Is it that the Republican Party is cleverly and successfully hoodwinking its supporters, promising them populism and enacting plutocratic capitalism instead? This view has been a staple of liberal analysis for years, most prominently in Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Frank argued that Republicans have been able to work this magic trick by dangling social issues in front of working-class voters, who fall for the bait and lose sight of the fact that they are voting against their own interests. Both Wolf and Pierson believe that this trickery will prove dangerous for Republicans. “The plutocrats are riding on a hungry tiger,” writes Wolf.
But what if people are not being fooled at all? What if people are actually motivated far more deeply by issues surrounding religion, race and culture than they are by economics? There is increasing evidence that Trump’s base supports him because they feel a deep emotional, cultural and class affinity for him. And while the tax bill is analyzed by economists, Trump picks fights with black athletes, retweets misleading anti-Muslim videos and promises not to yield on immigration. Perhaps he knows his base better than we do. In fact, Trump’s populism might not be as unique as it’s made out to be. Polling from Europe suggests that the core issues motivating people to support Brexit or the far-right parties in France and Germany, and even the populist parties of Eastern Europe, are cultural and social.
The most important revolution in economics in the past generation has been the rise of the behavioral scientists, trained in psychology, who are finding that people systematically make decisions that are against their own “interests.” This might be the tip of the iceberg in understanding human motivation. The real story might be that people see their own interests in much more emotional and tribal ways than scholars understand. What if, in the eyes of a large group of Americans, these other issues are the ones for which they will stand up, protest, support politicians and even pay an economic price? What if, for many people, in America and around the world, these are their true interests?