Trumpism Is More About Culture Than Economics

And it’s not a reason for the GOP to embrace protectionism and populism.

The question of whether Trumpism will survive a Trump presidency was answered affirmatively after the November 3 election by a number of commentators and politicians, most of whom have been advocating working-class conservatism for a while.

The basic argument is that Trump’s performance with voters without college degrees, together with an increased share of ethnic minorities, proves the GOP should embrace economic populism. This is a classic case of David Hume’s famous “is-ought” problem whereby one easily slides from an observation of what is to prescriptions about what ought to be. Upon inspection, it is hard to find much evidence that a vote for Trump was a vote for economic populism. What does seem clear, rather, is that Trumpism has always been more of a cultural than economic phenomenon.  

Scott Lincicome has helpfully catalogued how conservative voters don’t embrace economic nationalism’s protectionist trade and restrictive immigration policies. He also shows how working-class voters have been negatively impacted by Trump’s protectionist actions. This follows Jonah Goldberg’s observation that Trump’s campaign in 2020, like his governing successes since 2016, had virtually nothing to do with economic populism. In fact, one can argue that policies aimed to appeal to the working class, such as wall-building, were largely failures.

If we look a bit deeper at Trumpian populism, it becomes clear it is mostly a bundle of cultural sentiments. It is rooted in anti-elitism, which does not necessarily mean support for industrial policy, protectionism, or restrictive immigration. Large national surveys conducted by the American Enterprise Institute suggest Trump’s supporters are actually quite content with American economic life but highly reactive to elite dominance of American cultural life.

For instance, working-class Americans are more bullish on economic matters than conventional wisdom suggests: 71 percent of them believe they have either achieved the American Dream or are on their way to doing so, in line with the national average of 70 percent. Fifty-nine percent of the working class believe that anyone can start a business in America, compared to the national average of 56 percent. Working-class Americans who live in small towns and rural areas have been more optimistic about the economy during the pandemic than college-educated people in the same areas. Forty-two percent of working-class people in the heartland are confident in the economy during the pandemic versus 41 percent among heartlanders with college degrees and 38 percent nationally. In other words the reality of frustration in the heartland is a bit different than the narrative we hear so much about.

The “anger” that has been endlessly analyzed since 2016 has always been more of a cultural phenomenon than an expression of economic anxiety. Donald Trump antagonized the elite classes of American society from the beginning of his campaign in 2015, and his supporters loved him for it—and no one more than his non-working-class, college-educated supporters. It turns out that Trump voters with a college degree are more anti-elitist and ideological than the working class. Six in 10 Americans think journalists have a political agenda, but this jumps to nine in 10 among Trump supporters with college degrees and eight in 10 working-class Trump supporters. When asked how much influence liberals and conservatives have on American culture, 56 percent of college-educated Trump supporters think liberals have more influence, compared with 33 percent of the Trump working class. 

When it comes to political discourse, educated Trump voters are more likely than working-class Trump supporters to view politics as a zero-sum game and to have less tolerance for disagreement with political opponents. Trump supporters with college degrees are also considerably more distrusting of experts than people with college degrees who live in small towns and rural areas, so there really is something about Trumpism that is more powerful than geography and demographics. 

On race, 71 percent of the population thinks black Americans suffer discrimination. Given common portrayals of the working class, one shouldn’t be surprised that this drops to 46 percent among the Trump working class. But one might be surprised to know it drops even further to 33 percent among Trump supporters with college degrees. 

Trumpism is an anti-leftist, anti-elitist cultural stance. It is not a policy agenda. If Trump had campaigned on eliminating the inheritance tax for the rich while keeping up his anti-elitist bluster, his support would have remained unchanged. The fact that working-class Trump supporters believe in entrepreneurship more than the average American could be just as easily used to suggest that a pro-worker agenda should focus on small business and angel investing rather than industrial policy. Economic populism seems to enjoy more support from highly educated writers, pundits, and politicians than the working class whose interests they claim to defend. 

Ryan Streeter is the director of domestic policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

Photograph by Megan Varner/Getty Images.