In Defense of Trump’s Voters
In a previous booze-fueled exchange over twitter, a number of Ordinary Times writers contemplated the possibility of crafting a pro-Trump piece for the site. Most of us offered up possible pieces in jest (CK MacLeod pitched an article titled “Why I’m Totally Pro-Trump” which stated unequivocally in the piece’s body that the post was designed solely as click-bait). I went back and forth about coming to the defense of The Donald, or at least parts of what The Donald was selling.
In the end, I couldn’t make the post work. Even if there are elements of his “program” which sound positive (if we can call his off-the-cuff statements a plan), I simply cannot accept the possibility of this man acting as our head of state. My middle class values and background find his demeanor and style crass and vulgar. Sure, he might be challenging PC conventions that I detest, but the presidency is no place for a celebrity more interested in press and cult-like accolades than ideas and policy.
I cannot affirm the candidacy of a man like Donald Trump, but I can defend his voters.
Since the rise of the New Left in the 1960s, segments of the broader political left in America has had difficulty approaching poorer white voters. The Republican Party capitalized on the perceived ethnic and cultural politics of the Democratic Party and peeled away a significant portion of white working-class voters in the late 70s, culminating in the Conservative Revolution under Ronald Reagan. The Republican Party, while advancing the cause of big business and “small government,” was able to get the enthusiastic support of white workers that found little to support in the party’s economic policies. Thomas Frank’s seminal work, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, examined this segment of voters extensively, positioning that the Republicans had used divisive social issues and fear of economic decline at the expense of other ethnic groups as the rallying cry to acquire these voters’ consent.
Thus, I can’t help but chuckle at the recent eruption of condemnation against Trump voters from “moderate” conservative commentators. Some well-intentioned conservatives have even revived the idea of killing off the Republican Party and starting fresh with a truer conservative organization. Is it any wonder many rank-and-file Republicans hate their party’s establishment and its media intellectuals?
Consider this: conservatives have roped in working class voters to support their candidates with the implicit promise that the Republican Party would address the economic and social issues important to this constituency. Every election, the issues of migration and free-trade are brought up, promises are made, and then this vital portion of the Republican electoral strategy is told to keep quiet while these issues are brushed aside when the legislative session begins. A new election begins, rinse and repeat.
Democrats, and the left at large, have not always helped make their movement welcoming to the white working-class. Unfortunately, for a litany of cultural and social reasons, disdain for poor white culture and interests remains acceptable among corners of the left that habitually detest broad generalizations and stereotypes. It is still acceptable to look down on “white trash” in America as a group of racist, ill-informed idiots that “just don’t get it.”
While I find Trump’s vague platitudes and policy prescriptions to be simplistic and nearly impossible to achieve through our political process, I am not surprised that the man has found support among a sizable minority of the population.
Consider mass migration to the United States and how it has changed the fabric of communities across the nation. While immigration plays a positive role in America’s economic engine, a large segment of society is dissatisfied with the level of immigration. Gallup found in 2012:
Americans’ dissatisfaction with immigration ranks 3rd highest among 17 issues Gallup asked about; the complete list will be released ahead of next week’s State of the Union address. Compared with 2008, the percentage of Americans who are very dissatisfied with the level of immigration, 39%, is down slightly.
… immigration could become an election issue, because the majority of Republicans and conservatives are dissatisfied and in favor of less immigration. Most independents and Democrats are dissatisfied with the level of immigration and generally tilt toward decreased immigration. Among party and ideology groups, only liberals are more satisfied than dissatisfied on this issue.
What is often not discussed in debates around immigration is the way it has changed the social and demographic character of many communities across the country. This is the unspoken element of immigration left out of our political discussion. Migration has given America a dynamic economic edge, but for the white working class, they see competition for their jobs, and communal institutions (like schools and social services) that no longer reflect their community’s character. Zoe Hoffman, writing about the impact immigration has had on Southern Arizona, identified issues that are common in many locales across the country:
The link between immigration and school curriculum highlights one of the main burdens that immigration has on a community, from both financial and a cultural perspective. In order to understand the impacts that immigrant students are having on schools, it is important to see what programs are being implemented for immigrant students, such as English language programs, and cultural assimilation programs.
The cost of educating a second language learner in our public schools can be 200 percent more expensive than educating the average local pupil, resulting in an adjustment of priorities and programs offered in a school. White working-class families attending institutions with a large immigration population see, for better or for worse, that their country is changing and not always in their favor.
The economic direction America has undertaken has not benefited existing working class communities. Victor Tan Chen wrote an excellent piece in The Atlantic detailing the lonely poverty of America’s white working class. He writes:
As organized labor in this country has withered, an extreme individualism has stepped in as the alternative—a go-it-alone perspective narrowly focused on getting an education and becoming successful on one’s own merit. This works well for some, but for others—especially the two-thirds of Americans over the age of 25 who don’t have a bachelor’s degree—it often means getting mired in an economy of contract work, low pay, and few, if any, benefits. These prospects suggest that this is an age of diminished expectations for the working class.
There is clearly more to the despair of the working class than empty wallets and purses. Patches of the social fabric that once supported them, in good times and bad, have frayed. When asked in national surveys about the people with whom they discussed “important matters” in the past six months, those with just a high-school education or less are likelier to say no one (this percentage has risen over the years for college graduates, too). This trend is troubling, given that social isolation is linked to depression and, in turn, suicide and substance abuse.
This is the backdrop that is informing Trump’s working voters. They see two political parties, both promising them change and progress in exchange for their votes, both furthering policies that stand in opposition to these constituents’ interests.
Many mocked Trump’s statement claiming to love uneducated voters. While it sounded like Trump was relishing in capturing the know-nothing vote to propel him to victory, I imagine his working class supporters perceived something different. They heard a candidate articulate, however crudely, that he was on their side. He was not going to belittle them or their community; he would not promise to talk about immigration and trade during the campaign but capital gains taxes while in office.
I can’t support Trump. I find him to be a celebrity huckster and a blundering charlatan. Yet, I understand why many working class voters (and not just Republicans) support the man. When you have both political parties claiming to be your champion but then delivering the conditions of your demise, you are going to look for an alternative. They just happened to find it in a vulgar buffoon. Of course these voters understand that putting Trump in office is a huge risk for the nation. Good God knows what he will do if given the reins of power. But the tried-and-true candidates have not delivered for the working class, and faced with their current difficulties, one cannot blame them for their willingness to roll the political dice.
(Image: Donald Trump greets the crowd in the overflow room after a town hall meeting in Derry, New Hampshire, August 19, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder)