The unstable coalition behind president Trump

backPrinter-friendly versionSend to friend


Trump supporters

So far, Donald Trump’s record in implementing campaign promises is more or less zero. Yes, he withdrew the United States from the Paris agreement on climate change to be faithful to his rhetoric “Global warming is a hoax!” but he probably regrets that now that hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria hit Texas, Florida and the Caribbean. What about the rest? The “complete ban of muslims” was largely voided by federal judges and its final destiny is in the hands of the Supreme Court. The wall at the Mexican border is nowhere to be seen. “Repeal and replace Obamacare” failed in the Senate. Debate about tax reforms has not began yet.

Is this because Trump is a mercurial personality, as it was lately shown in his attempts to strike deals with the hated Democrats Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi? Or is it his unfitness for the presidency, as many commentators say? These factors may exist, but the reasons of his administration’s paralysis go deeper and lay in the composite and unstable nature of his political coalition.

This topic was recently analyzed by political scientist Emily Ekins who published a report about five types of Trump voters. She found that Trump’s supporters can be divided in five clusters.

Those described by Ekins as American Preservationists (20% of his supporters) are “the core Trump constituency” that propelled him to victory in the early Republican primaries. These Trump voters “lean economically progressive, believe the economic and political systems are rigged, have nativist immigration views, and a nativist and ethnocultural conception of American identity.”

American Preservationists, writes Ekins, “have low levels of formal education and the lowest incomes of the Trump groups – and non-Trump voters as well. They are the most likely group to be on Medicaid, to report a permanent disability that prevents them from working, and to smoke cigarettes.” As we will see, these socioeconomic features have been quite relevant to the actions of the Trump administration and of Congress so far.

The second group (about a third of Trump voters) are the Staunch Conservatives, basically the traditional Republican voters who are “fiscal conservatives, embrace moral traditionalism, and have a moderately nativist (…) and approach to immigration.” Staunch Conservatives tend to be “old, more male than female, and upper middle class with moderate levels of education. They are the most likely group to own guns and to be NRA members.”

Free Marketeers (25%) “are small government fiscal conservatives, free traders, with moderate to liberal positions on immigration and race. Their vote was primarily against Clinton and not a vote for Trump.” Although they usually vote Republican, Free Marketeers are the most skeptical of Trump. More likely to come from the West, Free Marketeers tend to be male, middle aged, and the most educated and highly paid of the Trump groups. 

Anti-Elites (19%) This group of Trump supporters is economically progressive and some of them voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. They “believe the economic and political systems are rigged, and they take relatively more moderate positions on immigration, race, and American identity.” Anti-Elites have relatively cooler feelings toward Donald Trump than American Preservationists, and tend to be “middle-class voters with moderate levels of education, slightly younger than other Trump groups. They (…) believe that moneyed and political elites take advantage of the system against ordinary people and they support increasing taxes on the wealthy,” which is precisely the opposite of what Staunch Conservatives and Free Marketeers support.

Finally, there are the Disengaged (5%). According to Ekin’s report “this group does not know much about politics, but what they do know is they feel detached from institutions and elites and are skeptical of immigration.”

It is easy to see that these different political tribes voted for Trump because they were hostile to immigration, felt detached from institutions and elites, and were particularly repelled by Hillary Clinton. However, they have very different ideas about the political priorities: for example a majority of Republican voters last November thought that Medicare was “very important” to them. This explains why they reacted furiously when it became known that Congress wanted to savagely cut Medicare and Medicaid, on top of leaving 23 million Americans without the health coverage provided by Obamacare.

Republican Senators were booed by their constituents in one town meeting after another and this was the reason for the defection of three of them in the crucial vote about repealing the Affordable Care Act, a stinging political defeat for the party and personally for the President.

The economy is also seen in very different ways by the five groups analyzed by Ekins, as shown by this table.

Source: “The Five Types of Trump Voters: Who They Are and What They Believe

It appears that Trump supporters are split in two: traditional Republican voters who do not believe that the economic system is biased (Staunch Conservatives and Free Marketeers, together 56% of those who voted for Trump) and the other three political clusters, who represent 44% of his voters, are overwhelmingly convinced that the system is rigged in favor of the millionaires. It will not be easy to reconcile these opinions in drafting tax and economic policies in the coming months.

In the end, it is not Trump’s tweets, nor the confusion in the White House, that explain the meager political record of this administration, but the class and cultural divisions in the coalition that propelled him to the presidency. Trump’s pragmatic political instincts push him to try to keep his coalition together, no matter what Republican ideologues in Congress want to do, but his estrangement from the party makes legislative accomplishments sparse and difficult.

Read also:

Donald Trump and the strategic value of unorthodox political behavior
Jacob Parakilas

It has always been 'America first': why Trump is different
Jason W. Davidson