What Republican party elites don’t understand about Trump voters
Before Donald Trump entered politics, the GOP was the party of Reagan — free trade, free markets, corporate primacy, projecting American military might around the world.
“Trump basically took an axe to all of that to the sort of standing neoliberal order,” Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor at Newsweek, says.
Taking an axe to the neoliberal order earned Trump the unquestioning support of many white, working-class voters.
Voters who in the past may have cast ballots for Democrats, or for no one at all. They represent an often-ignored quadrant of the American electorate.
“Nobody’s speaking to this huge quarter of the country who are economically liberal but they’re socially conservative,” Ungar-Sargon says.
Today, On Point: What Republican party elites don’t understand about Trump’s most passionate voters.
Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor at Newsweek. Author of “Bad News: How Woke Media is Undermining Democracy” and the forthcoming “Second Class: How the Elites Betrayed America’s Working Men and Women.”
Sarah Longwell, publisher of The Bulwark. Host of the podcast The Focus Group. Founder of the Republican Accountability Project.
Heather Cox Richardson, historian and author of the newsletter “Letters from an American.” Author of “Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America.”
STEVE KORNACKI: So first of all, we’ve talked about this a lot, the gap between those with college degrees, those without college degrees, it’s a big part of the gap between Democrats and Republicans these days in general elections, but it exists within the Republican Party, and take a look at the gap that’s developing tonight here in Iowa.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: So that’s Steve Kornacki, MSNBC, and he was on last week on the night of the Iowa Caucus. Kornacki pulls up a chart of caucus entry polls.
KORNACKI: These are Republican caucus goers with college degrees. Look how they are breaking Donald Trump barely in this exit poll, leading Nikki Haley just a two-point gap between them.
CHAKRABARTI: And then Kornacki pulls up another chart. This one of people without college degrees.
KORNACKI: Check this out. Donald Trump, 65%. Two thirds of the no college votes so far. And again, we are still getting incoming entrance poll data, so there can be some flux in these numbers. But the gap is obvious. The gap is clear. The gap is stark.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay Kornacki isn’t the only one to have noticed that. Today, we’re going to be speaking with Batya Ungar-Sargon. She says that gap is indicative not just of educational differences, but about a fundamental truth that she says Republican Party elites still don’t understand about their own voters.
Ungar-Sargon is opinion editor at Newsweek. She’s also the author of multiple books, including the forthcoming “Second Class: How the Elites Betrayed America’s Working Men and Women.” Batya, welcome to On Point.
BATYA UNGAR-SARGON: Wow, Meghna, thank you so much for having me. So excited to be here with you.
CHAKRABARTI: I am really sorry.
I’ve see the staff here on our end of the radio scrambling really hard to get that technical problem fixed, which obviously everyone hears, is that echo. But Batya I’m grateful that you’re going to bear with me while we work that out. Okay. First and foremost, I should say that your essay about what Republican Party elites you say don’t understand appeared in the Free Press.
But what is it that they don’t understand, Batya?
UNGAR-SARGON: Great question. As you opened with, one of the most salient features of America today is not its political divide, even though that is how we tend to hear it spoken about most often. The most salient feature of American life is actually the class divide, Meghna, that separates out the college educated from the working class.
And increasingly this divide maps onto the political divide to where the Democrats who used to represent the working class are now much more representing the college educated, as well as the dependent poor. Whereas 74% of people living in Republican led districts are working class and make less than the median wage.
And so the Republican base is now really the working class, a lot of whom used to be Democrats and increasingly the multiracial working class. And so you have this growing percentage of the GOP electorate who are Hispanic and even Black. You saw President Donald Trump get a historic 20% of Black male voters in the last election.
Now, the thing is Meghna, that this divide, this class divide exists within the GOP as well. And so you have the GOP elites who really are still holding on to the old identity of the GOP as the party of the rich, the party of corporations, the party of free trade and open borders, really. When we think about who was the most pro immigrant president in recent years, it was actually Reagan, before President Biden showed up.
This idea that we should let the markets do their thing, and that will raise all boats, the chamber of commerce version of the GOP. And the truth is, Meghna, that Republican voters absolutely can’t stand that. They hate the Republican Party because they are working class and working-class people are actually much more united, whether they’re liberal or conservative.
