The Twisted Pretzel Logic of the “It’s Not Economic Anxiety” Crowd

This Friday I wrote an article at The American Prospect reasserting and proving the importance of economic anxiety to explain the rise of Donald Trump. Similar pieces have also been written, but it hasn’t stopped a new conventional wisdom from developing that the Trump phenomenon is all about prejudice and race. That this Known Fact is usually coming from the very same people who failed to predict Trump’s rise in the first place is not surprising, and it’s based on a misinterpretation of insufficient data. In the American Prospect piece I note that simply using higher incomes to state that Trump voters don’t have economic anxiety is meaningless, that arguments showing increased racism in the GOP electorate since 2008 could just as easily be explained by the Great Recession, and that there is myriad data to suggest that poor economic mobility and health–especially for children and loved ones–is having a profound effect. For more on this, see my piece and Jeff Guo’s, which together I feel effectively debunk the opposing view.

What I want to do here, though, is list all the bizarre things one has to believe to state that economics isn’t a factor in Trump’s rise. You would have to argue the following positions:

1) That Trump won a small plurality of the GOP vote based simply on bigotry, despite the fact that by far the biggest difference between Trump and his GOP opponents wasn’t the wall or border security, but rather his “bring the jobs back” heterodoxy on trade.

2) That Bernie Sanders’ surprisingly strong insurgent, anti-establishment, economically populist showing in the Democratic primary was somehow for completely separate reasons from Donald Trump’s surprisingly strong insurgent, anti-establishment, economically populist showing in the Republican primary.

3) That the alt-right backlash in Europe (Brexit, Golden Dawn, etc.) and the United States (Trump) has evolved separately for different reasons–the former due to the refugee crisis and the later due to the election of the first black president–rather than for the relevantly similar reasons of the Great Recession and austerity economics.

4) That poor economic and social conditions facing blue-collar white men in particular have nothing to do with the electoral freakout being driven by blue-collar white men–just because Trump’s support is being driven by white men who make mid-five figures on average instead of low five figures (as if that proves anything at all.)

5) That Trump’s primary tally was based on racism, even though the 2nd choices of Trump voters were Cruz, Rubio and Carson in that order–not the rest of the white guys, and the fact that it was anti-establishment firebrand Ted Cruz who won 2nd place, not any of the Establishment Track candidates so fawned over by the press as the surefire eventual winners.

6) That after Trump won the primary, the rest of the GOP electorate that isn’t motivated by alt-right bigotry chose to stick with Trump and make the election close based on partisanship rather than genuine support for Trump and his policies, despite being personally disgusted with him. I call this the “come for the racism, stay for the partisanship” argument–and it’s circular, unfalsifiable and risible.

7) That the high percentage of the third party vote being reflected in polls is merely a byproduct of the unpopularity of the leading candidates, rather than a genuine public exasperation at the ineffectual status quo–and that Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity is driven simply by media effects and partisanship rather than by genuine concern about her desire or ability to create significant change.

8) That Trump is somehow a black swan anomaly of this year, despite the fact that Sarah Palin outshone John McCain in 2008, and that Gingrich and Santorum combined to easily win more votes than Mitt Romney from December 2015 through April 2016–meaning that Romney Republicans only won four years ago because the anti-establishment faction failed to coalesce around a single candidate.

9) That Eric Cantor’s earlier ouster was either also based on pure racism, or somehow not a harbinger of the anti-establishment sentiment central to Trump’s rise.

The list could go on and on, in an increasingly ludicrous series of improbable coincidences and contortions that would impress the acrobats at Cirque de Soleil.

When in doubt, all one need do is apply Occam’s Razor. Years of wage stagnation and an economic “recovery” that has usually benefited only the wealthy, plus a widespread perception that government only helps the very rich and the very poor but not the middle class, have led inexorably to partisan extremes and a distaste for neoliberal economics, whether of the sharp conservative variety or dulled with a softer center-left social welfare padding. Young people devoid of hope lean increasingly toward socialism, while formerly privileged ethnic majorities are easy marks for a demagogue to blame immigrants for their problems. Wealthy, educated liberals with stock portfolios and older minorities who have long been victims of discrimination are likeliest to tolerate incremental approaches, but that is not a lasting or dependable coalition–particularly with another recession likely coming in the next few years, and with globalization and automation continuing to take their toll on late-stage capitalism.

This stuff isn’t that difficult to understand, and there’s no need to believe is silly coincidences and pretzel logic to grasp it.