Voting for Trump and Brexit: what the working class revolt is really about

If this was about economic anxiety rather than race, Hillary Clinton would have won the presidency.

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The temptation to compare Donald Trump’s victory to the UK’s vote to leave the European Union is strong. Based on the data available so far, the demographic profiles for Trump and Leave voters look similar: in both cases, it was older, white, male, less educated, rural voters who made the difference. Even before the polls showed the gap between Trump and Clinton closing in the final weeks, coverage focused on the alienation felt by this group.

For weeks after the UK voted to leave the EU, commentators focused on the stories of “disenfranchised” voters who turned out to reject the power of the “elites”. These blurry words remained ill-defined, yet somehow still came to dominate. Already, the same narrative is unfolding about why and how Trump triumphed. It’s a dangerous line to take, because it obscures the racial dynamics at work.

The ways in which we write and talk about Trump’s victory matter, because the repercussions of his election will be much, much more severe and far-reaching than anything projected for Brexit (as my colleague Stephen Bush pointed out this morning). It isn’t enough just to chalk this up to vague feelings of disenfranchisement and move on with the granular stories of what happens next.

The demographics of both the UK and the US are changing – albeit more slowly in Britain. There are more mixed race and non-white people eligible to vote every time we go to the polls. The received wisdom was that this increasingly diverse electorate would strengthen the progressive coalition, and that the anxieties expressed of white voters who felt threatened by the new reality would become electorally irrelevant. Increased turnout among groups of formerly “shy” voters has so far confounded this hypothesis. The “anti-establishment” rhetoric espoused by a millionaire real estate mogul changed the electoral map of the US.

White working class voters on both sides of the Atlantic have legitimate cause for anxiety – the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis, the collapse of domestic industry and increasing economic inequality. History tells us that populist, right-wing candidates and ideas have always flourished in these conditions, as they offer a simple-sounding solution with little basis in fact. That will always appeal more than a well-meaning message of “it’s complicated, and we don’t know how long this will take to fix”.

It’s important to acknowledge, though, that economic anxiety is not an exclusively white problem. There has been a sloppy elision in recent months into using “working class” as a euphemism for “white”, and it obscures the racial dimension of both the Trump and Brexit votes. In 2015, hourly wages for white men in the US were higher than for all other groups apart from Asian men, and black people earned on average 75 per cent as much as white people. This isn’t a recent phenomenon, either – the racial pay gap is a long-established fact of the US economy. Yet last night’s exit poll shows that non-white voters both with and without college degrees voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton. If support for Donald Trump was really just about economic anxiety and feeling alienated from a super-rich elite, this wouldn’t be the case.

Donald Trump ran on a racist platform from the beginning. His vows to prevent Muslim immigration to the US and build a wall on the Mexican border are merely the two most high profile instances of his divisive rhetoric. Here we come to perhaps the most important difference between the vote for Trump and the vote for Brexit. In the UK, we were choosing between two vague and badly articulated options, one of which came to be identified with reducing immigration. In the US, there was a fully-costed, non-racist, detailed alternative to Trump’s fact-light policy offering. Hillary Clinton’s campaign put forward many measures aimed at allaying the anxieties of those struggling financially. But disenfranchised, white working-class voters chose not to vote for her.

As with Brexit, we will be exhorted to listen to the concerns of those white voters who rejected Clinton so comprehensively. We will be encouraged not to call them racist – and indeed it would be a gross generalisation to do so. But they did vote for a racist candidate, and against a more humane, rational alternative. This was a white revolt.

Caroline Crampton is a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.