Trump, Brexit hostility and anxiety

Rosie Carter - 21 05 18

It has become widely accepted that the election of Trump, the Brexit vote, and the rise of populism are all manifestations of broader disenfranchisement. Economic dislocation in an age of globalisation has ‘left behind’ a significant share of the population. Enough, in fact, to swing elections.

But a recent study looking at the election of Trump challenges dominant economic theories to instead argue that the 2016 election was determined by far more complex drivers. The findings mirror HOPE not hate’s research in the UK, which has consistently highlighted the centrality of identity politics, based on an interplay of economics and culture, to the rise of the far right in Britain.

While the debate often gets split into identity issues versus standard of living, our research finds drivers of hostility are often more complex and identity issues are dialled up or down depending on how the economy is doing.

Rather than poverty and deprivation, the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds support for Trump stemmed from a sense of power and privilege slipping away:

“It used to be a pretty good deal to be a white, Christian male in America, but things have changed… It was about dominant groups that felt threatened by change and a candidate who took advantage of that trend.”

The battle cry to ‘Make America Great Again’ which resonated so strongly in the rustbelt played on a sense of nostalgia for a time when families thrived, the economy boomed, and hardworking people had jobs. A rose-tinted view, perhaps, but the study’s author, Professor Diana C. Mutz, shows how MAGA’s nostalgia played on more than economic well-being, but on real fears of losing dominance in a tide of social progress.

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump

The study found that party loyalty overwhelmingly explained voting patterns, but analysis of swing voters found that losing a job or income between 2012 and 2016 did not make a person any more likely to support Trump. Neither did unemployment or the density of manufacturing jobs in one’s area. Worries about education, retirement or medical bills also had little impact. More broadly, the U.S. economy was improving before the 2016 election.

Instead, a dislocation of identity and resistance to change were overwhelming factors in voting outcome. Trump support can be directly tied to people who see hierarchy as intrinsic to society, and correlates with a belief that high-status groups, such as whites, Christians or men, faced more discrimination than low-status groups, like minorities, Muslims or women:

“It’s much more of a symbolic threat that people feel. It’s not a threat to their own economic well-being; it’s a threat to their group’s dominance in our country over all.”

Mutz notes that population estimates which project a white American minority fuel this sense of threat. Further, this anxiety triggers a defensive instinct to protect and reassert their position. They behave in more traditional ways and harden their views toward others.

Economics should not be disregarded, but the impacts of globalisation need to be assessed hand in hand with identity politics. Instead of associating trade with prosperity, the study found half of Americans saw ‘trade’ as a threat that took jobs abroad.

As Mutz writes:

“The shift toward an antitrade stance was a particularly effective strategy for capitalizing on a public experiencing status threat due to race as well as globalization”.

Trump support was clearly more complicated than an uprising of a disenfranchised white working class, but also requires more than a one-dimensional explanation of racism.

The interplay between these factors and how they inform identity politics is something our research has analysed in depth. Since 2011 our Fear and HOPE reports have looked at changing identity politics, which underpin hostility to ‘others’ and fuels the success of far-right populism in England.

Make America Great Again hat

A traditional class-based political axis fails to explain attitudes to culture and identity, which reflect personal experiences and life circumstances that frame a larger worldview.

We developed six identity ‘tribes’, each representing a set of views on economic optimism and pessimism, community, values, immigration, race and religion. At one end sit liberals and multiculturalists, while at the other sit those who are hold latent and actively hostile views.

We have found that when economic conditions improve, and people feel more optimistic about their own quality of life, they are likely to be less anxious about anxiety change. However cultural concerns remain embedded, and views have become increasingly polarised.

The EU referendum offset progress in public attitudes, as both sides of the identity spectrum hardened their views. In 2017, fewer people thought that ‘variety is important to culture’ or that ‘ethnic groups get on well’ than in February 2016.

A majority do not think multiculturalism is working, and attitudes to Muslims and Islam have become increasingly hostile, as the 2017 terror attacks fuelled anxiety. In July 2017, 52% of people worried that Islam poses a threat to western civilisation and a quarter of English people believed that Islam is “a dangerous religion that incites violence”.

Our most recent polling found that people remain pessimistic about the state of multiculturalism and integration, and fear it will get worse. These cultural concerns resonate most with people who voted Leave in the EU referendum.

When given population estimates that by 2060 white British people will be a minority, most people respond negatively. The strongest responses are negative, unease or unhappiness, held by Leave and Conservative voters, while Labour and Remain voters are more likely to feel indifferent.

Culture and identity are clear drivers of hostility and right wing support. Economic theories should not be tossed aside, but we also need to look at the cultural anxiety that comes with economic decline. A sense of insecurity dents social status, which can be exploited by those who pose competition from people who previously held a lower social standing.

Nowhere is this clearer than towns like Grimsby, where the fishing industry has declined, taking with it jobs as well as a sense of collective pride and local identity that accompanied the work. Globalisation has rapidly changed the structures that govern people’s lives, but immigration that has occurred alongside offers a tangible target for resentment.

A sense of loss, and fears among dominant groups of being ‘overtaken’ are driving hate on both sides of the Atlantic. Improving economic conditions will go some way to easing anxieties, but overcoming disenfranchisement will also need a challenge to deeper psychological resentment among dominant groups.

Those who have been ‘left behind’ also need to keep up with changing social norms. As both Britain and America become more diverse, progressives need to engage seriously with identity politics. If we are to shift the narrative on race, faith and belonging, we also need to offset dominant sensitivities. There are clearly some difficult conversations we need to have.


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