The Brexit and “Trumpit” movements share many similarities. Both played on discomfort with globalization and immigration. They were portrayed in the media as ignorant, reactionary, and racist. Neither seemed more than minor threats at first, their leaders too inept or buffoonish to last. The very rich, the very young and the very hip generally abhorred them and still do. The more support Brexit and Trump gathered from others, the more the media emphasized their vileness and demagogy.
Between media headwinds and their own stumbles, neither Brexit nor Trumpit gained a clear majority in pre-election polls. Even their backers expected them to fail. However, closet support and disproportionate turnout provided an extra 3%, enough to push them over the top.
How? Brexit and Trumpit struck deep chords with the downwardly mobile: self-styled middle classes feeling squeezed from above and below, stuck in declining jobs or declining regions. Business, academic and media elites rarely meet such people socially, much less befriend them, and feel little compassion for them. Thanks to automation, imports from Asia, and social networking, the elites need fewer middle class people to staff factories, till the land or manage their households. Menial help, which they still need, can come from people further down the social ladder. So they tend to with the lower classes against the middle: cheaper economically and more flattering to their sense of charity.
From a cosmopolitan perspective, Brexit and Trumpit should never have happened, at least not where and when they happened. Few countries have benefited more from globalization than the U.K. and the U.S. Few countries are more welcoming of newcomers or more remorseful about their colonial pasts. Few countries call more frequently for respect and tolerance or prosecute violations of civil rights more aggressively.
However, the U.K. and the U.S. do have sharp internal divisions, a history of contempt for those they conquered, and – especially in the U.S. – a broad assortment of loudmouths. So it’s tempting to blame Brexit and Trumpit on the past: either subconscious residues or open wistfulness. That’s how it seemed to most of the elites, so they looked for an antidote and thought they found in ridicule. Make Brexit and Trumpit look so mean-spirited, hot-headed, racist, paranoid and borderline lunatic that it shamed decent people from associating with it.
Clinton herself, in two separate video interviews, said that half of Trump supporters were “deplorable”, mired in hatred and “unredeemable”. While she retreated from the numerical estimate, many of her media supporters applauded her frankness. The popular online website Huffington Post appended for months the following editor’s note to every report on Trump: “Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims … from entering the U.S.”
Ridicule worked, but not as envisioned. It hardened views on both sides. Critics grew more contemptuous of Brexiters and Trumpiters, while supporters became more resentful of the contempt. This made polling less reliable, for resentment is quieter than contempt, and encouraged higher turnout among the resentful.
The victories shock and appall the elites. Their first reaction is to believe that the fears they cultivated must be true: the middle classes were driven by racism. They’re ashamed of their countries for fostering this.
On reflection, the evidence at hand doesn’t support the charges. In the U.K., the labor laws that triggered most resentment concerned benefits for overwhelming white eastern Europeans. The Syrian refugees that the public didn’t welcome are whiter than their many South Asian and Caribbean immigrants.
In the U.S., the electorate is now 30% nonwhite, up two percentage points since 2012 when Romney lost to Obama. If Trumpit were camouflaged racism, Trump would have had to garner substantially extra white support. Instead, Trump polled marginally worse than among whites: 58% support instead of Romney’s 59%. Granted, Clinton sunk a bit more among whites – 37% support instead of Obama’s 39% – so the gap rose by one percentage point: 21 instead of 20. This was far from enough to drive Trump over the top.
The big change came from nonwhites. In 2012 they voted for Obama over Romney 81% to 18%. In 2016 they voted for Clinton over Trump 73% to 21%. The Democrat edge shrank by 11 percentage points: 52 instead of 63. The Democrat edge shrank by 8 percentage points even among Hispanics, whom everyone agreed Trump had alienated through ill-chosen remark.
Overall, Clinton won slightly more votes than Trump. However, the U.S. electoral college system gives disproportionate weight to less populous states. With the Northeast, Chicago, and the West Coast turning heavily Democrat and most of the heartland turning heavily Republican, elections in recent years have hinged on a few swing states. Trump won most of these thanks to middle class support in rural areas and suburbs. Citadels of racism? Unlikely, as they voted heavily for Obama in 2008 when he was the outspoken proponent of change. They’re still voting for change, only this time Trump took the mantle.
If racism doesn’t explain the outcome, might sexism? The evidence doesn’t support that hypothesis either. White women favored Trump over Clinton 53% to 43%. While Clinton polled significantly better among women than men, women voting more Democrat than men has been common for over a generation, Clinton’s edge was only a bit higher than the norm. Nor did revelations of lewd comments by Trump trigger a massive turnout among women: it was just one percentage point higher than in 2012. Trump himself relied on a woman, Kellyanne Conway, to manage his campaign, the first President-to-be ever to do so.
In short, U.S. voters divide more on social class and geographic lines than they do on race or gender lines. If its elites want to ease ideological polarization, they need to reach out more to the middle classes, with more respect and empathy and less contempt.
By Kent Osband