What they want is an economy that works for the little guy, that works for the hardworking American. And that is really who Trump’s voter. Is it the working-class man or woman who believes that there used to be a time in American history where the government really focused on prioritizing Americans.
A lot of these people were Democrats. Now they feel that the system is rigged against them, that these free markets and these open borders just do not work for working class Americans, and they want to get back to an economy that delivers for the little guy, who’s out there working his butt off and cannot achieve the American dream anymore.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So there’s a ton of things within your thesis there that, Batya, that I want to dig into. But first of all, let’s look at what lessons were drawn from not just Iowa, but as we look ahead to the New Hampshire primary tomorrow, because of course, Ron DeSantis just dropped out of the race this weekend, which leaves it a Trump, Haley, Nikki Haley race.
Trump has a commanding lead in the latest polls in New Hampshire. But you talk about Nikki Haley, as I’ll let you say it, that she’s almost like the ideal version of this classical Republican candidate, almost as if she were made in a lab.
UNGAR-SARGON: Exactly, right? So she’s the person who the Republican donor class loves, because she has all of their views.
She believes in getting involved in foreign wars. She believes in free markets. She believes in all of the things that used to characterize the Republican Party before Trump came along. And so they absolutely adore her. But again, there’s this deep divide between the Republican donor class and the Republican voter base.
And let me just point out one more thing. I think that your audience maybe perhaps tends to think of Donald Trump as somewhat of an extremist, but the truth is that to his supporters, they like him because to them, Donald Trump is a liberal. They see him as a liberal. And what I mean by that is both economically and socially on the economic front, they see him as somebody who stands up for the working guy, for the little guy.
And we can go into more in detail on how he actually delivered on that in his first term, and they see him socially as a liberal. And what I mean by that is I have spoken to so many Trump voters, including very religious Christians who said to me, I like that he’s pro-gay. I like that he wants Black voters to vote for him.
I like that he’s not an extremist on abortion. I hear this from conservatives. They like what they see as his tolerant positions. And I think where Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis both fell short was neither of them had that economic platform of big government intervening to ensure the economy works for the working class.
But also, both of them were a little bit too extreme on the social issues. The truth is that these divides that used characterize American public life, they really don’t exist anymore. The real divide is between the working class that is quite united in its views on policy, both socially and economically, and then the elites on either side who are extremely polarized.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. This class divide might show that working class voters are united. As you say, on their disaffection with what American capitalism, especially the Reaganite form of it, has wrought upon their lives over the last 40, maybe even longer years. But there are some quite significant rifts, though. Even, I wouldn’t actually call it a working-class coalition, because what you’re speaking of primarily, Batya, is white working-class voters.
Is that right?
UNGAR-SARGON: Actually, no. So it’s very interesting because when you pull Black working-class people on something like immigration, their views are actually slightly even more extreme than the average white voter. They feel extremely sold out by the policies that have allowed millions and millions of people to come in here, both legally and illegally.
And in fact, the data shows that up to a 40% wage depression in Black employment over the last 40 years due to our immigration policy. So if you talk to Black Americans, they truly do feel that the Democrats swing to the far left on immigration has come at their expense, and there is increasing frustration over that.
We also see that with Hispanics, Hispanics now are completely divided between Republicans and Democrats. And, amazingly on immigration as well, they feel much more similarly to working class whites than they do to the elites of either party.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, you actually on that point, you are absolutely correct. Because I’ve been looking at various analyses and polls basically since 2016 until recent times.
And one of the most thorough ones that I encountered was from Pew. They did a big one in 2017, which I’ll come back to in a second, but also one in 2021. And you are totally correct in terms of the position that many black American, working-class Black Americans have about being a little more dubious about immigration.
And perhaps also feeling especially aggrieved about how the economic system has treated them. But the divide that I was focusing on was that amongst this socially conservative, economically liberal quadrant, which we’ll talk about more. White folks in that quadrant are hostile to the position that more must be done to advance Black Americans on civil rights.
They simply do not see racism as a problem. Whereas Black working class, economically illiberal, socially conservative voters, who might seem to form a even larger coalition for Trump. This is the divide. They say no. More must be done to advance opportunities for African Americans, racism is a problem. So that’s the divide that I want to really go at right now, with you, that it’s not the uniform love for Trump or his policies, for as long as race is a major issue in America.
UNGAR-SARGON: Yeah. I saw a recent poll from Gallup about affirmative action, which was struck down in college admissions by SCOTUS recently, right?
