Monday, August 15, 2016

Trump's supporters aren't being fooled - they know that he's lying.

...the idea that Donald Trump is going to usher in a new era of broadly shared prosperity based on a revival of coal mining and labor-intensive methods of steel production is patently ridiculous. Under guise of being respectful of Trump voters’ concerns, pundits attributing his appeal to his economic “policies” are in effect attributing a remarkable degree of foolishness to his supporters ...though this theory is popular, I am not a fan of it for one pretty simple reason: I think pundits owe people the modicum of respect entailed by assuming that their behavior makes some kind of sense - Yglesias
Yglesias is right to be suspicious of narratives that explain voter behavior by calling voters irrational, but there's still a basic empirical problem here: support for Trump is associated with particular economic conditions. As laid out in the Gallup survey I wrote about Friday, support for Trump is demonstrably associated with poor health and a lack of intergenerational mobility, two factors that the author explicitly relates to "material circumstances". If "adding an economic anxiety factor to your account doesn't actually help explain anything" then we would simply have no way of explaining the relationship between Trump support and these distinctly economic factors.

Nor can an exclusive appeal to racism explain the fact that "Trump is giving his supporters a misleading account of their ills," as Gallup economist Jonathan Rothwell puts it. Certainly no one actually thinks that Trump is going to reorganize our economy around coal extraction and steel production - but the fact remains that this is what Trump is effectively promising. Why would he say these things in particular if his appeal simply relies on white racial resentment? What is it about globalization and immigration that makes these his racist dog whistles of choice?

Again, when we preemptively rule out economic explanations, much about Trump's campaign simply cannot be explained. Fortunately, I think there's a pretty simple and respectful way to reconcile the known economic factors behind support for Trump with the fact that Trump's economic promises don't actually make sense.

Suppose that instead of thinking Trump supporters are stupid dupes who are being misled, we assume that they are actually just as smart as Yglesias. Instead of suspecting that they buy his promises about manufacturing, trade, and so on, suppose we assume that they, too understand these as mere pretexts for his actual agenda. Like most Republican candidates, what Trump actually promises is to modestly blunt the impacts of global capitalism for whites with tax cuts, austerity, and other policies rigged in their favor. Shrewdly, white ethnonationalist Trump supporters who are suffering from things like poor health and intergenerational immobility understand this. American voters are in fact so intelligent that "politicians lie to get elected" has long been an absolute truism among even the most "low-information" voters, so it makes perfect sense that they would assume that Trump is also lying when he promises to bring back manufacturing and so on.

Unlike the exclusive appeal to racism, this theory can explain why Trump support is evidently tied to certain fairly quantifiable economic conditions. It can also explain why Trump uses manufacturing and trade in particular as dog-whistles to remind his supporters that he will pursue an essentially racist economic agenda. Trump's lies about his platform aren't fooling anyone. His supporters know perfectly well what they mean.