Any serious effort to understand the Trump phenomenon is an exercise in empathy. Contrary to the protestations of Trump’s self-conscious core supporters, those who seek to observe and classify this political marvel have bent over backward to shed their biases in the process. As such, the most popular works on the subject focus on the acute sense of vulnerability experienced by Trump supporters. This condition has only grown worse in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, a trauma for which there was no political reckoning or return to the status quo ante. A new analysis suggests, however, that economic anxieties alone are insufficient to explain Trump’s rise; demographic shifts in small, tight-knit communities must be taken into account.
A recent Wall Street Journal analysis of demographic shifts in America came to a rather intuitive conclusion. Relatively modest changes in America’s demographic makeup of smaller, rural counties as America’s urban immigrant population diffuses into the hinterland produced a disproportionate sense of estrangement in those communities among lifetime residents.
In the first 15 years of the 21st century, states like Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin have become more Republican (which is not to say more conservative). They were primed to grow more responsive to Donald Trump’s message of protectionism and nationalism. In 244 specifically Midwestern counties, the rate of diversity has shifted dramatically while remaining largely unchanged in the nation’s larger urban centers. The correlation between Trump support and demographic shifts is measurable. In locations where diversity doubled in the last 15 years, Trump received 73 percent of the Republican primary vote. Where it has grown by 150 percent or more, Trump won approximately 80 percent of the primary vote.
The Journal’s analysis is unique, however, in that it decouples racial and cultural anxiety among rural white voters from a sense of economic displacement. “Unemployment is actually lower in rapidly diversifying counties than in the country, on the whole, a sign that concerns over lost jobs are weighing less on voters in these areas,” the report read. “In counties where diversity at least doubled, unemployment averages 4.5 percent, compared with 4.9 percent nationally.”
In interviews, Trump-supporting Republicans in these areas were understandably resentful of the notion that their concerns sprang from racial apprehension. They contend that the lawlessness associated with illegal immigration is a key concern, and they are frustrated by the habit of coastal elites to dismiss this consideration.
They have a point. From a concerted effort to stigmatize the use of the word “illegal” to describe the immigrants who break the law by residing in the country without residency status to the phenomenon of sanctuary cities, American lawmakers seem set on exacerbating what these voters regard as a systemic problem. Statistically, however, the numbers are clear: Even as the illegal immigrant population tripled from 1993 to 2013, violent crime rates decreased. Moreover, incarceration rates for native-born and second generation immigrants are far higher than they are for first generation immigrants. The distinctions between anecdotal and statistical trends are a divide that has only further alienated the nation’s Trump-voting population (as has a general mistrust of the validity of statistical analysis in general).
The Journal’s analysis also demonstrated why anxiety over the nation’s Latin American immigration population could be a passing trend. In America’s border states, demographic trends toward diversity are not accelerating at rate anything like that which Americans in the Mid-and-Upper Midwest imagine. Mexican immigration peaked in 2007. India and China have since become the primary sources of new arrivals into the United States. The story of America is one of immigration waves, and the Latin American tide may be giving way to an Asian influx.
The border states’ experience with integration and assimilation suggests that the present panic over, as the Journal reported, “crowding schools and unfairly tapping public assistance,” could be temporary. At least, until the next immigration wave crashes into these communities. In the interim, the Journal goes a long way toward explaining the Trump phenomenon in its fullness by melding racial, cultural, and economic disorientation into the same complex portrait of the Trump supporter.