And I was surprised to see that the majority of Black Americans, over, I believe the number was between 51% and 54% are happy to see that there is no longer affirmative action in college admissions, that they oppose race-based admissions. And I knew that the majority of, because we had that polling from before, that the majority of Black Americans don’t support affirmative action.
But what was most amazing about this Gallup poll, Meghna, was that the largest chunk of Black Americans who opposed affirmative action in admissions in college was the younger cohort. Usually, it’s the opposite. So you know what? I have looked very closely at all of this data, because I think it’s extremely important.
And I think it’s very important that you bring it up. When you look at the data purporting to show that white working-class people, white Trump voters have racial animus. If you look at the questions that they are asked, the questions are all about immigration, because the people posing those questions see immigration through a racial lens.
But of course, to the working-class person who’s competing with illegal immigrants for work, immigration is an economic question, purely and simply.
CHAKRABARTI: Now Batya, I just want to refocus on the core of your thesis here. Help me understand what evidence shows that the Republican donor class still doesn’t quite get what drives Trump voters. Because what I also see is that at the end of the day no matter who gets nominated, the Republican donor class will rally around that person. Does their misunderstanding of working-class voters really matter?
UNGAR-SARGON: It doesn’t matter because our democracy is so robust and thriving that it turns out that the donor class can put all of its weight behind a candidate and the people can still have their say.
Isn’t that wonderful, Meghna? Isn’t that so — doesn’t that make you feel so good about America? It makes me feel so good about America. (LAUGHS)
CHAKRABARTI: But tell me more though. Look, I’m very proud to be an American.
CHAKRABARTI: I’m pretty gung ho on this country, ultimately again, if it doesn’t matter, if, as you’re saying, the Republican donor class can back whomever they want in primary and caucus season, but votes are what count at the end of the day, then why are you highlighting this point, is there a message that you’re trying to get to those sort of classical GOP leaders, or what? Help me understand that.
UNGAR-SARGON: You mean why did I write the article?
UNGAR-SARGON: Yeah. I think it’s because I point out the class divide between the two sides so frequently, I think that the progressive elites truly don’t, they want to be on the side of the little guy, but they truly don’t understand how to do that.
And I highlight that so much that I wanted to be fair and say, listen, this problem exists on the other side too. Nobody hates Trump as much as the Republican elites who really want to back to like free markets, they really don’t like him. Trump came out a few months ago and said he’s going to impose a 10% tariff on every single import into the United States.
Now that is the kind of thing that if you are an elite and a consumer of low wage labor and cheap products from China, right? You’re getting 12 Amazon packages every day. You hate that idea, but if you’re a working-class person who works in manufacturing or who has been displaced by globalization, by NAFTA and you hear, that is music to your ears.
That is a person saying to you, you matter. You exist. I’m going to make. Your life better. I’m going to make this economy work for you. And I think that’s really important. And I’m gonna be totally honest. Maybe I wrote the piece because I want the left to recognize this class divide and recognize that so much of what they care about, they can achieve.
But only through listening to the working class, not by alienating the working class and lecturing them. And seeing them and sneering at them and holding it against them that they vote for Trump, because their vote for Trump is a vote for their children’s future. And Meghna, we all want the same thing, right?
Everybody wants their child to have a better life than they did. Everybody wants the American dream and that stability that comes from a middle-class life. And unfortunately, the elites in both parties have truly made that an impossibility for most working-class people of all races.
CHAKRABARTI: And I’d say the behind-the-scenes sneering is also coming from the elites of both parties, but perhaps it’s the Republican Party that got its early, earlier wakeup call because of the rapid rise of Donald Trump. So Batya, hang on here for just a second because I really want to bring Sarah Longwell into the conversation.
She’s the publisher of The Bulwark and host of the podcast The Focus Group and founder of Republic of the Republican Accountability Project. Sarah, welcome back to On Point. So first of all just give us a quick reminder of the series of focus groups that you’ve been doing of Trump voters over the past many years.
What were you hoping to understand from the focus groups?
SARAH LONGWELL: When I began the focus groups, I started because I didn’t understand what was going on with my party, when they elected Trump. And frankly, what I found, I do a focus group every week. I talk to a lot of two time Trump voters now. I talk to a lot of swing voters, but I talk to folks across the political spectrum on the left as well.
