Support for pro-Trump Republicans remains driven by relatively well-off whites in fast-growing, rapidly diversifying suburbs – not by economic despair in rural America.
“The evidence cuts strongly against the common view of the movement as driven by ‘lumpen’ Rust Belt rage and economic despair in the country’s shrinking rural hinterland.”
Despite the now clear threat posed by continued disinformation about the legality of the 2020 election, on January 6 a majority of House Republicans affirmed their overriding loyalty to President Trump by supporting objections to the certification of Electoral College votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania. They chose to persist in doing so even after being forced to flee the House chamber by a mob of hundreds of Trump supporters—among them white supremacists and paramilitaries—who overran the Capitol grounds and brought the certification process to a halt.
What relationship do these representatives have to the people they represent? A total of 139 House Republicans voted to sustain objections to the certification of at least one state’s election results. A demographic and economic analysis of the constituencies they represent helps to clarify the social and material conditions in which Trumpism has taken root.
In particular, the evidence cuts strongly against the common view of the movement as driven by “lumpen” Rust Belt rage and economic despair in the country’s shrinking rural hinterland. Rather, the picture that emerges is one of greenfield suburbs that are both fast growing and rapidly diversifying, where inequalities between relatively well-off white households and their non-white neighbors have been shrinking the most. Low voter turnout in these places has, in turn, helped to deliver large margins to Republican candidates. These facts both help us to understand what is animating Trump’s most committed supporters and point the way to defeating Trumpism electorally.
Growing and diversifying exurbs
In addition to being considerably more suburban than Democratic districts, as all Republican districts are, residents of objectors’ districts are nearly twice as likely as residents of other Republican districts to live in exurban “sparse suburban areas.” These are districts like Wisconsin’s 5th in the western suburbs of Milwaukee and North Carolina’s 9th, which runs from the southern suburbs of Charlotte to eastern Fayetteville (but does not include either city itself). The latter’s representative, Dan Bishop, authored that state’s infamous 2016 legislation prohibiting transgender individuals from using the gendered public facilities of their choice and preempting local minimum wage ordinances. He was also a signatory to the brief in support of Texas v. Pennsylvania, President Trump’s final direct appeal to the Supreme Court to forestall the certification of his loss.
These districts are also among the fastest-growing in the country. On average, their population growth outpaced that in districts represented by Democrats and other Republicans over the last twenty years. And almost all of this growth has been among non-white groups, specifically Latinos and Asian Americans, resulting in a dramatic shift in the demographic composition of these districts.
Since they are, on average, younger, this growth in non-white residents has also meant age and race have become increasingly correlated. Residents under the age of 18 are 3.6 times more likely to be Hispanic and 1.6 times more likely to be Black or Asian American than those over the age of 65. Debates over policies involving a transfer of resources between generational cohorts—Social Security and Medicare, public education, housing—have, therefore, also become even more polarized by race in these parts of the country.
In their work studying the Tea Party protests of the early 2010s, Vanessa Williamson of the Brookings Institution and Theda Skocpol of Harvard identified this nexus of racial and generational resentment as central to the ideology animating its white, middle-class activists. Gabriel Winant, historian at the University of Chicago, has also written about the ways that the concentration of wealth among older Americans has helped enable the authoritarian right to stoke fears about youth-led political movements challenging their direct and indirect claims on younger Americans’ labor and income as employers, landlords, lenders, and pensioners.
White, middle-class stagnation, Latino and Asian American upward mobility
Constituents of Republican objectors do tend to have lower levels of formal educational attainment than constituents in other districts. But this in no way flatters these representatives’ pretensions as spokespeople for the marginalized working class. Partisan polarization by education has risen dramatically over the last forty years, but post-election surveys show that voters with higher incomes and greater wealth are still significantly more likely to support Republican candidates. This correlation may have weakened slightly in the last two presidential elections, but national exit polling from both 2016 and 2020 confirm that even with President Trump at the top of the ballot, the positive relationship between household income and Republican support persisted.
One reason for persistent confusion on this point is the conflation of districts with voters. Republicans do tend to represent congressional districts with lower median incomes, but it does not follow that their base of support is therefore drawn from those places’ working-class residents. In fact, reconciling the fact of these districts’ lower incomes with national survey results suggests the very opposite: the Republican base is composed of the wealthiest voters residing in lower-income districts.
