What is the base of right-wing populism?

Image via BBC.

This article was written for Fightback’s magazine issue on the far right. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.

By Ani White.

Given the global surge of the populist right in recent decades, it’s worth investigating the demographic base of this political phenomenon. Probably the most prominent example of right-wing populism, largely due to prominence of the United States in general, is Donald Trump’s former presidency. This article will therefore examine Trump’s base, before moving on to international comparisons.

Trump and the ‘white working-class’

It’s a commonplace claim that Trump appeals to the “white working class.” This is almost too commonplace to need a source, but an article in UK conservative rag The Times typifies the claim:

Trump was elected for a reason. He spoke to a downwardly mobile, mostly white working class that had been forgotten by the elites raking in money from the global economy. By re-engaging these outcasts with the political system, he…turned politics upside down.

It’s worth teasing out what is meant by ‘white working-class’ here. According to a Marxist definition, workers are those who do not control the means of production, and must work for a wage. This definition includes educated white-collar workers, among other groups not commonly stereotyped in the term ‘working-class.’ By this definition, any successful candidate in a mass electoral system will have a majority of working-class supporters, regardless of their other demographic features. But the Times‘ claim is more specific: that Trump appeals to an economically insecure section of the working-class, a section of the working class that has been left behind, those affected by increasing inequality.

Yet this notion of Trump voters as economically left-behind is not borne out by the numbers. According to exit polls in both the 2016 and 2020 elections, Trump appealed to higher-income households, while Democrats appealed to lower-income households:

Voters from wealthy households swung further towards Mr Trump in 2020. Just over half of those whose family income was more than $100,000 a year supported the president, compared with 45 per cent in 2016.

By contrast, those making family incomes of less than $50,000 voted Democratic by an 11.5-point margin (55 to 43), compared to an 8.2-point Democratic margin in 2016 (50 to 42)”.1

These numbers do not measure class in the Marxist sense (unfortunately exit polls do not gather data on voters’ relation to production) but they do undermine the thesis that Trump’s base is the most economically left-behind of the working-class. The average Trump voter is economically better-off than the average Democrat voter, and better-off than the average American. This played out prominently when participants in the January 6 Capitol coup attempt checked in at five-star hotels such as the Grand Hyatt,2 Wealthy racists support wealthy racists.

Trump’s base is substantially petit bourgeois: small-business owners. A poll of small-business owners in the US in 2016 found that the majority supported Trump3, and this majority only increased in 2020.4 Admittedly, Trump lost support from big business in the 2020 election5, but the point remains that Trump’s base is substantially petit bourgeois (this is also the classical base of fascism).

A common mistake conflates geography with class. Red States are portrayed as working-class, obscuring that lower-income voters, particularly people of colour, still largely do not vote Republican – with many suppressed from voting at all. Many commentators highlighted the segment of Wisconsin voters that swung from Obama to Trump, with the apparent assumption that everybody in Wisconsin is a factory worker. But the demographic makeup of Trump support in Wisconsin was much the same as it was nationwide, with the Democrats attracting lower-income voters and Trump attracting higher-income voters.6,7 The focus on Wisconsin, as a swing state, also reflects the narrow electoralist logic of the US system, which both encourages parties to chase ‘the middle’ (a common feature of liberal electoral systems), and gives certain states disproportionate weight (a more distinctive feature of the US Electoral College). Focusing so heavily on ‘swing voters’ is a recipe for rightward drift.

Another argument maps education on to class. An article on popular academic non-profit blog The Conversation, with the headline “Who exactly is Trump’s ‘base’? Why white, working-class voters could be key to the US election”8, quotes political scientists Noam Lupu and Nicholas Carnes defining working-class as “those who do not hold a college degree and report annual household incomes below the median”,9 and explicitly goes on to say that small-business owners may be included in this category. However, while education does factor into economic access, to define working-class status based on education assumes that workers are uneducated and lets reactionary petit bourgeois off the hook. Additionally, even by Lupu & Carnes’ cultural definition of the “white working-class” as those on low incomes without higher education, only a minority of Trump’s base qualifies.10

So, what are the defining features of the populist right’s base, if not working-class status? Trump’s base is primarily white and wealthy,11 and more consciously motivated by cultural than economic factors: nationalism, race, and religion.12 Even if we were to argue that economics are self-evidently more important than culture, we would still be left with the point that Trump’s base is substantially petit bourgeois (though also drawing in the more reactionary and privileged sections of the working-class). This petit bourgeois, culturally conservative character of right voters has international parallels.