Young voters, old voters, voters of different races and economics and education levels. And I think now, a lot of, I certainly see this education divide. That was actually one of my earliest things that sort of jumped off the page, listening to voters, that the way college educated voters thought about Trump was different from the way working class voters thought about Trump.
And that you could see happening in real time. Cause we do the focus groups every week and have now for years, you could see in real time, the political realignment that was taking place as these college educated, more suburban voters, a lot of times in the suburban areas outside of major metropolitan areas like Bucks County in Pennsylvania or Maricopa County in Arizona, how they were becoming more blue and voting for more Democrats than they traditionally had. Because they were not interested in a Republican party that Trump reflected.
But on the flip side, we saw working class areas, rural areas, just deepening their redness, lots of these places that voted for Obama in 2012 and in 2008, and did not Mitt Romney, those voters are now firmly Trump voters, and some of it is economic. A lot of it is cultural.
And I will say though, a lot of what Batya says resonates with me. I do think it’s true. I think the hatred of the political elites is just such a common theme and, you asked her the question, where’s the evidence that these Republicans don’t understand the voters? And I think one of the biggest pieces of evidence is the fact that Mike Pence and Chris Christie and Nikki Haley, that they ran for president at all.
Because not just because it’s Trump’s party, but because they reflect a version of the pre-Trump GOP that just is no longer operational for voters. Voters don’t want limited government, free markets, and American leadership in the world, GOP voters. And the college educated voters who wanted a lot of those things and voted for Mitt Romney and voted for George W. Bush, those voters, many of them, there’s been a split where some of them have learned to make their peace with Donald Trump or just waiting for him to go away. But a lot of them have become Democrats or right leaning independents that will vote for Democrats when the Republican candidate is too extreme.
And we saw real evidence of that in 2022 when a whole bunch of mini-Trumps ran in places like Arizona and Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin. And they lost, just like Trump lost in 2020. And I think part of what’s important to remember is that while Trump has touched on something very deep, an anger that’s very deep. He’s also alienated through a lot of fundamentally un-American behavior the majority of people in the country.
So while this political realignment is going on and he is pulling both new people into the Republican party, many of them irregular voters or people who hadn’t been paying much attention to politics prior to his arrival, he’s also alienating huge swaths of voters. And as a result, the Republican party has been shrinking as it becomes more extreme. But Batya’s point about Trump being perceived as a cultural and economic moderate, that is really true.
Especially from a lot of these working-class voters, they think he’s more moderate on abortion. They like the fact that he doesn’t want to get right of entitlements. He shows no interest in the debt. He talks about the wall, but doesn’t build it. This is one of the fundamental problems though with Trump, is what he says versus what he does. He gave a massive tax cut to wealthy voter, or sorry wealthier Americans, and these voters don’t hold it against him. Because he’s saying a lot of the right things that they want to hear.
CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm. Excuse me. But so I’m going to come back to the tax cut as a point of analysis here. But just so that everyone knows, Batya, in your essay in the Free Press, Sarah is reflecting exactly what you wrote, right? You wrote, the average Republican voters working class and truly loathes the Bush era version of the Republican Party, which meant tax cuts for the rich, failed wars and an economic agenda that outsourced jobs to China. So Batya, do you think that this means, let’s just hypothesize here, I’m not sure if it’s utility, but I’m going to ask anyway that It’s really Trump and Trumpism that’s the attraction here. And if say he went off to start his own party, that all of his voters would go with him. There’s just no fealty left to what the ideals were of the pre–Trump Republican party.
UNGAR-SARGON: Oh, it’s such a great question. I’m not going to prognosticate because every time I do, I’m wrong.
UNGAR-SARGON: And there’s only so many times you can be humiliated in that specific way.
But I will say that sort of quadrant of the American populace, the quarter of Americans who are populists, right? Who believe in big government creating an economy that works for the working class. Not welfare. That’s not what they’re into, but they’re into Americans being able to achieve the American dream through hard work and achieve dignity in their work, that they see neither party really reflecting that kind of economic agenda, coupled with a sort of moderation on social issues.
There is no party that represents that 25% of the American population, whereas there is an entire party that represents the 3% of Americans who are socially liberal and economically conservative, which is what the Republican Party really is right now. So is there room for another party?
