The standard mainstream explanation for the rise of Donald Trump and his brand of populist right-wing nationalism is that its a product of a disgruntled and marginalized “white working class” that has suffered heavy economic losses from decades of globalization and automation. For example, check out this fantastic essay titled “I Know Why Poor Whites Chant Trump, Trump, Trump”, which gives a deeply personal reflection on race and class in the US, and the resentment of many white working-class people against the “liberal elites” of the coasts. Or check out this article about how anti-Trump conservative intellectuals are now echoing the disdain of liberal elites by labeling struggling and impoverished white communities as “in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture”, effectively generalizing standard racist narratives about black communities.
The data, however, seems to complicate this story. Data processed by Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight from exit polls and census data back in May shows that during the Republican primary, the median income of a Trump voter was higher than the median income of the state as a whole.
The median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data. That’s lower than the $91,000 median for Kasich voters. But it’s well above the national median household income of about $56,000. It’s also higher than the median income for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, which is around $61,000 for both.
Of course, if the standard narrative is about the “white working class”, then it would make more sense to look at white incomes rather than state incomes as a whole, considering the racial wage gap. But the higher median income of Trump voters appears even when controlling for race:
Since almost all of Trump’s voters so far in the primaries have been non-Hispanic whites, we can ask whether they make lower incomes than other white Americans, for instance. The answer is “no.” The median household income for non-Hispanic whites is about $62,000, still a fair bit lower than the $72,000 median for Trump voters.
Even more telling is the results from a Gallup study done on the backgrounds and motivations of Trump supporters, published in September in SSRN (emphasis added):
The results show mixed evidence that economic distress has motivated Trump support. His supporters are less educated and more likely to work in blue collar occupations, but they earn relatively high household incomes, and living in areas more exposed to trade or immigration does not increase Trump support. On the other hand, living in zip-codes more reliant on social security income, or with high mortgage to income ratios, or less reliance on capital income, predicts Trump support. There is stronger evidence that racial isolation and less strictly economic measures of social status, namely health and intergenerational mobility, are robustly predictive of more favorable views toward Trump…
All of this is evidence to weigh against the argument that Trump is representing the resurgence of a “white working class” body politic that has given in to racist and nationalist arguments about their economic situation. His supporters seem better off and personally insulated from the economic turmoil and social/demographic changes that have taken place in wide swathes of the US. Sure, they still technically working class, and disproportionately blue collar, but they can hardly be confused with having a properly proletarian status; this probably has something to do with how the status and nature of blue-collar work has changed over the years in conjunction with technology, and the concurrent rise of a much more precarious labor market in the service and logistics industries.
Its particularly interesting to see that Trump supporters tend to live in homogeneous communities, which seems to indicate that the source of their racial resentment isn’t so much due to any kind of personal experience in competing with immigrants for jobs, but precisely because of their lack of experience with diversity and cosmopolitan communities — their only source of information about people of color, immigrants, Muslims and other “Other” groups is the sensationalist 24/7 media, conservative talk radio, etc.
So instead of viewing Trump supporters as representative of the “white working class”, perhaps it’d be more useful to view Trump merely as the political representative of those inane, racist, and fear-mongering comments that seem to inundate Internet news articles. Those people are real, and they vote — but they seem to tend to be precisely the sort of people you’d expect would have the time and luxury to sit around all day and post nonsense online.