The blue-collar billionaire: explaining the Trump phenomenon

So, how did it happen? How did a self-aggrandizing billionaire real estate magnate, reality TV star who never held elected office capture the White House in 2016? How did a man who offered a regular spate of verbal aggression while articulating a series of grievances that resonated with disenfranchised white voters, emerge as the 45th U.S. President? A multitude of reasons, derived from social science research, explain the Trump phenomenon.

First, self-interest: the notion that working class voters gravitated to Trump because he promised to allay their economic misfortune. While there is evidence that some communities afflicted by unemployment trended Trump, self-interest has trouble explaining why many sectors not affected adversely by economic forces, as well as individuals not touched by trade or immigration, favored Trump. Self-interest, as political scientists know, is frequently overshadowed by symbolic politics.

Flowing from a symbolic politics framework is a second explanation of Trump’s popularity: his law and order-based message that stirred concerns about ‘them’, the generalized other, a thematic (harking back to Nixon’s 1968 campaign) that seemed to require the stern punitive presence of “the strict father,” as George Lakoff has referred to it, accessing conservatives’ preference for a morality dominated by strength and loyalty to the majority in-group: an America that enforces immigration laws and bars Muslims from entering the U.S. 

Third, and more significantly, Trump adapted time-honored populism to fit the present historical moment, cleverly, compassionately – some would say exploitatively – calling on time-honored working class concerns with trade and immigration, packing them into a coherent populist frame (a la Brexit) that emphasized how elites exploited workers for their own benefit in foolhardy trade deals that took jobs away from workers, as well as job-crushing illegal immigration that put Americans at the mercy of ‘criminal aliens’. 

His ‘Make America Great Again’ served as a condensational symbol that called to mind recollections of past glories, perceived indignities, projected anger at presumed unfairly-achieved attainments of other groups, and a painful, poignant reminder that America was not ‘good’ or ‘great’ anymore, but could be if Trump were elected. The facts on trade, immigration and crime did not comport with his rhetoric (they were flat-out false), but his frame captured an emotional truth.

Trump’s narrative resonated with the white working class because it addressed the powerlessness and frustration many workers felt in the midst of crushing technological and economic change, experienced tangibly in communities facing joblessness and attendant social decay, manifest in drug addiction and marital strife. He tapped into real fears Americans had, offering policy alternatives that Republican elites had conveniently elided, telling people who felt they were at the bottom of the heap their needs mattered. He was their blue-collar billionaire. But he also was a canny communicator, exploiting their anxieties for political gain. 

Fourth, as cognitive scientific research indicates, Trump’s focus on how much workers had lost, as a result (he claimed) of global trade deals, immigration, and a ‘rigged’ economic system, propelled people to take a chance. Although one might intuitively guess that blue-collar workers would be reluctant to risk it all, given all they had lost, research suggests individuals can experience more pain over losses than pleasure over gains, and as a consequence were willing to gamble because Trump offered the last hope that change could be wrested from a stagnant status quo.

A fifth factor, the most insidious, is racial prejudice, exemplified by evidence that voters most likely to support Trump in the primaries had a history of voting for segregationists and seemed to forgive his morally culpable statements, such as refusal to disavow support from a white nationalist leader. We need to be careful in making inferences of cause and effect. There were many Trump voters who voted for Obama. Yet tribal identification with ‘whiteness’ (augmented by a feeling that class-based bias against whites, shown in affirmative action, is insufficiently discussed) swelled his ranks.

Sixth, the Trump brand, showcased across the country with glitter and panache, linked with the ability to execute economic success, appealed to some Americans, who are more willing to forgive the ethical lapses of private sector executives (“it’s business”) than those committed by political leaders, from whom more is expected, and whose ethical scrapes (use of a private email server) are viewed as more metaphysically consequential than stiffing contractors. 

Seventh, he exuded credibility. Although fact-checks showed he told more falsehoods than Clinton, he was perceived to be more trustworthy because he spoke boisterously and with much confidence (which research has shown enhances persuasion), in contrast to Clinton’s seemingly disingenuous, careful speech, all of which congealed with the narrative media had woven for years about her lack of transparency, some parts rooted in her personality, others in gender bias.

Eighth, the news, hungering for ratings, gave Trump immense press, significantly more than other candidates. The exposure helped legitimize his candidacy when it was perceived as a circus performance, helping to build his campaign.

Finally, Clinton, for all her experience, failed to develop a believable brand image. She did not forge a connection, nor campaign heavily, with working class whites ambivalent about Trump, thus gifting to Trump votes she might have captured. In the abyss of her missteps was borne the ultimate media-age president.