These books offer three distinct perspectives on the central question in American politics: Why did so many voters support Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election? Abramowitz uses political science to analyze the electorate, Wuthnow takes a sociological perspective on the residents of the small towns that voted disproportionately for Trump, and Zito and Todd use a mixture of journalistic interviews and demographic analysis to understand Trump voters.
Of the three, Abramowitz offers the bleakest perspective. In a radical shift in political behavior, polarization is no longer limited to talking heads on cable news; more and more, tribal loyalty characterizes the American public as a whole. Racial resentment and insecurity, Abramowitz suggests, are the leading—although not the only—forces behind this change. “Racial resentment,” as Abramowitz uses the term, is not identical to old-fashioned racism. He defines it by the extent to which respondents agree or disagree with statements such as “Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.” He finds that those kinds of sentiments have increased among Republican-voting whites in the last three decades while modestly decreasing among whites who vote Democratic. Those sentiments were strongly correlated with support for Trump in both the primaries and the general election in 2016.
Wuthnow also wrestles with racism in his sociological look at small-town America. Although he finds that views of race matter, he sees other factors at work behind Trump’s high vote totals in rural areas. Some of the people Wuthnow interviewed may, he says, have racist views, but those are secondary consequences of their attachment to a local community and its traditional ways. Discrimination in the heartland is real, and Wuthnow gives voice to those who suffer from it. And the “identity politics” of rural America, he insists, is not limited to resentment against blacks. Ill will toward immigrants, in Wuthnow’s view, has played a larger role than concerns about African Americans in alienating the residents of rural communities from Washington.
Zito and Todd take a different route in their attempt to understand Trump voters. Adopting the tools that campaign operatives use to identify categories within the electorate, they interviewed Trump voters in swing counties of swing states. They focused on the handful of counties in Midwestern states that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, often by comfortable margins, but that supported Trump in 2016. From educated housewives to worried truckers, the people in these interviews challenge the idea that Trump voters were xenophobes and racists moved by resentment; those whom Zito and Todd spoke to see themselves as responding to Democratic policy failures and elite condescension.
All these books enrich the discussion of Trump’s victory, but Abramowitz’s observation that the electorate as a whole, and not merely the pundit class, is becoming more politicized may be the most important insight. On the gop side, a feeling of cultural threat—linked to racial concerns, but not determined by them—contributes to the problem. Among Democrats, resentment stems from a growing sense that the U.S. electoral system no longer reflects the popular will.