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The Desperate Middle-Class Voters Who Made Trump the Republican Nominee

May 05, 2016

Who was it that carried Donald Trump to the Republican nomination? For much of the primary season, the question of who made up Trump’s base looked like it was easy enough to answer. Commentators and the opponents liked to see Trump as the candidate of the broke and bitter wing of the Republican party.

It’s evident now that Trump’s support runs a lot deeper than that. Trump voters, it turns out, look a lot like the rest of the Republican base, with solid incomes or better. These are people who should be doing well in the post-recession; instead, they feel punished by the economy and alienated from the political process.

In “The Mythology of Trump’s ‘Working Class’ Support,” FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver does some analysis that tears down the preconceptions about Trump’s base. Polls have shown that Trump does better with lower earning, less educated voters. And indeed, Trump’s backers are less well off than, say, those who voted for John Kasich. But as Silver shows, less well off than other Republican primary voters is still fairly well off. With some careful statistical work, Silver shows that the family income of the typical Trump voter is $72,000.

That’s not wealthy, but it’s clearly a middle-class income, especially in the parts of the country where Trump gathers his most devoted support. The voters who made Trump happen aren’t, by and large, those who have been chewed up and spit out by the death of factory jobs. They are people who thought they’d met the requirements for success in the contemporary economy, and still find themselves losing ground.

This became especially clear to me reporting for Money.com on the controversy over visas for foreign tech workers. One of the most prominent voices in that debate was a former Disney programmer named Leo Perrero, who was laid off from his job when Disney hired cheaper foreign replacement workers.

Perrero, a Trump supporter who spoke at Trump’s rallies in Florida and Alabama, looks on paper like just the kind of person who should be reasonably successful. He has a college degree, a background in technology, and lives in Orlando, Fla., a growing metro area. And yet what the economy has dealt him has been largely humiliation—a sense of shame from being fired and replaced, an experience he painfully detailed in Congressional testimony. Now, Perrero told me, big companies that take advantage of workers were finally “being shamed and humiliated in public.”

Shame and humiliation may seem like a strange thing to wish on corporations, but really it’s not so difficult to parse: We tend to dish out what we get dealt. For a long time, members of the working class have been told that they would have to work harder, bid lower, and try to be luckier in order to make a living—and that they should be ashamed if they could not. Now the sense of insecurity and dislocation that has long afflicted the poor has clambered up the economic ladder.

It's well known that in 30-plus years the income of men who have not graduated from college has slid down a persistent downward slope. In real-dollar terms they make less money than they did in the past, are more likely to be unemployed, and commit suicide with greater frequency. No surprises there, sadly.

But here’s the thing: The same pattern of personal and financial malaise that has afflicted these men has now spread further throughout the economy. In the 1980s and 1990s, the incomes of men and women with college degrees rose substantially, and the standard answer to those caught in the vise of stagnation and globalization was “get an education.” Now incomes for those who did get an education have stayed flat for some 15 years. The college degree was once the bright line divider between those with prospects and those without. No longer.

If we really want to understand how Trump came to win the nomination, that's a key economic fact to wrestle with. For much of the primary season, Trump was dismissed as the candidate of the deeply disaffected and uneducated. As the campaign season went on, that became less and less supportable. In many states from Super Tuesday onwards, Trump won handily among GOP voters with college degrees. Blue collar workers may have made up Trump’s most devoted supporters, but it took a lot of $70,000-a-year professionals to get him to Cleveland.

There’s one thing that the conventional wisdom on Trump got right: Trump’s appeal is certainly strongest for those who feel like their expectations have been disappointed, their hopes circumscribed, and their financial state made precarious—people who feel shame that they don’t have the money to retire or to support their families. The hard part to get your head around is how much of the middle class that turns out to be.

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