Democracy & Government

It’s Not Just the Economy This Time

The anger that propelled Donald Trump to the presidency was all about the political class.

It’s Not the Economy This Time

Braddock, Pennsylvania, a steel town which once was home to 100 bars and four movie theaters, is just one example of the decimation in America's industrial Midwest. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

We’ve heard so much about how this election was driven by the economic resentment of the white working class. But in the end, it wasn’t just economics that drove this election. It was political frustration and distrust.

Yes, the vote split along class lines, and that’s true whether you define class by education or by income. Trump gained more support from both non-college educated white voters and college-educated whites, but the margin was much bigger among those without college degrees. Even so, Clinton won a larger share of lower-income voters — probably because she also won much more support from voters of color, who also generally earn less than whites. So one reading of this election is that, unlike the last two elections, the white working class beat the rest of the working class. The animosity and resentment behind that vote is deeply troubling, and we should worry about what that means for the future of our country.

But exit polls suggest another major concern mattered even more: politics itself. One of the clearest differences between those who voted for Clinton and those who supported Trump is their view of the government. According to a New York Times report, Trump supporters were much more likely to describe themselves as dissatisfied or, even more, angry about how the federal government works. And the most important quality they saw in their candidate? That he would change things.

Put simply, this election reflects the failure of the American political establishment and economic elites.

Put simply, this election reflects the failure of the American political establishment and economic elites. Trump’s claims that the system is rigged and his flaunting of tax avoidance are the most obvious examples, but we see that failure in complaints from supporters of Bernie Sanders, who still believe that their candidate was the real winner of the Democratic primaries. The embarrassing WikiLeaks revelations of the Clinton campaign’s internal machinations did nothing to quell those suspicions.

For the Rust Belt voters who put states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania into Trump’s column, that distrust has deep roots. It goes back beyond Bill Clinton’s support for NAFTA, welfare reform and the war on drugs. The politics of resentment date back to the government’s lack of response to deindustrialization in the 1980s, when Democrats controlled Congress and Republican Ronald Reagan was president and reflect working-class voters’ memories of the decades of false promises by candidates who have spoken outside of boarded-up factories in places like Youngstown. At least as far back as Reagan’s outreach to blue-collar Democrats in 1980, politicians insisted not only that they cared about the plight of local workers but also that their policies would make things better. Time and again, those same politicians ignored the working class once the election was won.

More than anything, this election makes clear that white working-class voters don’t trust politicians. They’re tired of empty promises, and they’re tired of a government that has neither the will nor the ability to address economic inequality. Politicians talk a good game during elections, but most of the time they ignore the very real problems facing workers in America. This year, economic inequality and uncertainty fueled resentment not only toward immigrants and people of color but also toward politicians and the elite. That the candidate most energetically feeding that fire is himself a member of the elite didn’t matter. He is not a politician, and that mattered to voters who were tired of the status quo. It remains to be seen whether Trump will live up to their expectations.

Sherry Linkon

Sherry Linkon, a professor of English at Georgetown University and a faculty affiliate of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, edits the blog Working-Class Perspectives and is working on a book about the literature of deindustrialization. She earned her Ph.D. in American studies from the University of Minnesota and spends her summers in Youngstown, Ohio. Follow her on Twitter: @WCPerspectives.

John Russo

John Russo is the former co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies and coordinator of the Labor Studies Program at Youngstown State University. Currently, he is a visiting scholar at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and Working Poor at Georgetown University. Russo has published widely on labor and social issues, in academic journals as well as magazines and newspapers. He is also managing editor of the blog Working-Class Perspectives.