The 2016 election is almost two years behind us, but arguments over why Donald Trump won haven’t stopped. Because Mr. Trump drew support from white voters with less formal education — the “white working class” — many attributed his victory to Americans’ economic anxiety.
But this narrative has obscured the true nature of Mr. Trump’s coalition. On the whole, Trump voters were never extraordinarily economically distressed. And now the economically distressed are actually less likely to approve of Mr. Trump’s performance as president.
But focusing on the white working class obscures the true contours of economic distress. In reality, it is people of color who report the most distress — a fact that is not surprising but stands out clearly in the new data. Hispanic-Americans without a college degree averaged 37 on this index and African-Americans without a college degree averaged 32. In fact, African-Americans with a college degree reported slightly more distress (30, on average) than whites without a college degree.
This pattern was evident at every income level. Nonwhites with the same household income as whites still reported more economic distress. This was true even when comparing nonwhites with college degrees to whites without college degrees.
What about Trump voters overall? They actually reported less economic distress than those who voted for Hillary Clinton — and again this was true at every income level. Moreover, Mr. Trump’s earliest supporters, those who voted for him in the primary, reported less distress than did the primary supporters of either Mrs. Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Similarly, the much-discussed “Obama-Trump voter” did not report distinctively high levels of economic distress.
All of this squares with research using surveys conducted during the presidential campaign: economic distress was not a distinguishing feature of Mr. Trump’s support, especially compared to attitudes about race and immigration.
The fact that people of color in economic distress don’t respond by voting Republican has always been one of the most obvious flaws in the whole “it was economic anxiety” narrative. But above all it was a feel-good narrative, one developed by people who wanted to deny that Trump’s naked appeals to racism were critical to his Electoral College victory.
Always remember Dorothy Fortenberry’s dictum that “the electorally significant Trump voter is a union welder whose sister has a pill problem, the average Trump voter is a dentist with a boat.”