Donald Trump, once an unthinkable candidate for the presidency, is now poised to win the Republican nomination with a lead in 19 out of the 30 primaries and 680 total delegates so far in this election cycle. Despite his vitriolic and unpredictable rhetoric, his alienation of Republican Party elites and loyal conservative voters and the attacks his presidential competitors have waged against him, Trump is nevertheless maintaining his lead.
Even his populist support goes against traditional voting trends in terms of religious belief, regionalism, income and race. This American Life’s recent podcast, “That’s One Way To Do It,” found a young voter who epitomized this deviation from identity and political preference: a black, Southern, evangelical, gay teenager, voting not for Ted Cruz (a Texan evangelical) or Bernie Sanders (a long-time supporter of gay marriage), but for the anti-gay marriage, Presbyterian candidate: Trump.
Political scientists and media commentators around the nation have come up with their own theories to explain Trump’s broad-based support. Writers at Vox argue it is the rise of authoritarian personality types. Writers at the New York Times suggest it is wage stagnation and the shrinking middle class. At the Washington Post, a writer postulated that it was a toleration for rude political commentary brought on by Republican mouthpieces like Rush Limbaugh or even karma: the Republican party’s own obstructionism used against it.
These theories each provide a tiny piece of the puzzle that explain support for Trump, but in and of themselves they are not the complete picture. Although we might like to believe Trump support is limited to a few of our Facebook friends whom we forgot we knew, or to low-income white voters or xenophobic Southerners, support for Trump extends far beyond these groups. Actually, the momentum driving his campaign isn’t even a particularly American phenomenon. Far-right, anti-establishment, populist parties are sprouting up all around Europe. In other words, Trump is the product — not the cause — of a larger cultural moment in which hatred and fear are featured center-stage.
The longer we focus on Trump as the epitome of xenophobia, racism and extremism in America, the longer we misunderstand and fail to address the economic and social problems at the root of this reactionary movement. Support for Trump must be understood as part of a global — or at least Western — trend, with implications extending far beyond our borders and lasting long beyond the outcome of the 2016 election.
To understand the political environment that facilitates support for Trump, we must look at similar movements in other countries. In France, for example, the National Front, an anti-immigration, anti-globalization, socially conservative party is expected to make it to the second round of voting, with their leader vying for the presidency in 2017. A similar story is true in Sweden. Despite many efforts by the establishment to knock the anti-immigration, nationalist Sweden Democrats out of the next election, recent polling shows that they maintain a lead over all other parties in the country. And in Finland, the True Finns, an anti-establishment, conservative party, won the second largest number of seats in the 2015 election. Even in the United Kingdom, though the right-wing, xenophobic UKIP party lost seats in last year’s election and UK citizens mounted a petition to ban Trump from the country, much of Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric is consistent with UK public opposition to taking in Syrian refugees.
The support for these European parties, like the American support for Trump, is enabled by rising intranational income inequality in developed countries around the world. Particularly following the 2008 financial collapse, many individuals saw their incomes shrink and their opportunities for better work dwindle. In the U.S. and in much of the European Union, government support for failing banks coupled with austerity measures to reduce government deficits led to widespread political disillusionment. Low- and middle-class workers saw their earnings shrink first as a result of risky bank practices and then following government initiatives to bail out the same banks with taxpayer dollars. The result has been a widening public distrust for government in the Western world, a growing resentment for the incompetency of elected officials and a fear of corruption. In other words, this disillusionment has paved the way for the anti-establishment ethos of the Trump campaign and its counterparts across the pond.
To add fuel to the fire behind these movements, globalization has exacerbated economic problems for the working class in the last decade by displacing many low-skilled workers. In America and Europe, the outsourcing of jobs and the insourcing of workers who will accept lower wages more significantly affected the employability of low-skilled Western workers than most economists initially predicted in the early 2000s. In the U.S. in particular, recent studies by MIT and the National Bureau of Economic Research suggest that economists were wrong in their assumption that low-skilled workers would quickly transition from manufacturing jobs lost to competition from China to other sectors of labor following the Chinese entrance into the World Trade Organization in 2001. Instead, there has been a “remarkably slow” recovery of wages and jobs in the U.S., similar to the slow recovery following export competition in Europe. Trump has benefited from this recovery lag, scoring highest among the working class; twice as many individuals with high school degrees or less support Trump relative to individuals with college degrees. Trump appeals to this historically left out white, working-class voting block by repeatedly criticizing China for threatening the U.S. economy, promising to bring back American jobs and insisting he will make the U.S.-China trade relationship more advantageous to Americans.
Put simply, inequality and the displacement of workers create a political environment ripe for an anti-globalization, anti-immigration, fiscally conservative candidate. Trump is only one of many of these candidates around the Western world. His popularity in the U.S., therefore, has less to do with his political outlook than it does with global, economic and social trends. The prevalence of similar groups in Western Europe is an indication that Trump is just another man saying the right thing at the right time. Certainly, his celebrity status and overconfidence have assisted his rise, but his success is most dependent on the current cultural and political moment.
Despite the global cultural and economic trends paving Trump’s way to the White House, he is not the assured next American president just yet. If the political movements sweeping Europe are any indication of what is to come in the 2016 election, then Donald Trump will not win in the general. Like other anti-establishment European reactionary leaders, Trump may eventually fade into relative obscurity — the large number of xenophobic, angry voters he has mobilized, however, will not. This extremist movement will have a lasting impact on the policy debates at the forefront of American politics for years to come, because whether Trump wins or loses, these angry, vocal people will still exist and Republicans will have to cater to their interests.
Trump may be the face of the movement now, but the sentiment he has roused is beyond his control. It is essential to vote to ensure that Trump loses in the general election. However, getting rid of Trump will not eliminate the fear, outrage, and intolerance of a large segment of the American public. We must address the problems that inspire individuals to vote for Trump and other reactionary movements around the world. Perhaps we must even sympathize with the losers of globalization, in spite of their hatred. What we must absolutely not do is disengage, give up or run away.
The next time someone tells you they are going to move to Europe if Trump wins the election, remind them that Trump is just a tiny fraction of the global problem. We cannot escape such pervasive extremism — not even in Europe.
Rachel Cohn is a senior Diplomacy and World Affairs major. She can be reached [email protected]