“Our jobs are fleeing the country,” Donald Trump said on Monday night at the first presidential debate. “Our country’s in deep trouble,” he continued, blaming NAFTA and U.S. trade policies for destroying the Rust Belt and shipping jobs to Mexico and China.
Extending a message that he delivered at the Republican National Convention and across the country, Trump painted the U.S. economy as a hellscape, where foreign interests descend on American cities like demons in a Bosch painting and leave a trail of misery in their wake.
But Trump’s dire portrait differs from most statistical snapshots of the U.S. economy. Hours after the first presidential debate, the Conference Board, a business research association, reported that consumer confidence had reached its highest level since the recession. Three weeks ago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the U.S. has added private sector jobs for its record-setting 77th consecutive month. The unemployment rate has been at 5 percent or below for the past 11 months. Two weeks ago, the U.S. Census reported that real median household incomes grew at the fastest pace on record, with incomes rising fastest among the poorest Americans. The average price of gas has been under $3 for almost two years. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama’s approval rating is at its highest level of his second term.
How could Trump possibly attract near-majority support in the presidential election despite brandishing an economic message that runs so counter to the average American’s experience? There are a few plausible explanations.
First, perhaps Trump is effectively speaking to the private concerns of many Americans whose angst isn’t reflected in the national economic figures. After all, statistics like the unemployment rate and wage growth might disguise some regional inequality. Residents of Denver, Seattle, and Portland are seeing unprecedented housing booms, but in, say, Ohio, where Trump is leading, rural incomes are growing slowly, Cleveland's workforce is still shrinking, and Toledo lost 4 percent of its businesses in the first four years of the recovery.
But despite its simple allure, this explanation is far from dispositive. Although Trump is leading in some states that have been gutted by the demise of manufacturing or coal, polling research has not been able to find a clear correlation between local job losses and support for Trump. In fact, some studies found that Trump supporters are even less likely to live in areas that lost jobs to trade.
That leads to a second explanation, which is that many Trump supporters are drawn not exclusively to his economic message, but rather to his particular brand of nativist bluster, which often conflates racial and economic anxieties. There is considerable evidence that racism predicts Trump support better than any economic indicator. But cultural attitudes do not exist in a psychological vacuum. Several studies of racial attitudes toward immigration and welfare have found that the mere perception of economic scarcity can inflame racial tensions, as the white majority fears that their taxable income will go to support minority families that they consider different and undeserving.
Finally, there is a third possibility that is more sociological than economic. Perhaps many Trump supporters think that the world is getting worse even though many of them would report that their own lives are improving. In other words, if asked “How are you doing?” many say, “Alright.” But if asked “How is the country doing?” they’ll say, “very poorly.” This is how one might have a country where consumers are optimistic about their own lives (as the statistics seem to indicate) but depressed about the state of the rest of the country (as Trump’s popularity might suggest). Why might they come to hold that belief? Cultural and economic attitudes are leaky. It is conceivable that many members of this group, motivated primarily by racist attitudes, have conflated their fears about the future of U.S. demographics with their fears of the future of the economy.
In sociology, there is a concept called “pluralistic ignorance,” which refers to when a group’s public attitude differs from their private experience. Recall the Hans Christian Andersen story about a royal court that claims to see invisible clothes on an emperor while each individual privately sees him naked. Or, for a more contemporary example, imagine a fraternity where every young man publicly disparages women but privately considers such behavior to be boorish.
Pluralistic ignorance would help explain what is otherwise a paradox: Trump supporters are more likely to express negative views about the economy, but people suffering from economic hardship are less likely to vote for Trump. This can be true only in a scenario in which millions of Trump supporters who are personally seeing decent economic conditions are nonetheless convinced that the economy is terrible for everybody else.
“We have come back from [the] abyss, and it has not been easy,” Hillary Clinton said on Monday night. “So we’re now on the precipice of having a potentially much better economy.” Indeed, there is no doubt that Americans should look forward to a larger prime-age labor force with less underemployment and inequality and higher social mobility. But today’s economy is not a post-apocalyptic hellscape that can only be redeemed with trade wars with China and Mexico. It is, more humbly, a work in progress—and one that is actually progressing.