A new study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the official scientific journal of the National Academy of Sciences claims "status threat" is what motivated voters to vote for Trump, not so-called "economic anxiety".
The study is here: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2018/04/18/1718155115
This study evaluates evidence pertaining to popular narratives explaining the American public’s support for Donald J. Trump in the 2016 presidential election. First, using unique representative probability samples of the American public, tracking the same individuals from 2012 to 2016, I examine the “left behind” thesis (that is, the theory that those who lost jobs or experienced stagnant wages due to the loss of manufacturing jobs punished the incumbent party for their economic misfortunes). Second, I consider the possibility that status threat felt by the dwindling proportion of traditionally high-status Americans (i.e., whites, Christians, and men) as well as by those who perceive America’s global dominance as threatened combined to increase support for the candidate who emphasized reestablishing status hierarchies of the past. Results do not support an interpretation of the election based on pocketbook economic concerns. Instead, the shorter relative distance of people’s own views from the Republican candidate on trade and China corresponded to greater mass support for Trump in 2016 relative to Mitt Romney in 2012. Candidate preferences in 2016 reflected increasing anxiety among high-status groups rather than complaints about past treatment among low-status groups. Both growing domestic racial diversity and globalization contributed to a sense that white Americans are under siege by these engines of change.
If you don't want to read it all, the conclusion is a good summary:
Narratives are important, because they structure people’s understanding of what has occurred and why. They also guide the behavior of elected representatives in deciding how to represent their constituencies. When the people have spoken, the postelection narrative decides what it is they have said.
Lack of a college education was persistently noted as the strongest predictor of Trump support. This pattern led journalists with limited data toward economic explanations. However, education is also the strongest predictor of support for international trade, a relationship that is not tied to income or occupation so much as ethnocentrism (52).
Why does it matter whether Trump’s support was driven by being left behind economically as opposed to a sense that one’s status in the domestic or international hierarchy has suffered? Some workers obviously have suffered financially, even if the general trend is toward improvement. However, these losses were not politicized when it came to voting in 2016. Trump’s victory may be viewed more admirably when it is attributed to a groundswell of support from previously ignored workers than when it is attributed to those whose status is threatened by minorities and foreign countries. More importantly, elected officials who embrace the left behind narrative may feel compelled to pursue policies that will do little to assuage the fears of less educated Americans. Furthermore, Trump’s “us vs. them” rhetoric does little to lead whites and minorities or Americans and foreigners to view one another in less threatening ways, and it calls to whites’ attention the fact that they are already doing quite well relative to minority groups and relative to those in the countries that they often find threatening.
The left behind thesis has focused attention on economically beleaguered victims of trade-related job loss. While this group certainly deserves public support, misunderstanding the election narrative still has potentially negative consequences. Most manufacturing job loss is not related to trade (56). Furthermore, Trump’s supporters largely oppose strengthening the safety net for those left behind (Table S4). Those concerned with left-behind sectors are likely to be disappointed if they expect the current administration and its supporters to prioritize the economically beleaguered manufacturing sector.
The 2016 election was a result of anxiety about dominant groups’ future status rather than a result of being overlooked in the past. In many ways, a sense of group threat is a much tougher opponent than an economic downturn, because it is a psychological mindset rather than an actual event or misfortune. Given current demographic trends within the United States, minority influence will only increase with time, thus heightening this source of perceived status threat. Although whites will likely still be the best-educated and most well-off racial group, by 2040, they are unlikely to dominate in numbers. Likewise, despite US status as an extremely wealthy country relative to those countries perceived to threaten it economically, many Americans find that small comfort.
These results also directly refute the long-held belief among political scientists that political elites “waltz before a blind audience” when it comes to international issues (36). Public opinion on trade in particular has been assumed not to matter, because politicians are not held accountable for low salience issues (57). Trump’s emphasis on these particular issues in his campaign increased the salience of international affairs. In politicizing these issues, he put greater distance between the candidates of the two parties on international issues. Elections are always structured by the candidates who happen to be in play at the time. However, in 2016, large changes in the nominees’ issue positions relative to their predecessors in the previous election made this an especially important factor. Because globalization itself is unlikely to wane, these are likely to remain important electoral issues for the foreseeable future.
Not shocking but it's nice to see actual academic papers on this.