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Data about the Capitol rioters serves another blow to the White, working-class Trump-supporter narrative

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/12/2021 Eugene Scott
a group of people walking in front of a crowd: Protesters loyal to President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, hoping to overturn the 2020 election results. (John Minchillo/AP) © John Minchillo/AP Protesters loyal to President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, hoping to overturn the 2020 election results. (John Minchillo/AP)

After a Donald Trump campaign event in Mobile, Ala., in 2015 attracted about 20,000 attendees, a narrative emerged that his popularity centered on White working-class voters in small towns in red states. Books such as “Hillbilly Elegy” rose to the top of bestseller lists as a way to help more Americans understand this group of voters that got behind the wealthy reality star from Manhattan. And cable news networks regularly featured panels of journalists asking these voters why they continued to back such a widely unpopular leader.

But new data supports something that some critics of the former president were confident of from the earliest days of Trump’s presidential campaign: The Ivy League graduate from New York City got to the White House with the support of more college-educated professionals than is often acknowledged.

Robert A. Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, worked with court records to analyze the demographics and home county characteristics of the 377 Americans arrested or charged in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol in Washington aimed at overturning the 2020 election.

“What we know 90 days later is that the insurrection was the result of a large, diffuse and new kind of protest movement congealing in the United States,” the political science professor wrote in The Washington Post. “Those involved are, by and large, older and more professional than right-wing protesters we have surveyed in the past. They typically have no ties to existing right-wing groups. But like earlier protesters, they are 95 percent White and 85 percent male, and many live near and among Biden supporters in blue and purple counties.”

While Trump often spoke about jobs and factories being shipped overseas to manufacture American products — it wasn’t solely economic anxiety that drew many of his supporters to the wealthy real estate developer who allegedly avoided paying taxes that could benefit low-income Americans. It was cultural anxiety — regardless of their economic status — that was a consistent factor in support for Trump. While concerns about changing views on faith, gender and sexuality were often expressed by many of the former president’s most die-hard supporters, fear about America becoming less White — and less “great” — was at the root of at least some of the loyalty to him.

A widely reported 2017 survey from the Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute provided some insight into the views of White working-class voters who backed Trump.

  • Nearly half (48 percent) of White working-class Americans said: “Things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country.”
  • Nearly 70 percent (68 percent) of White working-class Americans believe the United States is in danger of losing its culture and identity.
  • More than 60 percent (62 percent) of White working-class Americans believe the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens American culture.

The narrative that the former president was primarily popular with White low-income voters who were anxious about their economic position in an increasingly globalized economy was true but always incomplete, as the final chapter of his presidency shows. The most recent attempt by Trump supporters to keep the president in office largely included White culturally anxious professionals from urban areas, according to the study.

This pattern isn’t unfamiliar in history. During the civil rights movement, the White Citizens Council, the Ku Klux Klan and other self-identified white supremacist groups often consisted of people who were members of the professional classes of their respective communities.

Pape told The Fix that 20 researchers systematically and thoroughly scrubbed media sources to discover the occupation data of those arrested. What they discovered is that they were mainly middle-class to upper-middle-class Whites who were fearful that as culture continued to change, so would their status in society.

Trump’s election was also viewed as a response to the election of Barack Obama, America’s first Black president. The idea that the most powerful country in the world could be led by a Black man threatened some White Americans’ understanding of American exceptionalism and the superiority of White people.

Trump’s election following a campaign where he promised to return the country to a previous, idealized time, when the influence and power of White people as a whole was more prevalent than it had been in recent years, was attractive to plenty of middle-income and affluent White people in addition to working-class White people. His inability to win the support of a majority of Americans during his reelection bid, combined with his loss being caused by high turnout of people of color — led by Black voters — moved some to rage on the Capitol. They didn’t necessarily come to the nation’s capital from the center of the country.

Pape wrote about where they came from.

When compared with almost 2,900 other counties in the United States, our analysis of the 250 counties where those charged or arrested live reveals that the counties that had the greatest decline in White population had an 18 percent chance of sending an insurrectionist to D.C., while the counties that saw the least decline in the White population had only a 3 percent chance. This finding holds even when controlling for population size, distance to D.C., unemployment rate and urban/rural location. It also would occur by chance less than once in 1,000 times.
Put another way, the people alleged by authorities to have taken the law into their hands on Jan. 6 typically hail from places where non-White populations are growing fastest.

Knowing who backed Trump — and continues to support Republican leaders like him — is key to understanding the direction of the GOP as many of those supporters grapple with both the changing makeup of the United States and the systemic racism that has significantly shaped its past.

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