The popular narrative surrounding the wave of support that ushered Donald Trump into the White House focuses largely on the supposed economic anxiety of middle-America, particularly among white voters.
However, a new study investigating the veracity of this theory has found that it was not economic anxiety but fear of losing personal social and global dominance that drove many toward Trump over Hillary Clinton.
A study published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences questions that explanation, the latest to suggest that Trump voters weren’t driven by anger over the past, but rather fear of what may come. White, Christian and male voters, the study suggests, turned to Mr. Trump because they felt their status was at risk.
“It’s much more of a symbolic threat that people feel,’’ said Diana C. Mutz, the author of the study and a political science and communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where she directs the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics. “It’s not a threat to their own economic well-being; it’s a threat to their group’s dominance in our country over all.”
Mutz’s findings were not the first to contradict the economic anxiety theory:
Last year, a Public Religion Research Institute survey of more than 3,000 people also found that Mr. Trump’s appeal could better be explained by a fear of cultural displacement.
Analyzing data from a nationally representative group of about 1,200 voters who were surveyed in 2012 and 2016, Mutz found several indicators that economic anxiety was not the driving force of support for Trump.
Losing a job or income between 2012 and 2016 did not make a person any more likely to support Mr. Trump, Dr. Mutz found. Neither did the mere perception that one’s financial situation had worsened. A person’s opinion on how trade affected personal finances had little bearing on political preferences. Neither did unemployment or the density of manufacturing jobs in one’s area.
“It wasn’t people in those areas that were switching, those folks were already voting Republican,” Dr. Mutz said.
Analyzing another survey, one from 2016 by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, Mutz also found that concerns about retirement, education and medical bills did not predict support Trump.What concerns did characterize the future president’s supporters? Fear of change -- and more specifically, fear of losing cultural dominance.
While economic anxiety did not explain Mr. Trump’s appeal, Dr. Mutz found reason instead to credit those whose thinking changed in ways that reflected a growing sense of racial or global threat. …
“The shift toward an antitrade stance was a particularly effective strategy for capitalizing on a public experiencing status threat due to race as well as globalization,” Dr. Mutz wrote in the study.
She also noted that while being a “white, Christian male in American” used to confer status in and of itself, “things have changed” and “they do feel threatened”.
The other surveys supported the cultural anxiety explanation, too.
For example, Trump support was linked to a belief that high-status groups, such as whites, Christians or men, faced more discrimination than low-status groups, like minorities, Muslims or women, according to Dr. Mutz’s analysis of the University of Chicago study.