What follows is the exploration of a puzzle: how can we square Donald Trump’s rhetoric about saving (white) working-class America from an international financial conspiracy with the data we have about his actual electoral base, which suggests that the vast majority of his support on Election Day came from the wealthiest half of US society?
Trump won office promising to eviscerate a “liberal” or “global” elite, a group that he and at least some of his backers continue to see themselves as fighting against. “I was elected,” Trump declared while announcing his decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, “to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”
Yet Trump likely owns, at least nominally, millions of dollars in foreign financial assets (until he releases his tax returns, we can’t be sure). If anyone is in a global financial elite, it’s him.
Over the past few decades, the top 10% of income earners in the US have appropriated from the bottom 90% an amount of wealth four times greater than the American government’s debt to foreign countries. The majority of Trump’s supporters are within this top decile.
Trump, in other words, is a rich capitalist doing battle with a specter: a battle that makes sense rhetorically, but not statistically.
So who are the residents of this mythic Pittsburgh that Trump invokes, and who are the residents of the mythic Paris they seek to annihilate?
According to the conventional wisdom, Trump surged to the White House on the strength of disgruntled, downscale whites. By swinging Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to the right, he was able to win the Electoral College (if not the popular vote). But whatever truth that narrative holds, the small group of white workers who did go for Trump did not make up the majority of his voter base.
Exit polls are imperfect. But according to the exit data we have, Trump did poorly among voters making less than $50,000 a year (roughly the poorest half of US society); Clinton won this group by roughly 11%.
Trump’s gains appear to have come mostly from the top half of income earners. In 2008, Obama and McCain each received 49% of the vote from people making more than $50,000. In 2016, Trump bested Clinton by 4% in the $50,000–100,000 income bracket, by 1% in the $100,000–200,000 bracket, by 1% in the $200,000–250,000 bracket, and by 2% among those earning more than $250,000.
These gains were significant: they constituted the vast majority of voters, at around 64%.
In America, the top 10% amounts to around 30 million people. A 2% gain among this politically influential group would be immense, especially in an election where Trump lost the popular vote by three million.
The bottom line is this: Trump consistently outperformed Clinton among the most well off, not the bottom half.
Historically, this is the typical Republican voter distribution — but it’s an odd statistical result for a candidate presumed to be the one putting working-class America first. So, to ask the question again: who are the denizens of this mythical Pittsburgh?
A Tale of Two Counties
Sitting a few hours north of Manhattan, Suffolk County is a place of isolated beaches, picturesque lighthouses, and exclusive golf clubs. With a median income of $88,663, it’s the opposite of what the New York Times would have you believe is Trump’s America. Yet Suffolk went Republican in 2016, experiencing an 11% surge in Trump votes.
Not far from Suffolk is Putnam County, which also voted Trump. In 2015, Putnam was the second wealthiest county in New York, with a median household income of $96,148. Bucking the trend in other wealthy counties — but mirroring the trajectory in Suffolk — Putnam has grown steadily more Republican since the 1990s.
Putnam and Suffolk counties are semi-rural, the home of large established estates and old money.
Compare this with Manhattan County, ground zero for exotic lifestyles and gentrification: a playground for the beneficiaries of international finance. With an inequality ratio close to many developing countries, the juxtaposition of Burberry coats and shopping cart homes is a microcosm of neoliberal phantasmagoria.
Manhattan supported Clinton 86% to Trump’s 10%.
Manhattan, unlike Putnam and Suffolk, is the redoubt of the “super-managerial” class — young, business-minded people able to exploit the opportunities unleashed during the neoliberal boom. They made their money with the financialization of the economy under Reagan, Clinton, and Bush, and have enjoyed overt governmental favoritism (most notably in the form of multi-billion-dollar bailouts).
They are the super-wealthy who denounce gender inequality over fine wines during the evening, and engage in “Starbucks environmentalism” while destabilizing the lives of millions through wild financial speculation. They are, in short, what the Right calls “liberals.”
And they are, perhaps, some of the citizens of Trump’s mythic “Paris.”
As for wealthy Trump voters, say, in the $50,000 to $200,000 range (such as might inhabit Staten Island or Putnam County), many of them would have had their financial assets wiped out in the recession. Wild financial speculation wrecked their inherited capital assets and investment portfolios. Unlike the financiers in Manhattan, those who get their money from more “old-fashioned” sources would not have received a massive bailout. And they’re acutely aware of this asymmetry.
This isn’t to say that every hedge fund manager who benefited from deregulation supported Clinton: one notable exception was Robert Mercer, “the reclusive hedge-fund tycoon behind the Trump presidency.”
But perhaps the cultural and political divide between Manhattan and Putnam and Suffolk counties provides us with a clue about the nature of the fissure, a piece of the puzzle.
The Upper-Class Divide
This divide explains the particular focus on forms of newly acquired rights during the election. The two upper-class groups embody two different, if equally detestable, normative systems.
The super-managerial elite supports a superficial cultural liberalism. Within this value system, morally bankrupt members of the Silicon Valley elite, such as Tim Cook, can denounce Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement while using what is essentially slave labor to produce their products without apparent contradiction. Within the normative matrix of neoliberalism — within which both Silicon Valley and Manhattan are embedded — symbolic gestures toward diversity trump any discussion of economic entitlements. This, of course, fits snugly with the political agenda of the Democratic Party: the party for whom the four wealthiest counties in America voted.
For their part, wealthy Trump supporters appear suspicious of the value system that emerged alongside neoliberalization, favoring instead an intransigent conservatism and a less financialized capitalism. These wealthy Trump supporters, who formed the base of his support, are citizens neither of Paris nor Pittsburgh. They live in counties like Putnam and Suffolk: they’re white Americans upset that other Americans are no longer working for them, Americans whose wealth, status, and power have ostensibly been attacked and eroded over the past few decades. And they want it back — with the help of Donald Trump.
Or at least that’s my best guess.
What’s clear is that there’s currently a fissure in the upper class. Its exact nature, and its exact participants, are a puzzle that still needs to be solved. “To have its sins forgiven,” Marx wrote in an 1843 letter, “humankind has only to declare them to be what they really are.” The sins that gave rise to Trump, and who committed them, have yet to be fully declared.