Ever since Donald J. Trump began his improbable political rise, many pundits have credited his appeal among white, Christian and male voters to “economic anxiety.” Hobbled by unemployment and locked out of the recovery, those voters turned out in force to send Mr. Trump, and a message, to Washington.
Or so that narrative goes.
A study published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences questions that explanation, the latest to suggest that Trump voters weren’t driven by anger over the past, but rather fear of what may come. White, Christian and male voters, the study suggests, turned to Mr. Trump because they felt their status was at risk.
“It’s much more of a symbolic threat that people feel,’’ said Diana C. Mutz, the author of the study and a political science and communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where she directs the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics. “It’s not a threat to their own economic well-being; it’s a threat to their group’s dominance in our country over all.”
The study is not the first to cast doubt on the prevailing economic anxiety theory. Last year, a Public Religion Research Institute survey of more than 3,000 people also found that Mr. Trump’s appeal could better be explained by a fear of cultural displacement.
In her study, Dr. Mutz sought to answer two questions: Is there evidence to support the economic anxiety argument, and did the fear of losing social dominance drive some voters to Mr. Trump? To find answers, she analyzed survey data from a nationally representative group of about 1,200 voters polled in 2012 and 2016.
In both years, participants were asked the same wide-ranging set of questions. Party loyalty overwhelmingly explained how most people voted, but Dr. Mutz’s statistical analysis focused on those who bucked the trend, switching their support to the Republican candidate, Mr. Trump, in 2016.
Leaving Behind the ‘Left Behind’ Theory
Even before conducting her analysis, Dr. Mutz noted two reasons for skepticism of the economic anxiety, or “left behind,” theory. First, the economy was improving before the 2016 presidential campaign. Second, while research has suggested that voters are swayed by the economy, there is little evidence that their own financial situation similarly influences their choices at the ballot box.
The analysis offered even more reason for doubt.
Losing a job or income between 2012 and 2016 did not make a person any more likely to support Mr. Trump, Dr. Mutz found. Neither did the mere perception that one’s financial situation had worsened. A person’s opinion on how trade affected personal finances had little bearing on political preferences. Neither did unemployment or the density of manufacturing jobs in one’s area.
“It wasn’t people in those areas that were switching, those folks were already voting Republican,” Dr. Mutz said.
For further evidence, Dr. Mutz also analyzed a separate survey, conducted in 2016 by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. It showed that anxieties about retirement, education and medical bills also had little impact on whether a person supported Mr. Trump.
Last year’s Public Religion Research Institute report went even further, finding a link, albeit a weak one, between poor white, working-class Americans and support for Hillary Clinton.
Status Under Threat: ‘Things Have Changed’
While economic anxiety did not explain Mr. Trump’s appeal, Dr. Mutz found reason instead to credit those whose thinking changed in ways that reflected a growing sense of racial or global threat.
In 2012, voters perceived little difference between themselves and the candidates on trade. But, by 2016, the voters had moved slightly right, while they perceived Mr. Trump as moving about as far right as Mrs. Clinton had moved left. As a result, the voters, in a defensive crouch, found themselves closer to Mr. Trump.
On the threat posed by China, voters hardly moved between 2012 and 2016, but while they perceived both presidential candidates as being to their left in 2012, they found Mr. Trump as having moved just to their right by 2016, again placing them closer to the Republican candidate than the Democratic one.
In both cases, the findings revealed a fear that American global dominance was in danger, a belief that benefited Mr. Trump and the Republican Party.
“The shift toward an antitrade stance was a particularly effective strategy for capitalizing on a public experiencing status threat due to race as well as globalization,” Dr. Mutz wrote in the study.
Her survey also assessed “social dominance orientation,” a common psychological measure of a person’s belief in hierarchy as necessary and inherent to a society. People who exhibited a growing belief in such group dominance were also more likely to move toward Mr. Trump, Dr. Mutz found, reflecting their hope that the status quo be protected.
“It used to be a pretty good deal to be a white, Christian male in America, but things have changed and I think they do feel threatened,” Dr. Mutz said.
The other surveys supported the cultural anxiety explanation, too.
For example, Trump support was linked to a belief that high-status groups, such as whites, Christians or men, faced more discrimination than low-status groups, like minorities, Muslims or women, according to Dr. Mutz’s analysis of the University of Chicago study.
What does it matter which kind of anxiety — cultural or economic — explains Mr. Trump’s appeal?
If wrong, the prevailing economic theory lends unfounded virtue to his victory, crediting it to the disaffected masses, Dr. Mutz argues. More important, she said, it would teach the wrong lesson to elected officials, who often look to voting patterns in enacting new policy.