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Economics Not Culture Wars Drove Most Trump Voters

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The notion that racism and sexism were the primary factors driving the Trump vote is not born out by the data, economics was very important too. The rural working-class found their lives a little better under Trump and don't believe the Democrats care about them. Will Biden address the inequality or bend to the demands of Wall Street? Thomas Ferguson joins Paul Jay on podcast.


Paul Jay

Hi, I'm Paul Jay. Welcome to podcast.

As president-elect Biden assembles his cabinet and prepares to take power, President Trump, while more-or-less conceding without conceding, is planning his next act. One way or the other, the almost 74 million people who voted for him will continue to be a base of support both for Trump and future rightwing demagogues.

That is, unless the Biden administration actually deals with the vast inequality that has developed over decades, much of it during the Clinton and Obama administrations. Of course, we shouldn't overlook the Bush-Cheney gang that let loose the dogs of Wall Street in an unprecedented fashion. But Trump and the current incarnation of the Republican Party, has found a way to distance themselves from the economic mess left by Bush.

Still, why did so many people vote for a lying con man and a delusional megalomaniac? Many of those who did vote for Trump wouldn't disagree with my characterization of him and voted for him anyway. Others believed he was chosen by God in spite of his flaws "you know, all humans are flawed." Many just like lower taxes and hate the Democratic Party. So, what do we know from the data so far about why this election was even close? And what will Biden be facing as the pandemic worsens and the economic crisis deepens? Will the Fed keep the stock markets flying in the face of all reality?

Now joining the podcast is Tom Ferguson. He's a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Thanks very, very much for joining us again, Tom.

Tom Ferguson

Hi, Paul. Nice to be here.

Paul Jay

So, start with the 74 million people. What do we know about them from the data?

Tom Ferguson

OK, look, we know, I think, a fair amount. Unfortunately, much of what is claimed people know isn't true, which makes this discussion difficult. The general view of the 2016 victory you remember that in the major papers and overwhelmingly in the scholarly community, especially in political science, was that Trump won on racism and sexism. And I mean, there was even a Nobel Prize-winning economist who was openly mocking people who thought that economics could have played any role in this.

So, I'm going to repeat a few things I've said to you before. I got so disgusted with that refrain that some colleagues and I Ben Page in particular went out and actually broke open the American National Election Studies [ANES] to actually look at the survey data. (I mean, I hadn't done that for years, even though I once was the assistant to the guy who was then making the New York Times poll. I'm not claiming I made the poll; I didn't. But I was his assistant.) And what we found was pretty straightforward and not a huge surprise. You bet: racism and sexism were important in explaining people's decision to vote for Trump. But a lot of people who voted for him didn't like him that much at all. They thought he was, if you like, the lesser of two evils. They didn't like Hillary Clinton either. And there was a solid bloc of economic concern really important.

In particular, a lot of people like tariffs, though it was hard to see. When you start looking at people's responses to questions, if you ask them, do you like free trade? "Yeah, we like free trade. That sounds pretty good." Then when you probe a little further, well, what they really mean by that is some notion of fair trade, which gets a little woolly, but it's not anything goes. And a lot of folks like plain, old tariffs.

Now, interestingly, I have looked through the various exit polls this year, which are beset with problems, because while they evidently tried to deal with the mail-in vote, they probably didn't succeed too well. They were, of course, off in their predictions. But they can adjust afterward; I don't think that makes those polls useless. But you will look in vain for a question about tariffs anywhere in there. You know, you don't have to be a genius to have figured out that Trump, in the last week and a half in particular and at various points on the campaign, including his acceptance speech, was pitching the revival of American manufacturing. He spent a considerable amount of detail on that.

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