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Deplorable: Why the “White Working Class” Voted for Trump and Why They Will Again

19 May 2023
By Professor Paul Kenny
Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Prescott Valley Event Center in Prescott Valley, Arizona. Source: Skidmore/

The prospect that Donald Trump may return to the White House in 2025 is much closer than many think. Victory is likely to be found in the “white working class.” 

No sooner had Donald Trump pulled off his shock election win in 2016 than scholars and pundits confidently put out explanations for what few of them had foreseen. With the Electoral College votes of several states in America’s Rust Belt flipping from Democratic to Republican, one of the earliest and most enduring interpretations was that Trump won because of the support he got from the “white working class” voters.

Trump, it appeared, captured the imagination and the votes of a constituency that was in dire economic straits. Joe Biden may have clawed back the support of enough of these voters to eke out a win in 2020, but his administration has done little enough to address their grievances that they are back in play in 2024. In fact, the evidence strongly suggests that Trump could well ride the “white working class” to a remarkable comeback. Even with the memory of Trump’s second impeachment – this one for his part in the 6 January, 2020 Capitol Riot – still fresh, lower income white voters swung back strongly enough to the Republicans in the 2022 mid-terms to give them a small majority in the House.

For scholars – few of whom are themselves Trump supporters – the political behaviour of lower income white voters is deeply confounding. Why would poor voters back the candidate of a party known for its giveaways to corporations and the rich? Ostensibly voting against their economic interests, at best, poorer white Trump voters are sometimes said to be uninformed or irrational; more often, they are dismissed as prejudiced. The “deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton described them, ignored their pocketbooks in favour of the racism, xenophobia, and bigotry of the national populist right.

With few qualms over political correctness, Trump was the right candidate for the times. Doubling down on the strategy forged by his Republican predecessor, Richard Nixon, Trump offered the masses not bread and circuses, but fear and loathing. He pointed the finger of blame for the economic woes of the working class not at plutocrats like himself, but at immigrants, minorities, and perhaps above all, China. Anger and resentment substituted for economic and social policies that might actually have addressed the stagnation of America’s decaying heartland.

How accurate is this account of white working class politics? And what clues does the answer offer us for 2024? First, despite the sustained attention paid to the “white working-class,” this group is by no means the numerical core of Trump’s base. White voters in the lowest income bracket (below $US50,000) were in fact more likely to vote for Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden. Trump won the most votes among every other income group. In other words, the bulk of Trump’s support, both in 2016 and 2020, came from exactly the quarters you would expect of a party on the economic right: the well off. There’s little reason to expect these habitual Republican voters to see things differently in 2024. Upstanding suburbanites might have to hold their nose in choosing Trump, but the low tax policies of the GOP still smell sweeter than than anything the Democrats will offer.

Second, even if working class whites account for only a small part of Trump’s support, given the fine margins of victory in several states in both 2016 and 2020, they might nevertheless hold the balance of power. As a result, it is still worth thinking about why these voters have gone with Trump in such large numbers. Is it all just identity politics, or are there material reasons why the “white working class” has moved into the GOP fold ? This, unfortunately, is where social scientists have refused to let the evidence get in the way of a good theory. Although Marx himself is little read in disciplines like economics and political science anymore, the theory that democratic politics should be understood primarily terms of a contest between rich and poor lives on. Nowadays, it’s less an issue of social revolution than a battle over the marginal income tax rate. By this logic, working class voters should favour the party that proposes higher income taxes; when Clinton pledged to introduce a surtax on those earning over $US5 million, this should have been a no brainer for people on less than the median wage of $US59,000.

Although I think it’s likely that white working-class voters will continue to vote for Trump in 2024, the answer is more interesting than a cultural reflex. The problem with the dismissal of economic motivations in the prevailing view is that voters’ material interests are not limited to the marginal income tax rate alone. When CNBC presenter Rick Santelli made his famous on air “Tea Party” rant back in early 2009, it was an appeal to anyone who kept up their mortgage payments and didn’t want to see others get bailed out at their expense. Trump wasn’t exactly the ideal Tea Party candidate, but like other Republicans before him, he spoke to the interests of a group of voters who saw themselves as respectable, hardworking Americans, whatever their actual income: homeowners. We know that the majority of Trump’s votes came from rural and ex-urban “Red” America. In general, these are places with far lower property values than in urban “Blue” America. Voters with lower incomes may be more motivated by property taxes than income taxes. Property taxes are not set in Washington D. C., but when one party is clearly associated with lower taxes than the other, it is not illogical to think that it would be better for this party to be in power at all levels of government. Democratic policy offers little specifically for this group. Low income, but home owning whites seem likely to land on Trump again.

Last, the notion of “working class” has a sociological meaning that is different from the one we can glean from most public opinion polls. In Marx’s terms, the “working class” referred to those who had nothing to sell but their labour. Given that today, many “workers,” from lawyers to managers, have massive salaries, today It’s usually taken to mean those who do manual or lower skilled work. But because we don’t have detailed occupational data, class is often inferred from education. True enough, Trump polls especially well among whites without college degrees. But these voters aren’t necessarily the impoverished rednecks of Hillary Clinton’s nightmares. There are logical reasons why those with lower levels of human capital would favour economic policies that benefit their group; a pure meritocracy, whatever about a system that offers advantages to underrepresented minorities, is likely to be to their disadvantage. This isn’t to say that racism, xenophobia, and sexism are absent among the “white working class.” But it does imply that Trump’s support from this group is not completely irrational. Unless a Democratic candidate is to suddenly reverse the party’s recent course, it is hard to see how “white working class” voters will see it as in their interests to turn back to it in significant numbers. Biden’s recovery of some of their votes was probably a temporary blip.

Only one former president, Grover Cleveland, has thus far managed to be elected for two non-sequential terms. The idea of the country’s only twice impeached president repeating the feat sounds fantastical. But with Biden and Trump polling in a virtual dead heat, the balance of power in the Electoral College is remarkably finely balanced. A great deal will hang on how well the Democratic candidate – whether it is Biden or perhaps someone else – is able to rally their base. For his part, Trump looks set  to win the GOP nomination. If he pulls off another shock, expect to hear a lot more about how he grew his party’s share of the “white working class” vote.

Professor Paul Kenny is Director of the Political Science program in the Institute for Humanities & Social Sciences at Australian Catholic University. He is an expert on the political economy of populism and is the author, most recently, of Why Populism? Political Strategy from Ancient Greece to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2023).  

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.