Using educational attainment as a proxy for class obscures the extent to which many white Americans without a four-year college degree receive relatively high incomes and own some wealth, primarily in residential real estate and pensions. According to the Census’s 2019 American Community Survey, more than half of white Americans without a four-year degree have household incomes greater than $65,000 a year—roughly the national median income—and over 70 percent of them are homeowners. White homeowners are also significantly less likely to have a college education in districts represented by Republicans than in those represented by Democrats.
“The Republican base is composed of the wealthiest voters residing in lower-income districts.”
Since 2000, strong demand for housing due to relatively fast population growth has put upward pressure on housing prices in Republican objectors’ districts, shrinking the gap in home values between their districts and other Republican districts. One such case is Texas’s 17th, which snakes through the northern Austin suburbs to include Bryan-College Station and Waco. It saw median home values rise by an inflation-adjusted 3.3 percent a year (from $108,000 to $199,000 in constant 2019 dollars).
In Republican objectors’ districts, home ownership rates over the last twenty years were largely stable for white households, plummeted to less than half among Black households, rose modestly among Hispanic households, and rose considerably among Asian Americans. The latter two groups have been the main beneficiaries of real estate appreciation in these districts and also saw the fastest household income growth over the same period. Low levels of home ownership among Black households is both the near-term legacy of the 2007–09 housing market crash and recession and the longer-term legacy of redlining and Jim Crow segregation. Virtually no progress has been made in the last fifty years in closing the Black-white wealth gap, the expansion of home ownership among Black households in the 1990s and 2000s having been fueled by fraudulent subprime mortgage lending that left them saddled with high debt burdens after housing prices collapsed.
While the home ownership rate among Latinos remains well below that for white households in Republican objectors’ districts, the gap in median home values between white and Latino homeowners in these places has nearly closed in the last twenty years. This indicates strong housing price growth has largely benefited existing Latino homeowners rather than new buyers. Latino homeowners in these districts are also on average more likely to identify as white and to have been born in the United States than Latinos residing in other parts of the country. These facts perhaps go some way in explaining President Trump’s modest inroads among Latino voters in 2020.
“Latino homeowners in these districts are also on average more likely to identify as white.”
The story from the perspective of the bottom of the income distribution is similar. With the exception of indigenous and multi-racial residents, people of color in objectors’ districts have seen significant reductions in poverty since 2000. Asian Americans, for example, are now no more likely to be in poverty than white families. This suggests that income growth among Hispanic and Asian American households over this period also buoyed the very poorest among them. While the Black family poverty rate remains alarmingly high nationwide, only in objectors’ districts did median wages among Black workers grow faster than median wages among white workers. It was also in these districts that the average Black-white poverty gap shrank the most.
White homeowners’ perception of a loss of status relative to upwardly mobile Hispanic and Asian American households is the social context out of which emerged the nativist politics at the center of Trumpism. Middle-class whites in Republican objectors’ districts are nevertheless considerably more likely to own their own home and receive higher incomes than any other racial group except Asian Americans. It is whiteness itself that has lost salience as a signifier of social status and class, and it is to this status anxiety that Trumpism is addressed.
Evangelicalism and local economies
The sense of status threat among white suburban homeowners in objectors’ districts is compounded by their religiosity and disproportionate employment in industries the president has portrayed himself as “protecting,” either through trade policy or by excluding the left from political power.
White evangelical Christians have been integral to the Republican coalition since the 1980s and remain President Trump’s most unwavering base of support. In more than half of Republican objectors’ districts, evangelicals account for at least a fifth of constituents, making objectors far more likely to represent evangelicals in Congress than other Republicans or Democrats.
Public opinion surveys reveal just how much white evangelical Protestants stand apart in their politics. The Public Religion Research Institute’s 2020 American Values survey found that they are the only demographic-religious group among whom a majority expresses a preference for living in a country “made up of people who follow the Christian faith.” Just over half believe “society punishes men just for acting like men,” and they are the only group for whom abortion and terrorism rank in their top three most important issues. White evangelicals are also the least likely to agree that President Trump has encouraged white supremacist groups, though a majority of Americans overall do, and the most likely to claim that he “models religious values with his actions and leadership.”
Even those who do not agree with this claim defend their support for Trump on the grounds that he is an “imperfect agent” of God’s will. White evangelicals’ aversion to religious pluralism and providential view of the United States stands in stark contrast to the reality of a secularizing country where regular attendance of religious services is declining and younger Americans are less likely to identify as Christian.
