In his Phoenix rally, Donald Trump doubled down on his appeal to racism–both through a self-serving (and inaccurate) defense of his remarks after Charlottesville and in a coy reference to a potential pardon for notorious Arizona racist Joe Arpaio. It was red meat for his supporters.
The question is: who are those supporters?
I have previously expressed my belief that Trump’s election owed much more to racial resentment than to economic distress. But I do understand the connections between cultural and economic anxiety.
It is true that Trump voters on average were better-off financially than Clinton voters (and it is also true, and worth repeating, that there were three million more of the latter than the former), but as sociologists will confirm, economic anxiety is not the same thing as economic deprivation. And multiple studies confirm that anxiety and insecurity trigger bigotries and other behaviors that are suppressed in less tumultuous times.
LAST year over 102,000 people died in nearly 50 armed conflicts across the world, according to the Peace Research Institute Oslo, a think-tank. Much of this violence is caused by tensions between ethnic groups—two-thirds of civil wars have been fought along ethnic lines since 1946. Yet historians differ over whether cultural differences or economic pressures best explain how tensions explode into violence.
A new study by Robert Warren Anderson, Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama suggests that, historically, economic shocks were more strongly associated with outbreaks of violence directed against Jews than scholars had previously thought.
The research cited an intriguing example: some 57% of people living in medieval England relied on farming, and a decline in average temperatures of only a third of a degree increased the probability of a pogrom or expulsion by 50% over the next five years. In other words, incidence of violence against Jews weren’t caused by religiously-motivated anti-Semitism. That animus was undeniably– and constantly– present, but its eruptions were triggered by social and economic ills.
Echoes of these patterns are discernible today. Many economists have linked the weather—particularly droughts and heatwaves in agricultural economies—to outbreaks of intercommunal violence in developing countries. Another paper published last year, by Carl-Friedrich Schleussner and his colleagues, found that between 1980 and 2010 23% of civil wars coincided with climate-related disasters in countries with deep ethnic divides. Global warming may worsen this problem further. The lesson of history is that better political institutions can help soothe tensions.
If better political institutions can soothe tensions, it stands to reason that worse political environments can encourage them.
The emergence of the so-called “alt-right” (and no, Mr. Trump, there really isn’t such a thing as an “alt-left”) is widely attributed to Trump’s barely-veiled encouragement of racism and other forms of bigotry, the expression of which was preceded by the years of GOP “dog whistles” that have become one of the party’s routine political tools in the wake of Nixon’s Southern Strategy.
The success of that strategy required both pre-existing bigotry–mostly latent, but undeniably potent–and an increase in appeals to social and/or economic anxiety.
Social anxiety in an age of constant and accelerating change is a given. There isn’t much lawmakers can do about that. But they can ameliorate economic insecurity. Legislators can strengthen America’s porous and inadequate social safety net; they can expand access to healthcare; they can make the tax code simpler and fairer; they can raise the minimum wage; they can fashion rules to ensure that the water in our cities remains lead-free and drinkable and the air breathable (and they can require Scott Pruitt’s EPA to abide by those rules).
In short, lawmakers can remove a significant number of the uncertainties that feed economic anxiety. They can also act responsibly and constitutionally, sending a reassuring signal that America’s institutions are functioning properly. None of that, however, is happening.
Nero is said to have fiddled while Rome burned. Congress could give him lessons.