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.