Right-wing populism in Europe and Australasia

Before moving on to international examples beyond Trump, it’s worth defining a term: right-wing populism. Populism in general can be defined as a contentious politics that polarises the field between a broad “people” and a “narrow elite”’13 – this has both left and right variants, but the question of left-populism will be set aside for now. Right-wing populism tends to define its “people” in national rather than class terms, and its “elites” in cultural terms – not necessarily the rich, so much as the liberal or cosmopolitan. Nazism is the far end of right-wing populism, with Jewish people defined as the “elites” that must be purged from the nation. My analysis of right populism is focused on the ‘imperialist core’ countries – the Anglosphere and Northern Europe, as centres of white supremacy – but similar dynamics can play out in the majority world, as with India’s Hindutva movement.

The base of populism in Europe correlates with the base of populism in the US. Political scientists Ronald F. Inglehart and Pippa Norris conducted a meta-analysis of the voters most likely to support populist parties in Europe, and their motivations. Comparing the cultural backlash thesis (“support can be explained as a retro reaction by once-predominant sectors of the population to progressive value change”) and the economic insecurity thesis (emphasising the impact of neoliberalism on working-class voters), they found more support for the cultural backlash thesis. Conservative cultural attitudes were the strongest predictor of support for populist parties, to a much greater degree than economic insecurity. Unsurprisingly, populist support was strongest among “the older generation, men, the less educated, ethnic majority populations, and the religious”. Moreover, support for populists was strongest among the petit bourgeoisie, not among workers or unemployed.14

Australia has also seen a surge of support for minor populist parties. In the 2016 federal election, more voted for minor parties than at any other point since the Second World War. Unusually, the Australian minor party vote increased most strongly during periods of wage and income growth15 (this contrasts with an international pattern, measured over 140 years across 20 developed countries, whereby political polarisation increases most after financial crises16). In Australia, as elsewhere, support for populist parties was most correlated with conservative anxieties about cultural change.17 Australia has also been ahead of the curve with the mainstreaming of racial populism, with its Mandatory Detention policy for refugees initially emerging as exceptional for the OECD, but increasingly echoed internationally (as with Trump’s detention camps).

In Aotearoa/New Zealand, 2020’s General Election saw newly-formed populist parties roundly defeated.18 Labour PM Jacinda Ardern was able to sell herself as a competent crisis manager, winning over a broad swathe of the electorate including many traditional right voters.19 Ardern was successful where Corbyn in the UK and Sanders in the US were not, despite the dreams of some on their populist-left flank20: win over the base of the right. In doing so, she demonstrated why this is not a viable left strategy: Labour is unwilling to alienate their new friends with any radical measures, or even moderate measures such as property taxes to address the housing crisis, which would cut into the wealth of the property-owning middle-class.21 22 23 Although Ardern’s strategy is centrist rather than populist, it demonstrates a central danger in appealing to the right’s base: the danger of successfully becoming the sort of party right-wingers want to vote for.

What does this mean for left strategy?

The simplest strategic point to draw from all this is the following: the left should not build a strategy on appealing to the most culturally conservative, economically wealthy section of the electorate. While this point may seem blindingly obvious to some, it’s apparently not obvious to ‘left’ commentators such as Glenn Greenwald, who recently commented that he considered (millionaire right-wing Fox anchor) Tucker Carlson and (Trump strategist) Steve Bannon to be ‘socialists’, explaining that “you have this kind of right wing populism, which really is socialism.”24 Although this statement may be patently absurd, it’s also reflective of the mindset that the far-right are potential allies of the left.

Although there are conservatives that can be won over, this should not be our primary orientation. Moreover, those that can be won over should be won through a politics of solidarity, rather than pandering.

The claim that the populist right’s base is primarily “white working-class” is both misleading, and inherently beneficial to the right. The claim gives conservatives a stamp of authenticity, given their discrediting association with business interests, and generally unpopular social policies. The circulation of this claim among leftists and liberals is an own-goal at best, and a gateway to reactionary politics at worst. The outsize focus on the “white working-class” also obscures that the working-class are disproportionately people of colour.

