Four Theories for Rise of Nativism and Trump

Those who want to deradicalize the Republican Party and defeat Trump need to figure out which played the bigger role.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a speech in Phoenix, Arizona, October 29, 2016
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a speech in Phoenix, Arizona, October 29, 2016 (Gage Skidmore)

Noah Smith summarizes the four theories for the rise of nativism and Donald Trump:

  1. The white despair theory: Declining economic prospects and social dysfunction (opiates, family breakdown) in exurbs and small towns caused white people to scapegoat immigrants for their problems. Evidence in favor: County-level correlation between opioid use and Trump vote and between Chinese import competition and Trump vote. Evidence against: Nativism didn’t take over the Republican Party during 2001-12, when these problems were more acute, and there was little voter-level correlation of economic anxiety with support for Trump.
  2. The diffusion theory: In the 1990s, most immigrants lived on the coasts and in the Southwest. Now Asians and Hispanics have diffused to other areas, creating the perception of an invasion. Evidence: White voter shift from Mitt Romney to Trump in areas where the Latino population grew rapidly.
  3. The Obama theory: The election of America’s first black president, with record support from Asians and Hispanics, created fear of ethnic-bloc voting. Evidence: Voter-level correlation between negative attitudes toward black people and support for Trump.
  4. The cultural change theory: Secularization, marriage equality and the prospect of a woman president caused fear that American culture was changing too fast — and that nonwhite immigrants were abetting this by voting for the Democrats. Evidence: This is what Trump voters actually say.

Of course, these four theories aren’t mutually exclusive, but those who want to deradicalize the Republican Party and defeat Trump need to figure out which played the bigger role.

What do do?

Smith proposes a combination of:

  • Improving the material situation of rural and exurban whites;
  • Waiting for xenophobia to subside; and
  • Illustrating how bad Trump’s policies are and what a horrible person he is.

As for anti-black racism and cultural change — America has been fighting the first for decades and the second is almost impossible to reverse. Trump voters are going to have to get used to the fact that the country is changing.