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Trump’s Electorate: Old or New?

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 08:   (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

NEW YORK, NY – NOVEMBER 08: (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A lot of the discussion of President Trump’s election interprets his election as reflecting a significant change in the American electorate. I don’t think so. We see precursors of the Trump coalition in Ross Perot’s presidential bid, and Pat Buchanan’s, and even Ronald Reagan’s. Nativists have been a crucial, if variable, part of the Republican coalition since before the Civil War. And support for protective tariffs were a common feature of Republican platforms through at least World War II.Part of the commentariat’s problem in divining what Trump’s election tells us about Trump’s electorate is that election victories can be discontinuous reflections of relatively small and continuous changes in the underlying electorate. Take a simple example. Candidate A wins an election with 50.4 percent of the popular vote. Candidate B loses with 49.6 percent of the popular vote. A shift in the votes of less than a half of a percent of the voters from Candidate A to Candidate B would result in B winning the election rather than A. A small shift among a few of the most middle-of-the-road voters throws the election from one candidate to the other. It is incorrect to conclude that the dramatic change in the election outcome, Candidate B winning rather than Candidate A, implies a similarly dramatic shift in the underlying electorate.

Nativists have been a sometimes small, sometimes large, but an always-critical constituency for the Republican Party since the days of Abraham Lincoln. While the 1860 Republican Party platform adopted the “Dutch Plank” opposing a more-restrictive naturalization law for immigrants, Republican support was critical for the adoption of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, and the quota systems for immigration adopted in the 1920s. And, of course, the Republican Party consistently embraced high tariffs from Reconstruction through the 1930s.

Part of Ronald Reagan’s political genius was to bring together nationalist-populists, free traders, libertarians, defense hawks and social conservatives into a grand coalition. In the 1980s, Reagan’s focus on the Soviet threat largely sublimated goals of nativist and nationalist parts of the coalition. But recall Reagan rode nationalist opposition to the Panama Canal Treaty within a hair’s breadth of winning the 1976 GOP presidential nomination against then-sitting President Gerald Ford. The nationalist basis for his near-success in 1976 laid the groundwork for winning the GOP nomination in 1980 and the general election.

With the end of the Cold War, nativist, nationalist, and protectionist parts of the GOP coalition balked at George Bush’s mainstream Republicanism. Ross Perot drew almost 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992 based largely on a national populist-protectionist platform (and concerns about the national debt). The vote for Perot in 1992 provides a pretty good estimate of the size of core nativist vote at this time. Pat Buchanan subsequently tried to tap into support from this part of the Republican coalition, doing pretty well in the 1996 GOP primary campaign, sometimes attracting up to about a third of Republican primary voters state primaries.

Between 1996 and 2016, the core of nativist-protectionist voters had no high-profile candidates distinctly articulating their concerns. (Mike Huckabee might be a partial exception to that generalization, at least on the more-populist side of the GOP electorate.) As dutiful, if sometimes neglected, members of the Republican coalition, they fell in behind Republican standard bearers during this period, although more out of opposition to the Democratic nominees than from any enthusiasm for the GOP nominees.

The electoral quiet of this wing of the party stemmed from the absence of a candidate, not from declining numbers or passion. Observers across the political spectrum, however, deduced the wrong lesson, concluding that this part of the Republican coalition had been electorally marginalized, limited to yapping on talk radio and snarling over the validity President Obama’s birth certificate. Observers then took their reappearance in support of Trump in 2016 as representing a significant turn in political preferences.

But that’s the wrong lesson. The only surprise of 2016 was that this section of the GOP electorate had never really disappeared at all. Indeed, judging from Trump’s early primary results, it is unclear that this (usual) part of the GOP coalition has expanded much since Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign. The difference between 2016 and 1992 is, with the “mainstream” GOP vote divided among so many other candidates, a single nativist-nationalist candidate could win the early primaries, and then use that momentum to win the nomination. For once, mainstream GOP voters would need to hold their noses and support the nativist-populist candidate rather than vice versa. This is perhaps the real surprise of the election, that most (although not all) GOP voters would at last fall in line and support the GOP brand, at least against Hillary Clinton.

This is not to take anything away from Trump’s victory. It is indeed remarkable. He succeeded where Perot and Buchanan (and perhaps we could include Huckabee here) failed. But as with Candidate A and Candidate B above, remarkable outcomes don’t necessarily reflect remarkable changes in the underlying electorate. I think Trump’s victory results more from the right person and the right time, and to the number of candidates competing for the mainstream votes, than to any large and fundamental shift in the underlying electorate. This applies to the GOP base during the primary, and ultimately to general election voters. Commentators who read into Trump’s election a large and fundamental shift in the electorate, or look for other deep lessons about the American voter, are overcorrecting for what they wrongly deduced from nativist quietude between 1996 and 2016. Just because a nativist candidate appeared in 2016, however, doesn’t mean that a core of nativist support didn’t already exist.

Reader Discussion

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on May 24, 2017 at 11:16:45 am

What is the opposite of "nativist"? Alienist? Why is rooting for the home team frowned upon?

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Mark Pulliam
on May 24, 2017 at 13:33:39 pm

Why is rooting for the home team frowned upon?

Nothing—when we’re talking about honest-to-goodness zero-sum competitions such as sporting events. Thus, there’s a modicum of acceptance of antisocial behavior in sports—such as superfans who make an art of learning just the right personal comment to shout at opposing players to unnerve them. Adversity to your opponent is the same as benefit to yourself, so why not celebrate it?

This kind of nativism regards zero-sum interaction as the default variety of interaction. Thus, Trump’s reference to trade deals by which our trading partners are “literally raping us,” his belief NATO is a vehicle by which the US is exploited, and his belief that ISIS would rather be called "monsters" than "losers"--because this reflects Trump's preferences.

There’s nothing wrong with this perspective—provided you embrace the premise upon which it’s based: Exhortations to pursue mutual benefit are an illusion at best, a scam at worst. This perspective flourishes in honor-based societies, wherein people are not deemed to have any intrinsic worth, but rather derive value only to the extent of their position in hierarchy.

But for people who believe in human dignity, the pursuit of mutual gain and Pareto optimal outcomes, or the promotion of the general welfare, this perspective poses some obvious challenges.

What is the opposite of “nativist”? Alienist?

Funny you’d say that: David Brooks just wrote a column concluding that the hallmark of Trump-style populism is hallmark of Trump populism is alienation.

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nobody.really
on May 24, 2017 at 15:12:00 pm

I think Rogers is simply misreading the recent election. The comparisons should be with the elections of 1856 and 1860 (Buchanan and Lincoln) and with the elections of 1896 and 1900 (Bryan and McKinley and then Roosevelt).

The thing that distinguishes Trump's election is that the notion of a loyal opposition is simply not operative presently. Trump supporters simply don't want to live in a country where the opinions of Brussels and the BRD count more than those of Omaha and Peoria.

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EK
on May 24, 2017 at 15:46:06 pm

Yes - but the REAL question is this:

WHO is alienated?

Is it the people? - or is it their leaders who are alienated from the people?

BTW: and why do you equate "human dignity' with pareto outcomes?

Funny, isn't it how "pareto' may mean one thing to the *educated* and something entirely different to, let's say, a manufacturing director, wherein a pareto is a means of listing and analyzing causes of defects.
Perhaps, The Trumpster is more on the manufacturing managers side.

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gabe
on May 24, 2017 at 16:43:55 pm

David Brooks just wrote a column concluding that the hallmark of Trump-style populism is … alienation.

WHO is alienated?

Is it the people? – or is it their leaders…?

In the column I linked to, David Brooks quotes sociologist Robert Nisbet for the proposition that alienation is a “state of mind that can find a social order remote, incomprehensible or fraudulent; beyond real hope or desire; inviting apathy, boredom, or even hostility.” So I surmise anyone might feel this way. I was speaking of Trump voters—but the description probably applies to Trump himself. (Fair enough; I expect that Trump is a member of the class of Trump voters.)

[W]hy do you equate “human dignity’ with pareto outcomes?

I don’t equate them. I observe that both perspectives clash with an honor/zero-sum perspective

Dignity postulates that each person has inherent value which is not a function of what anyone else thinks, and this value cannot be appropriated. Thus, you have dignity whether or not I acknowledge it; and my choosing to acknowledge your dignity or not has no bearing on my position in the social hierarchy. This contrasts with honor societies, wherein a person has value only insofar as other members of society acknowledge it.

Pareto outcomes reflect the goal of maximizing the welfare of all parties. This contrasts with a zero-sum perspective, which focuses on the goal of maximizing the welfare of the self without regard to the consequences for others.

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nobody.really
on May 25, 2017 at 09:56:55 am

I was not referring to Trump, as you obviously know.

I WAS referring to the political class which possesses a "state of mind that can find a social order remote, incomprehensible or fraudulent; beyond real hope or desire; inviting apathy, boredom, or even hostility.”

In sum, it may very well be that the political class is the one that is alienated.

As for "honor / zero-sum perspective, Aristotle said it much better!

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gabe

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