“White evangelicals are the least likely to agree that President Trump has encouraged white supremacist groups.”
As for local economic activity, workers in Republican objectors’ districts are more likely to be employed in sectors of the economy Trump has routinely identified as most threatened by the political left—mining and oil and natural gas extraction, heavy manufacturing, and law enforcement. While the average share of workers employed in these industries is small, they loom large in regional economies dependent on them to provide relatively high-wage employment to workers without a four-year degree. In his analysis of the 2020 election, geographer and historian Mike Davis notes how both large concentrations of workers employed in border security and the region’s expanding shale oil industry created new opportunities for Republicans to grow their vote share in south Texas’s Rio Grande valley.
Moreover, though Trump has chosen to prioritize policies like environmental deregulation, the leasing and sale of public lands, and trade restrictions over a real full employment agenda—mainly to the benefit of owners and investors rather than rank-and-file workers—he has been able to burnish his support among workers in these sectors by simultaneously emphasizing the potential threats posed to them by demands to decarbonize the economy, prosecute police violence, and defund local and federal law enforcement agencies.
Trumpism and antidemocratic politics
The willingness of the most fervent pro-Trump constituencies to embrace more openly antidemocratic politics on the part of their elected representatives reflects a recognition of their reliance on minoritarian features of our constitutional system to wield political power. Republican objectors’ districts had some of the lowest voter participation in the country in 2018 (see the table above). Turnout in these districts averaged less than 50 percent of voting-age adults in a midterm election when voter turnout nationally was the highest it had been in forty years. In 2018 only five representatives in the House were elected by votes from more than 50 percent of voting-age adults in their district, all of whom were Democrats that received more than 80 percent of the vote.
One such low-turnout district was the Mississippi 4th, covering the southeastern part of that state around Biloxi. A mere 39 percent of adults in the district voted in 2018. Its representative, Steven Palazzo, won 68 percent of the vote, meaning he was elected by the votes of only about 27 percent of his district’s constituents. He was reelected in 2020 and is currently under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for improper use of campaign funds.
This is not an isolated example. The Census’s 2018 district-level turnout data shows only five representatives in the House were elected by votes from more than 50 percent of voting-age adults in their district; all of whom were Democrats that received more than 80 percent of the vote.
The consequences of this severe democratic deficit are made all too clear by the nation’s lethal mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the fact that Republican objectors represent districts where residents have been more likely to contract and die from coronavirus, they continue to demonstrate through their actions and public statements a shocking lack of appreciation for the pandemic’s severity. Even during the riot on January 6, several Republican objectors refused to wear masks while confined with their colleagues in a safe room. Four lawmakers who sheltered with them, all Democrats, have now tested positive for COVID-19.
“Only five representatives in the House were elected by votes from more than 50 percent of voting-age adults in their district; all of whom were Democrats.”
Where does this picture leave us? The Republican Party’s most pro-Trump members have been elected by higher-income, white homeowners in fast-growing exurbia. They feel the social status traditionally associated with their identity as white Christians is being degraded and that left-wing political movements pose a threat to their livelihoods, personal wealth, and political power. In reaction, they have committed themselves to a movement seeking to defend the privileges of property-owning white Americans in our political system, economy, and public life, and have demonstrated a willingness to actively subvert democratic processes to achieve their ends.
President Trump’s incitement of his supporters to disrupt the electoral process by force is the culmination of the Republican Party’s decade-long campaign to maintain minority rule by depressing political participation and diluting the vote of their political opponents. Having secured control over governor’s mansions and both houses of state legislatures in twenty-three states, Republicans are once again positioned to ensure district boundaries maximize their representation in Congress for the next decade as well.
Bleak as this prospect is, Democrats’ dual Senate victories in Georgia have vindicated a strategy of organizing and mobilizing a latent majority of voters who will reject Trumpism’s antidemocratic politics, even in a state where voter suppression efforts have been infamous. The fact that Republican objectors command some of the least popular support among their own constituents of any congressional elected officials in the country is both a testament to their effectiveness in entrenching their own power and the foundation on which we must ground our hopes for political change to end minority rule.
Jacob Whiton is a graduate student in public policy and researcher living in Washington, D.C.
This article previously appeared in Boston Review.
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