So the landslide never came.
Donald Trump not only didn’t lose votes, he gained votes. It seemed even more unfathomable than in 2016, where Trump’s record only included his stunts on the campaign trail. Here was an increase in the Trump vote after four years where he fomented racial discord, behaved in unstable and destabilising ways, and mismanaged a pandemic that has already claimed almost a quarter of a million lives in the US.
But Trump’s unexpected 2020 performance should never have been unexpected, whatever the polls said. It was only so because the motivations of Trump voters are still stuck in a binary, seen as either racist or misled.
There are broadly two strands of conventional wisdom regarding the United States: first, that it is a functioning democracy, and second, that in such a functioning democracy, one must either be ignorant or immoral to vote for someone as openly divisive and incompetent as Donald Trump.
Neither is true.
Join our newsletter | Our best foundational journalism, straight to your inbox ➞
Ignorance and racism alone can’t account for 71 million votes
The period after Trump’s election was characterised by soul searching. The media fixated on the figure of the coal miner as a symbol of a desperate voter whose way of life and livelihood were dying. This figure had been tricked by Trump to vote for a charlatan who promised a return to the old way of doing things.
This “calamity thesis” is a common one when democratic outcomes do not align with expectations of what “American values” are. If US Americans vote for someone who is open in their prejudice and disdain for norms, the explanation can only be that some sort of affliction, some “calamity” has befallen the voting public. This crisis is usually an economic one, hence the “left behind” exculpatory voter category.
And for those who do not buy the view that anyone could vote for Donald Trump and not share his politics, the other explanation that is often given is similarly simple: racism. Trump’s victory is a function of the vast unacknowledged racism that exists within US society, and which was given sanction by his race dog whistles.
Both these categories indeed account for some of Trump’s base, the stable pulse of support he has had through the past four years regardless of his performance. But the sheer numbers mean that neither of these explanations give the full picture.
Sixty-three million people voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Seventy-one million voted for him in 2020, more than any candidate besides the one who beat him, and all that after four years where the worst predictions about Trump’s presidency came to pass.
Ignorance and immorality simply cannot account for 71 million votes.
There are reasons people voted for Trump – and they’ll do so again
We are stuck in this binary analysis because people find it hard to conceive of voting patterns in the United States as motivated by anything other than cold rationale, and moral and intellectual failing in its absence. Because that’s what happens in a developed society, in a sophisticated democracy.
But from a non-western perspective, one that also happens to be my own, the US is far from a developed society – let alone a functioning democracy. The conditions are different, of course, but the US exhibits the same voting behaviour common in so-called Arab democratic dictatorships, where voting for authoritarians is motivated by very specific rationalities and trade-offs.
In these dictatorships, the choice is never an equal one: it is between a powerful incumbent who quashes dissent and only allows sham candidates to run against him. But there is also real genuine support for such incumbents – security and stability are commonly referenced rationales for supporting Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime in Egypt, for example, as is the belief that he is good for the country’s business and commerce sector. The kind of upheaval that would be required to remove al-Sisi and replace him with a functioning government that respects human rights and maintains stability is seen as either too risky or unfathomable.
From a non-western perspective ... the US is far from a developed society – let alone a functioning democracy
So, in a democracy where you can’t change the system, and you don’t expect much from that system either, a different rationale comes into play that is so often overlooked by punditry in western countries: you maximise your little stake in it.
In other words: you vote for a candidate like Trump, while being fully cognisant of all his flaws, shortcomings and dangers. We, westerners, find it easy to understand such voters’ motivations and trade-offs when they happen elsewhere – in flawed democracies with deeply entrenched political and economic forces. But we find it hard to fathom them in our own “advanced” democracies in the west.
Once we start looking at the US as a flawed democracy that also disenfranchises voters, pushes “change candidates” out of the system early, and is dominated by powerful lobbying industries and astronomical presidential campaign funding requirements, we can get a fuller picture of why people can vote for a politician like Trump in such incredible numbers.
This is a necessary readjustment of perspective, even as Biden takes the reins. Because the Democratic party, and the US as a whole, will fail to keep Trumpian forces at bay if they don’t realise that voting for Trump can actually be a rational decision. There are cold, hard reasons why people voted for Trump again. And they will do so again in the future.