I don’t know. We’re, you know, committed to this kind of duopoly, but that duopoly of power is so hated by the working class who represent most Americans. So I think that there is a lot of, there are a lot of options here.
CHAKRABARTI: So I just want to explain, because all of us keep mentioning the quadrants. And so for folks who aren’t familiar with it, at least as far as I know, political scientist Lee Drutman was one of the first.
He may not have been the first, but he’s the first that I encountered in terms of describing these quadrants of American politics. And he released a study that came out in June of 2017. And basically, he created, there’s this quadrant, right? Which this map. X axis is measuring people on their scale of economic conservatism to economic liberalism.
And then of course, the social scale, excuse me, is on the Y axis. And so there are quadrants of voters, that you can organize that way. The people who are, Batya as you said, economically conservative and socially conservative, economically liberal, socially liberal and the opposites.
And it seemed as if a huge number of Donald Trump’s voters came from that socially conservative, economically liberal quadrant. Okay. So with that idea in mind, since definitions are very important here, Sarah, can I just hear from you quickly how you would define who is in that quadrant and what socially conservative and economically liberal, how you would define that as a political stance?
LONGWELL: Yeah. I would describe it as these are people who vote Republican, and they tend to be evangelical Christians and more rural voters who are perfectly happy with big government entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid. Are interested in the government potentially doing more for them, especially around health care.
And I think that oftentimes can be attracted to the Democratic party when it is talking about economic issues, like bringing new jobs, being more, the democratic party has historically been more anti free trade and that was why the Democratic Party used to appeal more to working class voters, but where the Democratic Party has started to alienate more of these voters is around cultural issues.
And on those cultural issues, the Republican party has seen a real opportunity and the Republican party, when I was coming up in it, it was historically very anti-union, and much more favorable to the corporate side of things. And that has been really changing. I was really surprised when I saw Marco Rubio.
I knew that the corner had been turned when I saw Marco Rubio sort of side against Amazon, with the workers who were trying to organize. And I think that the Republican party has seen an opportunity to paint the Democratic party as captured by Wall Street. And to say that they are for working class folks now.
I see much less evidence, though, that they truly are acting that way, as opposed to their rhetoric having shifted when it comes to the economics of it. But on the cultural issues, that’s why they have leaned into a lot of the sort of anti-trans messaging, the woke books. And they are tapping into something very real and fundamental where people who are more culturally conservative do not like the kind of new-fangled academic, like straight from the academy kind of DEI world.
And they’re very hostile to a lot of those changes and see it as culturally alienating. And I think that has driven them into the arms of Donald Trump and this new version of the Republican party, which has basically won them over on cultural stuff and then has tried to be more hospitable to them on economic. things.
CHAKRABARTI: Batya, you wrote a whole book about that, right? (LAUGHS) “Bad News: How Woke Media is Undermining the Democracy.” But Sarah, let me turn back to you for a second here because the difference between saying and doing and how this is playing out with those socially conservative, economically liberal voters.
You had mentioned economy issues. And for example, from that 2017 tax cut, which was at the time a major, like a signature policy from the Republican party and Donald Trump. There’s been many studies subsequently from them. There was one, for example, I believe in 2021 from the IRS itself, who said that based on tax returns they’re seeing, the group of Americans who benefited the most from the Trump tax cuts were in the 98th percentile and above, of earning households in this country. So it means they had an adjusted gross income of more than $350,000 and above. So and yet that doesn’t seem to be registering amongst Trump’s working class voters who, I don’t know, have they told you that they’re feeling, they felt an economic benefit from from his presidency?
LONGWELL: Oh they just think that the economy was so much better under Trump. You do hear this constantly, from people who voted for Trump. They forget that last year, where the mismanagement around COVID cratered the economy, and they think entirely about the first three years where Trump was running the economy, incredibly hot.
He was adding to the debt and giving out this large tax cut. And look, I’m an old school conservative in that way. I think I like limited government and free markets. I like lower taxes. Generally, I’m for those things, but I think for me, it is a question of when the reality doesn’t match the rhetoric.
And Trump didn’t build the wall. He talked about the wall a lot. Didn’t talk about tax cuts a lot. But he gave a tax cut and there is no wall. And in terms of immigration, we still, there were always caravans right around elections crossing the border. And so it was more the way that Trump expressed the policies that appealed to people, and they don’t seem to be holding him particularly accountable for the results or lack thereof.
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