THR Blog   /   December 9, 2016

Will Trump Cure the Great (White) Depression?

Jay Tolson

Donald Trump speaking in Des Moines, Iowa. Max Golberg/Iowa State Daily via Flickr.

In a recent offering, "Trump Voters Are Feeling It," New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall comments sagely on a raft of social science research on the white working- and middle-class voters who embraced Donald J. Trump as the leader who would cure America's deep malaise—or a least their own. For the moment, according to Edsall, these former sufferers of what might be called the Great White Depression (documented by scholars like Princeton's Nobel economist Angus Deaton, with depressing data about high rates of depression, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse) are feeling "elated":

In a survey conducted by Pew after the election, 96 percent of those who cast votes for Trump said they were hopeful; 74 percent said they were “proud.” They were almost unanimous in their expectation that Trump will have a successful first term.

This is in itself may hardly seem surprising, and of course it is possible that these enthusiasts will feel let down if the greatness Trump promises does not improve their lives. Nevertheless, Edsall notes, evidence suggests that "just by giving voice to those in the white working class who are distrustful, alienated, and isolated from contemporary culture, Trump will provide temporary relief from the stress that these voters experience." And if past is prologue, this relief alone may have surprisingly positive effects on their mental and physical health, and indeed on their overall morale. A study based on a survey that oversampled Hispanics and blacks after Obama's election in 2008 found that "among African Americans, the likelihood of reporting excellent health nearly doubled, from 7 to 13 percent, and for Hispanics it nearly quadrupled, from 6 to 22 percent, although the Hispanic sample was small and less reliable." Brookings Institution fellow Carol Graham, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, has studied the demoralization and depression rampant in many white working-class enclaves and finds that whites report feeling even more stress and than working-class blacks. Graham is not alone, Edsall reports:

Research by Shervin Assari, an investigator in the department of psychiatry at the University of Michigan and co-author of the paper “Depressive Symptoms Are Associated with More Hopelessness among White than Black Older Adults,” supports Graham’s thesis. Whites whom he studied, Assari reported, were less resilient, had higher suicide rates and reported higher levels of pain in their daily lives than blacks did.

So has it been only job insecurity and a sense of declining economic opportunity that has been driving the Great White Depression? Most likely not. A loss of status, and even a lost sense of social dominance, have been shown by psychiatric epidemiologists to be a key cause of stress and depression. The pervasive feeling of involuntary subordination has clearly led many working-class whites to feel that the political and economic system is stacked against them (and even tilted in favor of minorities and certain identity groups). Edsall cites a recent study by this journal's sponsoring institute:

A study that was conducted by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and released in August, “The Vanishing Center of American Democracy,” provides the strongest evidence of the presence of feelings of involuntary subordination among Trump supporters.

The study found that when Trump supporters were asked if they agreed with the statement “These days I feel like a stranger in my own country,” 46.2 percent said yes, compared to 30.9 percent of Clinton backers. 68.32 percent agreed that “The leaders in American corporations, media, universities, and technology care little about the lives of most Americans,” compared to 53 percent of Clinton voters.

Most significant, 75.7 percent of Trump voters agreed with the statement “the government in Washington threatens the freedom of ordinary Americans” —almost double the 39.5 percent of Clinton voters who agreed.

If there is a weakness in much of the social scientific analysis of the Great White Depression, it is a certain tendency to accentuate the economic over other factors—notably the erosion of sustaining institutions in many white working-class communities, from families to churches to a host of clubs and other associations that once provided direction and meaning for people. And it may also be worth considering that not just any work confers well-being, accomplishment, and pride. Meaningful work, and even the meaning of work, matter—and matter, as Trump might say, hugely.

Jay Tolson is editor of The Hedgehog Review.