Rational Trump voter 1: corporate shareholders
For the rich and private enterprise classes, Trump made a material impact on their businesses and income.
Thanks to a major reduction in taxes, corporations in the US are now taxed at 21%, down from 35%. The reasoning behind the historic Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, passed in December 2017, was that corporations would spend the savings on employees’ salaries and benefits.
For the rich and private enterprise classes, Trump made a material impact on their businesses and income
That did not happen. The tax savings were used for enrichment of investors and shareholders of private companies. According to JUST Capital, a paltry 6% of savings from tax found its way to workers. 56% of it went to shareholders in various forms – some were straight up dividends, others were buybacks.
By the end of 2018, US companies had spent a record $1 trillion on buying back their own stock. Buybacks prop up prices and increase the value stock investors already held, therefore increasing their wealth. Even Marco Rubio, the Republican senator who voted for the tax cuts, condemned the fact that savings were used to create more wealth, rather than be invested back in the economy via wages or in companies themselves.
Rational Trump voter 2: high earners
According to the Tax Policy Center, those who are in the top 20% of the income bracket benefitted from a 3% gain in income under the Trump administration. The average high-income household enjoyed a windfall of about $10,000.
The 2017 law was also full of loopholes that allowed high earners and the wealthy to keep more of their income. One particular deduction reduced the top tax rate on income from business for high-income earners by 10%. The deduction also included income from real estate for real estate owners. The top 1% of earners benefitted from these sorts of loopholes the most, gaining two-thirds of the windfall.
Rational Trump voter 3: market winners
Record stock prices and a bullish market in general didn’t just benefit corporates who were synthesising their own share values. They also benefited high-earning investors. And a whopping 88% of those who have an income of $100,000 and above have some kind of investment in the markets. That rate for those who make under $35,000 is only around 20%, and those investments tend to be illiquid ones tied up in retirement plans.
In short, high earners had the ability of liquidating and consolidating their gains across market investments, tax cuts and windfalls all at once. These are material gains for a cross section of society that will vote to preserve and increase wealth.
Despite Trump’s 2016 win being attributed to a “working-class revolt”, Hillary Clinton actually received more votes in the lowest income categories; Trump received 2% more votes than Clinton among higher earners. Their instincts were correct. That vote paid off very well.
Rational Trump voter 4: entrepreneurs
Even when entrepreneurs and small business owners expressed concerns about Trump and his administration, they begrudgingly admit that he has been good for business. As early as a year into the Trump administration, a survey revealed that 65% of business owners thought that the new tax regime was the “best thing the government did for their companies last year”. Almost all of them said that they would plough back their savings from tax cuts into expanding their businesses.
A more relaxed regulatory environment has also been ushered in by Trump, who signed an executive order in 2017 requiring agencies to abolish two regulations for every new one issued. If there was ever a quote to demonstrate the limited margins in which such economic players vote, it is this one from Martin George, a CEO of a small enterprise in Indianapolis: "Small-business people try not to get political. We stay in our lane. We go to the office. We work."
The perception that Trump is pro-entrepreneurship and small business had given some an early indicator that this was going to help him among minority communities heavily dominated by small business ownership. One of the reasons Trump’s support among Latinos grew in 2020 was this focus on some of that community’s commercial profile and concerns.
This was picked up as far back as September, where former representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida told MSNBC that "one of the reasons that the president is having success with Latino voters is because he is trusted by them on the economy. The Hispanic community, especially here in the state of Florida, is an entrepreneurial community."
But it’s not just those who have gained wealth and business opportunities under Trump who can claim to have a reason to rationally vote for the man, it’s also those lower down the income bracket for whom things got better in the past four years.
Rational Trump voter 5: lower-educated, unemployed people
Trump made a lot of the low unemployment numbers throughout his tenure. While much of this is attributable to a pattern that was simply continuing from the time of Obama, in voters’ minds, they associate benefits they receive at a certain time with the incumbent. As far as Trump voters are concerned, he has delivered on some of the expectations they had from him.
