The 2011 Survey That Eerily Predicted Donald Trump

Donald Trump at CPAC in February, 2011 (AP / Alex Brandon)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

White men without a college degree are the most likely demographic to support Donald Trump. But who could have foreseen that they would reject the GOP to side with a political outsider who built his campaign around economic anxiety, racial resentment, and a bleak assessment of America's future?

Well, how about anybody who read the Washington Post on February 22, 2011?

In a brief article describing a national survey by the Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University, Jon Cohen and Dan Balz described a white-no-college-male demo quietly seething at the state of the country. All emphasis is mine:

The deep recession has had a profound effect on virtually every segment of the country's population. But if there is an epicenter of financial stress and frustration, it is among whites without college degrees.

By many measures, this politically sensitive group has emerged from the recession with a particularly dark view of the economy and the financial future. Whites without college degrees also are the most apt to blame Washington for the problems, and are exceedingly harsh in their judgment of the Obama administration and its economic policies.

The numbers represent a fresh look at the effects of the long recession on all Americans, but particularly "non-college whites," a group of long-fought-over voters often considered a bellwether of the political ramifications of economic woes.

A mere 10 percent of whites without college degrees say they are satisfied with the nation's current economic situation. Most - 56 percent - say the country's best days are in the past, and more, 61 percent, say it will be a long time before the economy begins to recover.

Fully 43 percent of non-college whites say "hard work and determination are no guarantees of success," and nearly half doubt that they have enough education and skills to compete in the job market.

It’s eerie: White non-college men intuiting Trump’s sloganeering four and a half years before he took the stage.

  • They think America’s best days are gone (Trump: “Make America Great Again”).
  • They are the most likely to blame Washington and Obama in particular (Trump: “I think we have a president who, is totally incompetent, he has no idea what he’s doing, and our country is going to hell.”).
  • They don’t believe that they can feel successful even if they work hard  (Trump: “We don’t win anymore.”).

Even more concerning, perhaps, is the racial undercurrent to their frustrations. Brian D. McKenzie, a professor at the University of Maryland, analyzed the survey in 2014 and concluded that white respondents believed blacks were at the heart of the nation’s inequities, since they were "unfairly aided by a sitting black president.” Economic anxiety and racial resentment mixed together in a noxious stew.These perceptual biases shape whites' political opinions and are associated with feelings of financial frustration and higher levels of blame toward the government in Washington,” he wrote.

Several weeks ago, I analyzed several predictors of Trump support in the GOP primaries. Besides being a white man without a college degree, other strong pro-Trump factors included (a) agreeing with the statement "people like me don't have any say"; (b) living in parts of the country that correlate with racial slurs and jokes in Google searches; (c) supporting extreme measures to improve America's weak standing in the world. You can see it all in the 2011 survey.

The concerns of non-college white men might be manifesting themselves in grotesque displays of xenophobic rage, but the origin of their frustration is real and tragic. Their wages are falling and so are their average lifespans. Globalization took their jobs and dignity, and elites from neither party have placed their concerns at the heart of their agendas. In 2011, this group was screaming for a savior. We know at least one person was listening.