President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence wave as they visit to Carrier factory, Dec. 1, 2016, in Indianapolis, Ind.
Photo by Evan Vucci/AP

‘Economic anxieties’ don’t explain Donald Trump’s victory

Almost immediately after the presidential election’s unexpected outcome a familiar debate unfolded about “economic anxieties.” Those who pointed to low national unemployment and steady economic growth were quickly reminded that the data doesn’t reflect the angst felt by those who believe the economy has left them behind, working harder for less.

Donald Trump, the argument added, was able to exploit these fears with pseudo-populist bluster, appealing to hard-hit communities with post-policy promises about trade and globalization he’ll never be able to keep.

Elkhart, Indiana, suggests there may be a problem with the thesis. The mid-sized city, just east of South Bend, was devastated during the Great Recession, with an unemployment rate that reached 22%. Under President Obama, however, Elkhart has boomed and the jobless rate has fallen below 4%. It’s as striking an Obama-era success story as you’ll find almost anywhere.

But as The Atlantic’s Alana Semuels found, most Elkhart voters nevertheless love Donald Trump – and have no use for President Obama – for reasons that have nothing do with the economy.
[D]espite the decisions that the Obama administration made that might have helped Elkhart, many people here have a strong dislike of Obama, who presided over an economic recovery…. They say it’s not Obama who is responsible for the city or the country’s economic progress, and furthermore, that the economy won’t truly start to improve until President-elect Donald Trump takes office. […]

Andi Ermes, 39, offered a number of reasons for disliking Obama. She said Obama didn’t attend the Army-Navy football game, even though other presidents had. Obama has actually attended more Army-Navy games than George H.W. Bush. She said that he had taken too many vacations. He has taken fewer vacation days that George W. Bush. She also said that he refused to wear a flag pin on his lapel. While it is true that Obama did not wear a flag on his lapel at points during the 2007 campaign, it was back on his suit by 2008.
It’s unfortunate to hear from someone whose political opinions are based on obviously mistaken beliefs, but the broader point isn’t about one confused voter, but rather the larger context: chalking up Trump’s rise to “economic anxieties” doesn’t work well in pro-Trump areas that have experienced a jobs boom and where locals are a lot less anxious about the economy.

Keep in mind, as regular readers may recall, Elkhart took on special political significance in recent years, thanks in large part to multiple Obama visits. In 2009, the president spoke to NBC’s Chuck Todd before an event in the community, and Todd asked if it’d be “fair” to use the city as a case study – if what happened to Elkhart in the Obama era could credibly represent the success or failure of the White House’s agenda.

“Absolutely,” the president replied.

In the months that followed, MSNBC created an online venture called “The Elkhart Project,” monitoring the city’s progress as Obama’s policies started to take effect. In the years that followed, the area’s unemployment rate went from one of the nation’s worst to one of the nation’s best.

And yet, politically, it didn’t change a thing. From The Atlantic piece: “Elkhart is a case study in how Democrats lost the 2016 elections despite the economic resurgence the country experienced under Obama. It shows how, in an increasingly polarized country, an improving economy is not enough to get Republicans to vote for Democrats, in part because they don’t give Democrats any credit for fixing the economy.”

The better Elkhart’s economy did, and the better Obama’s economic results, the more the city voted Republican. This is not to say economic anxieties aren’t real in many areas – there’s ample evidence to the contrary – but explaining Trump’s rise by focusing primarily on economics, overlooking cultural considerations, paints an incomplete picture.


Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Indiana

'Economic anxieties' don't explain Donald Trump's victory