Photo by William Garrett, Flickr CC

Trump’s rise to the presidency still has many people wondering why large numbers of whites with low to moderate incomes voted for a candidate who supports policies that are likely to have a negative impact on them. In other words, how is a millionaire real estate developer from New York City seen as an average Joe and a champion of white workers? Two prominent sociological explanations involve the racist attitudes of whites’ and feelings of anger and abandoment in economically struggling rural communities.

Racially coded, and racially explicit, language is particularly powerful for tapping into white Americans’ feelings of displacement, loss, and resentment. Sociological research suggests that racialized attacks on “undeserving” immigrants and people of color who benefit from government “handouts” provide a target for anger and a rationale for why white working class communities are struggling economically (while ignoring the privileges that go along with whiteness). Thus, the emotional appeals of racist and xenophobic campaign rhetoric can contribute to lower income people voting against their economic self-interest.
Much of the public commentary about white working class voters has focused on folks in cities and industrial sectors, but another important population to consider is rural residents. People in rural areas are disproportionately white, are struggling economically due to declines in commodity prices, and are confronting rapid demographic changes. Rural citizens, especially white men, perceive their religious and nationalist beliefs as being looked-down upon by liberals, and they draw on a strong rural identity when they describe feeling ignored and abandoned by politicians and elites who devalue their lifestyles. They see the government as creating policies that favor cities and help undeserving minorities and state bureaucrats, all while ignoring rural people. Thus, conservative politicians like Trump have tapped into people’s anger and resentment through emotional appeals to masculinity and male dignity, American nationalism, and Christian morals.

For more on why working class whites voted from Trump, see here, here, and here.