There’s no writing off Donald Trump in polarised white America

Niall Ferguson says the Republican presidential nominee has emerged as a champion of the disgruntled lower classes, who – though poorer and less educated than the nation’s elite – are legion

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 August, 2016, 3:55pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 September, 2016, 3:08pm

In his brilliant and prophetic 2011 book, Coming Apart, my friend Charles Murray identified the stark social division that is defining this year’s US presidential election. Murray’s book was unabashedly about “the state of white America”. The white population of the US, he argued, is more polarised than at any time in the past half century. On the one hand, there is a “cognitive elite”, who are educated at universities like Harvard and Yale, marry each other, work together and live in the same exclusive neighbourhoods. These people are politically more liberal than the national average, as well as much richer.

On the other side of this social chasm is a new lower class: white Americans with nothing more than a high school diploma, if that. In a masterstroke of exposition, Murray vividly localised his argument by imagining two emblematic communities: Belmont, where everyone has at least one university degree, and Fishtown, where no one has any.

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Murray’s key point in Coming Apart was that four great social trends of the post-1960 period had hit Fishtown much harder than Belmont. The cognitive elite likes weddings. By contrast, a much larger proportion of adults in Fishtown either get divorced or never marry. In Belmont, everyone is a workaholic. But an amazing number of Fishtown white males cannot work because of illness or disability, or are unemployed. Belmont is pretty safe, whereas crime is chronic in Fishtown. Finally, religiosity has declined much more steeply in Fishtown.

As a consequence, the traditional bonds of civil society have atrophied in lower-class white America. There is less trust, less of what sociologist Robert Putnam calls “social capital”. And that, Murray concluded, is why the inhabitants of Fishtown are, by their own admission, so unhappy.

Fast forward five years. Murray’s disgruntled white lower class has now found its “voice” in Donald Trump. The declining, dangerous country that Trump described in his speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland was Fishtown writ large. Indeed, you could simply change the names. For Fishtown read Cleveland; for Belmont read Philadelphia, where the Democrats held their convention last week.

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Viewed from Belmont, everything is awesome. But that’s not how it looks in Fishtown. Since 2005, according to a new report by McKinsey, more than four-fifths of the population have had flat or falling incomes. The white lower class is in the grip of an epidemic of ill health and premature death.

The prevailing mood among Hillary Clinton loyalists is one of confidence that they will win. And yet, for a year, commentators have made the mistake of thinking that things they find outrageous are also outrageous to a majority of voters. But top journalists live in Belmont. They just don’t get what Fishtown folk find outrageous.

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There are three reasons why Belmont is underestimating Fishtown’s chances of winning this election. The first is that a “change” election is likely to produce, well, change. If two-thirds of Americans believe that the country is “on the wrong track”, why would they vote for the candidate so resoundingly endorsed by Barack Obama?

The second is the extent to which Trump will succeed in mobilising white voters. There were 129 million votes cast in the 2012 election, of which 93 million were cast by white voters. Mitt Romney won 59 per cent of those votes to Obama’s 39 per cent, but still lost. However, if Romney had won a shade over 62 per cent of the white vote, he would have won the popular vote. To have won Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Iowa – and hence the presidency – he would have needed to do better than that, but not much better. Can Trump succeed where Romney failed? Yes. Right now, he leads among white registered voters without a degree by 58 per cent to 30 per cent, compared with Romney’s lead in pre-election polls of 55 to 37. Indeed, a CNN poll gave Trump a 66-29 advantage with this group.

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Of course, a lot of college-educated white Americans are repelled by The Donald. But that brings us to factor No 3: the generation gap. The Obama years have seen that gap widen. More than 66 per cent of voters aged 18-29 backed Obama in 2008. Only 42 per cent of those aged 65 and above voted for him in 2012. To be sure of winning in November, Clinton needs to replicate Obama’s appeal to the young. Can she? My hunch is that many young voters will fail to show up for Clinton. Meanwhile, the white lower class, especially the older cohorts, will turn out for Trump in droves.

With a bevy of Trump-hating Republican billionaires endorsing Clinton, her campaign has all the money it could wish for. But Fishtown has one big advantage over Belmont: numbers. Maybe, just maybe, the Obama “rainbow coalition” will come together again for the first female presidential candidate. But there’s an almost equally strong probability that it’s the turn of Belmont itself – the elite America that Clinton personifies – to come apart.

Niall Ferguson is Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford