Golfing with Trump: who does it and what does it mean for rising populism?

In Episode 14 of Series 3 of our podcast, we talk with Professor Andrés Rodríguez-Pose from the London School of Economics about his research looking at who propelled Donald Trump to power and what the future holds for populist politicians, politics and policies?



Christine Garrington  0:01 

Welcome to DIAL a podcast where we tune in to evidence on inequality over the lifecourse. In this episode, we’re discussing the rise of populism in the US with Andres Rodriguez-Pose at the London School of Economics. He has been asking the intriguing question of who exactly propelled Donald Trump to power and what the future holds for populist politicians, politics and policies?

Andres Rodriguez-Pose  0:25

I’ve always been interested in populism and the rise of populism. And I do it feel that many of the explanations of why people vote for, let’s say, anti-system parties and anti-system options, were probably not the most adequate. Of many voters of populism have been considered to be uneducated, poor, rural and white men. And very often, it has been said that we just have to wait for these people to die and then the problem will sort itself out. I think that’s first macabre and not a joke. And second, I do feel that that is also wrong. Because the people that are voting for anti-system parties, both in the US and in Europe, probably have got and certainly have got you know grievances that are related very often, to the long-term economic, social, cultural, and surface decline of the places where they live. But urban elites have tended and political elites have had a tendency to tell them that they are rednecks, that they are despicable, that they live in flyover states and in places where there’s no opportunity, and the best solution for them is just to get on their bikes and move to a place where there’s opportunity, which mainly means the big cities in from that perspective,

Christine Garrington  1:48

Indeed, and so what was it about Trump’s election and obviously near re-election, that you wanted to sort of hone in on and look at specifically and why?

Andres Rodriguez-Pose  1:57

Trump, in my view, represented from his arrival, a threat to democracy and to American democracy that traditionally was the beacon of democracy across the world. It also represented the radicalization of the Republican Party that had been traditionally mainstream. And for me, that was really interesting trying to understand what had driven voters in certain parts of the US to vote for Trump, especially in the light of what Robert Putnam, probably the best known political scientist in the world from Harvard University, had written 20 years ago, well in 2000, about the potential threats. to threats to American democracy, which was where coming from, on the one hand, the rise of inequality in the US a country that is far more polarised interpersonally than Europe, but where territorial disparities are significantly lower. And the other challenge, which was the parallel declines since the 1970s, and 1980s of what is he called social capital, which is the sense of interaction, community, and cohesion within localities and within American cities, towns and rural areas.

Christine Garrington  3:15

Now you went about this by carrying out an econometric analysis. For those of us who might not sort of immediately understand what that looks like, in reality, I wonder if you can tell us what you actually did?

Andres Rodriguez-Pose  3:25 

Well, I wanted to explain what is known as the Trump margin. So the additional votes that Donald Trump received in 2016, and then in 2020, relative to the votes that a perfectly mainstream Republican candidate in the 2012 election, like Mitt Romney had received. So trying to explain the additional extra percentages of votes in specific counties in the US on the basis of a series of factors I thought, and my co-authors thought that the additional vote for Trump was very much related to economic and demographic decline in particular parts of the US, but also I introduce, we introduced a number of what we call controls, which are the factors that either from political science or economics, or sociology have been regarded as the main drivers of the swing and the vote for Trump. And these are mainly related to individual characteristics, what I said before – levels of education, age and ethnicity of the voters in the case of the US, but also related to the places where they live. And there has been a lot of work that has highlighted the divide in the vote in the vote between big cities in the United States and small towns and rural communities.

Christine Garrington  4:49

So what did you find then when you looked at the types of communities that it was thought propelled Donald Trump into into the presidency? What did you find there?

Andres Rodriguez-Pose  4:57 

Well we started with a hypothesis launch by Robert Putnam in 2000, about the idea that the threat to American democracy and therefore the vote for an extreme outsider like Donald Trump was coming from, on the one hand interpersonal inequality and the decline of social communities. What we thought is that just by looking anecdotally, at what had happened in the US that it was not the poorest of the poor, or the richest of the rich that were voting or voted in 2016 for Donald Trump. In fact, they voted together for Hillary Clinton, whereas it was mainly people living in declining communities, in places that had been seeing that people leave, jobs go, that their salaries were being depressed, etc. Those were the ones that were casting the vote. So our hypothesis was clear. It was not interpersonal inequality, and declining social capital, it was probably long-term economic decline in places that were still relatively cohesive. And this is what we found that on the whole, a country with strong interpersonal inequalities, the vote for anti-system candidates in this case, Donald Trump was not related to huge salary polarisation, although this might explode in the future. It was mainly related to long-term economic decline, in the form of loss of employment, but also to long-term demographic decline in the form of loss of population. By contrast, we saw no connection between declining wages and declining salaries and vote for Donald Trump.

Christine Garrington  6:41 

Really interesting. And now, it’s also been said that the global financial crisis of 2008 was was a key driver. Did your research support that or not?

Andres Rodriguez-Pose  6:52

Yes, we’ve done the research for every decade. So economic decline since the 1970s, until 2016 and 2020. The dates of the elections that we look at. 1980 to those years 1990, 2000 and 2010. Until then, and the 2008 financial crisis is the fuse, it’s probably the last drop that actually made the glass on the water overflow, in places where that were very hard hit by the crisis in places where they have seen the loss of jobs accelerated to, for example, competition by trade, mainly coming from China. Those are the places where the switch from Mitt Romney to Donald Donald Trump, where the Trump margin increase the most those are the places that actually led to Trump winning the vote. But having said that, this is a far, far longer decline. That is there, we find evidence that for every single decade that we control all the way back to 1970, that in all cases, the decline in local population and decline in local employment is positively and significantly correlated, to more votes for Donald Trump.

Christine Garrington  8:05 

Okay, and what other key things emerge that you think, you know, really might be important in these years where we’re looking back on we’re living through still this incredibly intense period of American politics and European politics, global politics, and what what is played out?

Andres Rodriguez-Pose  8:22

We saw the events of the 6th of January 2021 and the risk it has represented to democracy. But we have seen in the case of the UK, that something that is, probably hasn’t happened for centuries, like proroguing Parliament took place without virtually everyone batting an eyelid. We’re seeing how countries like Hungary, and Poland are moving away or drifting away from democracy. So what we have is a really, really serious threat to a system that with all its problems, and it’s needed of reform has generated greater prosperity, greater equality. And I would say in the last 70 years in the developed world, the longest period of peace we have ever experienced. So with all its flaws, is probably by far the best system that we have. That what these anti-system let’s call them populist politicians are offering might be apparently simple solutions, but in reality are far more dangerous and likely to just exacerbate polarisation and lead to conflict because these people feed on external enemies, whether real or imaginary. So there was a need for me to try to find potential solutions to this problem. And what has emerged from the research is that lack of opportunities, long-term economic decline, long-term demographic decline, long-term decline in service provisions to many communities in the US but also across most of Europe are at the root of the problem, we have a territorial problem. This is the situation we have, for example, in the UK where there, the need to level up is not just to reduce disparities, but mainly to tap on the potential of places that whether in America or in the north of the UK, for the past, where the motives of the US and the British economy and now are languishing mainly because of lack of political attention, but not just a lack of political attention, lack of belief, from political elites, and often from the population in big cities, but also from themselves, that they have got significant potential, and that this potential can be mobilised in order to lift their economies or lift their quality of life.

Christine Garrington  10:46

Some really important insights there, Andres, thank you. But I just wonder if we might finish by asking you whether you feel that the research tells us anything about what the future might hold in respect of continuing support for Trumpism and more populism and populist policies?

Andres Rodriguez-Pose  11:02 

This is a deeply rooted problem, that it has been brewing for a very long time. And it requires sustained and serious policy solutions. We have seen in the situation in recent days in the UK with the publication of the levelling up white paper, that this has become centre stage of UK politics. But I do still feel that whether it is in the case of the UK, or in the case of the US or elsewhere in Europe, what we’re finding is that many decision makers are paying lip service to the idea that there’s a need to mobilise resources that there’s a need to invest in areas that have been declining that there’s a need on to tap on those resources. But in reality, there’s a strong lack of belief that place based, place sensitive policies that respond to local challenges, but also mobilise local needs local potential, they think they’re not going to work.

Christine Garrington  12:01 

And what from your point of view, would you say are the ramifications of continuing down that road?

Andres Rodriguez-Pose  12:06 

If we keep on doing this, we are in a situation where many people in our countries have said enough is enough, we have had enough of a system which seems to benefit someone else. And not us. That if we are asked to do let’s say, an environmental transition? Well, we have. And this is the situation in France, what has happened is that diesel fuel taxes have increased, and we were told 15 years ago that diesel was the future. And now our ageing diesel cars, we have to pay for it. Whereas the people living in Paris, for example, they have alternative transport, they’re richer so they can very often afford electrical cars. And we are paying for a transition that is driven by an urban elite that is aloof to our needs. If this is not addressed, these people have now have decided that they want to shake the tree and they want to shake it hard and they are doing it and they have found their champions. So if this is not done seriously I’m afraid, we might see that the prospect of a 2024 re-election of Donald Trump and it would be the first US president since Grover Cleveland to when non-successive terms, or someone of that ilk, either in the US or in many across parts of Europe and other parts of the world is likely to become something that is common. And in my view, that would be very dangerous for the reasons I said before. We have a system that is flawed, but a system that with all its flaws is far better than any of the alternative we have at the table.

Christine Garrington  13:45 

“Golfing with Trump. Social capital, decline, inequality, and the rise of populism in the US” is research by Andres Rodriguez-Pose, Neil Lee and Cornelius Lipp. It’s been produced as part of DIAL’s project Populism, Inequality and Institutions. You can find out more on the DIAL website at Thanks for listening to this episode of the DIAL podcast, which was presented and produced by me Chris Garrington of Research Podcasts.