a significant part of his appeal, especially to the “moral minority”.


Nobody need feel morally inferior to Trump. Although he constantly boasts about his genius, nobody need feel intellectually inferior to Trump. As a person, Trump does not further threaten those who already feel their status threatened.


The fact that voters could give Barack Obama two terms as President and then elect Trump has caused no end of hand-wringing and confusion among political commentators. I believe that Obama’s obvious intellect, his high-mindedness, and his success contributed to the sense of siege among some worried Americans. A black man was better than they were at everything. Trump offers no such threat. It is easy to feel superior to Trump, even while supporting his political direction.


For the Trump voters who don’t believe that women, gays, blacks and immigrants deserve the same status as they do, Trump’s personal behavior is irrelevant. All they care about is making America great again, which they define as making white Christian males great again. Three-quarters of white evangelical Protestants believe American culture has changed for the worse since the 1950s, when women and African Americans were rigidly subordinated.


They don’t want to be lectured by a black or female Democrat about the virtues of diversity. They want an old-fashioned white male chauvinist pig to put them back on a pedestal. If that means more pollution, tax windfalls for the rich, and corruption in the Cabinet, so what?


Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published by the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 1, 2018

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