[Column] Trump’s supporters won’t go away, even if he isn’t reelected

Posted on : 2020-10-04 15:45 KST Modified on : 2020-10-04 15:45 KST
Economic crises will continue to give power to far-right populism
US President Donald Trump addresses the 75th UN General Assembly via video on Sept. 22. (AP/Yonhap News)
US President Donald Trump addresses the 75th UN General Assembly via video on Sept. 22. (AP/Yonhap News)

In a recent poll of swing state voters by the New York Times, 86% of those who voted for US President Donald Trump in 2016 said they intend on voting for him again on Nov. 3, and only 6% said they wouldn’t vote for him. The US has seen 7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 200,000 deaths. In the second quarter alone, more than 40 million people filed for unemployment. But Trump’s approval rating is still fixed at around 43%, where it has been ever since his inauguration in January 2017.

The US government’s total failure in its response to COVID-19, which has ushered in the worst economic conditions since the great depression, and Trump’s penchant for inflaming racial conflict — nothing of the sort seems to move the dial for his supporters. In 2016, some analysts thought that Trump’s status as a businessman, without any political experience, had been a positive factor in winning votes. But given the solidness of Trump’s approval rating, there seems to be something special about his supporters.

Trump’s supporters come from a range of groups. There are libertarian advocates of the free market who want to minimize regulations and reduce the role of the government; there are social and religious conservatives who are opposed to abortion and homosexuality; and there are anti-elitists who are disgusted with what they perceive as the smugness of career politicians, journalists, and academics. But there’s one group that deserves special attention: white blue-collar workers.

According to data released by the Pew Research Center, 63% of voters who supported Trump in 2016 were whites with a high school education or below. That stood in stark contrast to Hillary Clinton, who only received 26% of voters from that group.

American society has undergone huge changes over the past 50 years. In the early 1960s, manufacturing workers accounted for 30% of the total workforce; in 2016, that was down to just over 10%. Globalization and automation have brought the well-educated more work opportunities and higher income, but life has grown harder for workers with a high school degree or below, and especially for white blue-collar workers. Their income has stagnated, and their employment options have steadily decreased. Such economic woes have also led to poorer health and drug addiction. The mortality rate for whites aged 45-54 has rapidly increased over the past decade, while their life expectancy has fallen.

People threatened by automation more likely to exhibit hostility toward immigration, research finds

Research in political science and economics shows that Americans and Europeans with jobs that are at greater risk of being eliminated by accelerating automation and the competition brought by globalization are more likely to exhibit hostility to immigrants and people of other races and to support ultranationalist far-right parties and their candidates. However, that was not an inevitable phenomenon. Many studies in social science show that the government can partially prevent the anxiety of impoverishment from increasing support for radical parties by giving people who lose their jobs timely unemployment benefits and various forms of assistance in finding new jobs. But the US government hasn’t been agile in its response, with the ultimate result that no effective social safety net has been built.

Applying for unemployment benefits was complicated and payment was slow — and no action was taken to correct those issues even when complaints were raised. Rather than tackling the fundamental issues, politicians have been more eager to attack immigrants and China and whip up voters’ anger to shore up their own approval ratings. The lives of blue-collar workers haven’t gotten any better even after Trump became president with their overwhelming support. But now another election has rolled around without a decent alternative.

Trump’s supporters won’t disappear even if he fails to get reelected. COVID-19 has exacerbated economic inequality. Economic crises and recessions exacerbate political extremism. Unless serious attention is given to the question of how to help those who have been left behind by globalization and automation, the right-wing populism that bewitched Trump supporters will become the “new normal” in the US regardless of who is in the White House.

By You Hye-young, assistant professor of politics at New York University

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