Trump supporters
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Yesterday the New York Times published yet another entry in the “Trump supporters still support Trump” genre that has become so tired by now as to venture into self-parody. Once again, we hear from base Republican voters who don’t seem the sort to have voted for a Democrat in decades, explain their cognitive dissonance in continuing to support a cruel, incompetent serial abuser and philanderer. And in each of these stories, it’s fairly obvious that most core Trump support boils down to a few standard issues: racism, sexism, and/or allegiance to standard Republican worldviews on taxes, the role of government and such. In the latest story, the particular Trump supporter interviewed, a woman named Gina Anders, turns out to be a board member of an ultra-conservative PAC. A previous piece at the New York Times by SE Cupp failed to disclose in the original version that its interviewee was literally a county Republican official. How is this useful journalism?

Numerous studies have shown that there is a huge difference between the two party bases in terms of how malleable their values are by whoever happens to be the party leader at the time: Republicans, being more authoritarian in general, are much quicker to shift their views and morph their value systems depending on whatever Fox News and the GOP leadership happen to be saying at the time. So it’s entirely unsurprising that the same people who pretended to be aghast over the moral direction of the country when a Democratic president lied about some hanky panky, are now utterly unconcerned about Trump’s grossly immoral sexual behavior. Partisans of all stripes will make some excuses for their own, and interviewing fierce partisans about the foibles of their own candidates is rarely interesting.

Far more interesting is what the persuadable voter thinks. Asking strong Democrats about Bill Clinton in the 1990s would have made for boring and repetitive interviews, but it’s possible that Clinton’s behavior was the last straw for some socially conservative Democrats who finally flipped to the GOP and presaged the election of George W. Bush. Those would have been valuable journalism.

Similarly, it’s not compelling to talk to people who voted for McCain and Romney and are still committed to conservative worldviews and find that lo and behold, they also still support Trump. Of course they do! Trump is still the best avenue they have to enacting their agenda, flawed as they may or may not see him. There is a preponderance of Never Trump conservatives like George Will in the media and political consulting business, but they are vanishingly rare in the general electorate.

Much more interesting are the Obama-Trump voters who switched from Democratic to Trump after voting twice for an African-American president. There aren’t many of them, but they’re much more interesting than the standard racist Republican, and their votes in the upper midwest were determinative. Similarly, the 5% to 10% of Trump voters who no longer have a favorable impression of the president are the difference between a massive blue wave that sweeps Democrats into power in Congress, and a fizzle that keeps the House in Republican hands. Profiles of disaffected Trump voters would be far more instructive in the current political moment.

This difference also tends impact the way in which the participants in the “racism versus economic anxiety” debate tend to talk past one another, because they’re both right. Almost no one in the progressive movement would deny that racism is the core driving motivator for the vast bulk of the Republican electorate, including Trump’s base and those who attend his rallies. The average Trump voter is an economically comfortable white suburbanite whose politics are unquestionably deplorable. The question of economic anxiety concerns the much smaller group of persuadable voters: Obama-Trump switchers in economically depressed rural communities who made massive, double-digit swings from one side to the other in just four years, whose factories have not returned and who stand to lose big in Trump’s trade wars. It’s entirely possible if not highly likely that the Trump phenomenon was 95% racism and 5% economic anxiety–and most progressives would argue that Republicanism has always been thus in almost all its aspects–but that it was the economics that proved determinative with the swing portion of the electorate. Is that still the case, or has Trump lost them? That would be interesting and useful content.

Similarly, suburban socially liberal but economically conservative voters seem to be engaged in a realignment toward the Democrats very similar to the realignment of socially conservative Dixiecrats to the Republican Party from 1970 through to 2000. That’s a crucial story waiting to be better profiled as well.

As Jeet Heer says at The New Republic:

At issue here is the risk of misreading the political landscape. The voters who are sticking with Trump are hard-core partisans like Anders and Maurer. But there might be another class of marginal Republicans who are wavering in their commitment or who have abandoned the party altogether. Deep in his article, Peters notes, “There is some evidence that Mr. Trump’s base of support may have shrunk slightly, though. In recent polls from Gallup and Morning Consult, the numbers of people who identified as Republicans were about 2 percentage points smaller than they were in early 2017.” It might be more illuminating to interview those who are leaving the Republican Party to figure out who the real persuadable voters are.


David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.