Unemployment not only fell since Trump came to office; in 2019, it fell to the lowest rate in the country for 50 years. And within that fall, there was another, even more dramatic drop: for those without a high school diploma, unemployment fell to the lowest it had been since records began, and a whole 3% lower than before he became president.
The least educated saw their employment prospects rise at a rate higher than those with a college qualification or higher. 2019 also saw the largest fall in poverty in a single year since 1966, with 4.2 million people lifted off food stamps.
Rational Trump voter 6: workers at the lower end of the labour scale
Nominal wages in 2018 and 2019 rose at the fastest rate since before the recession. This impacted US Americans at the lower end of the labour scale most of all – those with no high school diploma fared particularly well, seeing a 10% rise just before the pandemic hit.
There are instances where Trump can be held directly responsible for a rise in employment and wages. The highest number of new jobs created was in the oil and gas sector. Trump’s support of the fossil fuel sector has not only protected jobs in the sector, it increased them. In 2019, 1.7 million jobs had been created, and another 3.5 million jobs were projected to be created by 2035 had the pandemic not hit.
The result was a double benefit for Trump – not just a rise in blue-collar jobs such as industrial transport but also an endorsement from oil companies. In 2016, oil companies split the ticket, hedging their bets and donating to both Clinton and Trump. In 2020, they ditched their support for the Democrats and fully backed Trump.
Rational Trump voter 7: US Americans threatened by low-skilled immigration
Between January 2017 and July 2020, the Trump administration took over 400 executive actions on immigration. From the high-profile Muslim ban early in his tenure, to the family separation policy at the border, from the strengthening of ICE and denying permanent residence to people who claimed benefits from the government to the limits put on refugees and asylum seekers, the immigration policies enacted over the past four years have significantly decreased both inbound immigration to the US and residence and naturalisation of immigrants already on US soil.
This was a benefit to Trump voters – both in real terms as well as in terms of perception. According to The Economist, the impact of reducing particularly low-skilled migration is being felt in certain occupations, specifically housekeeping, building and grounds maintenance, and drywall installation.
People who believed immigration to be the most important issue facing the US today were the second-largest Trump voting contingent
Calculations showed that average wages in those three jobs rose at a higher rate than other low paid jobs. Other research shows that in areas where there was a decline in the population of people born overseas, wages began to rise at a rate of 5% a year.
The perception of decline in immigration is also powerful and may lead people to make associations with increased wages and improved job opportunities. The aggressive messaging around immigration, Trump’s toughness on it, the constant barrage of headlines on new laws to restrict yet another country or cohort of immigrants, and how it was all anchored in the premise of protecting both US lives and US jobs from threat was effective.
People who believed immigration to be the most important issue facing the US today were the second-largest Trump voting contingent after hardcore right wingers who believed that abortion was the most important issue facing the country.
A brew of white supremacy and self-interest
In short, those 71 million votes aren’t just a fad. The backbone of Trump support still very much stands. In racial terms, whiteness indeed is the most common denominator. So there certainly is truth to the theory that racism, xenophobia and status preservation from that group are fundamental driving forces for voting for Trump.
But there are also other motivators that stem from voters’ immediate self-interest. From the 1%, to large corporates and publicly traded companies, to small business owners and those afraid of or in the grip of unemployment, Trump managed to either create economic benefits or capitalise on tailwinds of economic improvement, to really cut through.
In a political system that makes few other transformative offerings, economic prosperity is the most immediate benefit
For those who already secured employment, grew their businesses or received tax windfalls, the motivation to maintain these benefits is even more powerful than the motivation in 2016, when they were just promises. Biden and the Democrats can then be successfully cast as a threat to a person’s economic fate.
This message is far louder than any other regarding Trump’s incompetence in handling the pandemic or his collusion with foreign powers, or even his racism. In a political system that makes few other transformative offerings, economic prosperity is the most immediate benefit. Little demonstrates this more than many people regarding lockdown restrictions as not life-saving but living-threatening.
There is no better metaphor for what constitutes a foundational part of the Trump vote in 2020: if some people must die or suffer so that others can thrive, then so be it. If the threat of another Trump, or indeed Trump himself, becoming a resurgent force in the not too distant future is to be seen off, the Democrats must recognise that self-interest that trades off other factors for cold, hard personal gain.