The good news is that we don’t need to win over the base of the right to win. In the US, crudely rounding the numbers, Republican voters make up about 25% of the population, with about 25% voting Democrat, and about 50% not participating in elections (the actually left-behind). A strategy appealing to that 75% working-class majority, rather than the wealthiest and most reactionary 25%, has more transformative potential. And beyond the USA, the global working-class are mostly people of colour.

1 Zhang, Christine; Burn-Murdoch, John. “By numbers: how the US voted in 2020.” Financial Times, November 8, 2020 (tinyurl.com/trump-2020-base). Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

2 Bradley, Diana. “Hyatt faces backlash for ‘harboring domestic terrorists’ following Capitol riots.” PR Week, 7 January 2021 (https://tinyurl.com/h5j0i7k1). Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

3 Ioannou, Lori. “Small business says Trump is their pick for president.” CNBC, 5 October 2016 (tinyurl.com/sm-biz-4trump). Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

4 De Leon, Riley. “President Trump’s approval rating among small business owners hits all-time high of 64%, survey reveals.” CNBC, 20 February 2020 (tinyurl.com/smbiz/4trump20). Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

5 Edgecliffe-Johnson, Andrew. “Business breaks up with Trump.” Financial Review, 1 November 2020 (tinyurl.com/bbiz-trump). Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

6 CNN. “Exit Polls: Wisconsin Presidential Election 2016”. CNN, last updated 9 November 2016 (tinyurl.com/2016-wisconsin-exit). Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

7 CNN. “Exit Polls: Wisconsin Presidential Election 2020”. CNN, n.d. 2020 (tinyurl.com/2020-wisconsin-exit). Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

8 Ketchell, Misha. “Who exactly is Trump’s ‘base’? Why white, working-class voters could be key to the US election.” The Conversation, 29 October 2020 (tinyurl.com/trump-wwc). Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

9 Carnes, Nicholas; Lupu, Noam. “The White Working-Class and the 2016 Election.” Perspectives on Politics, First View, pp. 1-18, 2020. American Political Science Association.

10 Carnes et al. “The White Working-class…” Perspectives on Politics, 2020.

11 Carnes, Nicholas; Lupu, Noam. “It’s time to bust the myth: Most Trump voters were not working class.” Washington Post June 5, 2017 (https://tinyurl.com/ybmv7lel ). Accessed 22/04/2018.

12 Rubin, Jennifer. “Trump’s voters were more motivated by nationalism than economic hardship.” Chicago Tribune June 19, 2017 (https://tinyurl.com/yypnrreg ). Accessed 22/04/2018.

13 Laclau, Ernesto. On Populist Reason. Verso. 2005.

14 Inglehart, Ronald. The Silent Revolution: Changing Values and Political Styles Among Western Publics. Princeton Legacy Library. 1977.

15 Wood, Danielle; Daley, John; Chivers, Carmela. “Australia Demonstrates the Rise of Populism is About More than Economics.” The Australian Economic Review, vol. 51, no. 3, pp. 399-410, 2018.

16 Funke, Manuel; Schularick, Moritz; Trebesch, Christoph. “Going to extremes: Politics after financial crises, 1870-2014.” European Economic Review, vol 88, pp. 227-260, 2016.

17 Wood et al. “Australia Demonstrates…” Australian Economic Review, 2018.

18 Clark, Byron. “Conspiracy theorists big losers in NZ election.” Fightback, 5 December 2020 (tinyurl.com/nz-losers). Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

19 Malpass, Luke. “Forget left and right, Jacinda Ardern’s in the middle.” Financial Review, 23 October 2020 (tinyurl.com/ardern-middle). Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

20 Lawless, Daphne. “Left Populism at the dead end: where to after Corbyn and Sanders?” Fightback, 25 August 2020 (tinyurl.com/dead-populism). Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

21 Sachs, Justine. “Jacinda Ardern Is Not Your Friend.” Jacobin, 12 February 2021 (tinyurl.com/jacobin-ardern). Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

22 White, Ani. “’Lawmakers, not lawbreakers’”: Jacindamania as a bastion of the Third Way.” Fightback, 1 September 2020 (tinyurl.com/fightback-ardern). Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

23 Green Left Radio. “New Zealand Elections: Left Response.” Green Left Radio, 24 October 2020 (tinyurl.com/greenleft-ardern). Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

24 Richardson, Reed. “Glenn Greenwald Describes Tucker Carlson, Bannon and 2016-era Trump as Right Wing ‘Socialists’, Mediaite, 4 March 2021 (https://tinyurl.com/wow-greenwald). Web. Accessed 05/03/2021.

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