Some friends and readers have been wondering why I haven’t written anything about the presidential election. The truth is I was numb with disbelief and anger and felt as hopeless about politics as I can remember feeling. What else was there to say other than the obvious: so much pain is going to be inflicted on so many. I also couldn’t get out of my head the fact that if a relatively small number of people in a handful of districts in a few states had voted or voted differently, this catastrophe of suffering would have been averted.
One of the things that has baffled me from the start of Donald Trump’s rise in the GOP primary is how he could become the darling of so many White working class voters. I know some segments of this population, particularly the people who worked in heavy industry in the Northeast, many of them, like me, are the children or the grandchildren of the Southern and Eastern European immigrants who came to the United States in huge numbers between 1880 and 1920: Italian, Polish, Slovakian. Many of my contemporaries’ children also worked in those industries as they were in decline, or didn’t get to work in them at all, for by the early 1980s (a decade before NAFTA), the processes of deindustrialization had begun. If someone like Donald Trump, pampered and entitled, a braggart, demanding and overbearing… if such a guy happened into their midst—perhaps his limousine broke down en route from Northeast Ohio to Western Pennsylvania—if such a thing happened, many of them would certainly not embrace him, and could well dislike him, for he represents everything contrary to the codes of behavior they grew up with, the kind of man they respect, the way you talk about yourself in public.
I know rural America much less well, though benefited tremendously when I stayed with local teachers in small towns during my travels for Possible Lives. I feel comfortable saying that the majority of the people I met in places like Southwestern Montana or the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky would have the same reaction to a Trump-like fellow descending into their midst. They would regard him with suspicion.
So what gives? Well, as numerous political commentators have noted, especially after the election, Donald Trump was saying what a lot of people wanted to hear. The messenger didn't matter.
Trump said many things, most of them shockingly blatant—no subtle dog whistling, except, perhaps, with anti-Semitism—assailing Mexicans, Muslims, undocumented immigrants, women, you know the list. His pocketbook appeal to working-class voters was his anti-trade message—which got intimately wrapped up in anti-immigrant, nativist language—and his bold proclamations that he was going to bring jobs back to economically devastated regions. And though it gets much less mention than the White working class issue, we should not overlook the fact that many in the traditional Republican base who are not blue-collar folk at all—the banker next door to me, the flower shop owner in Omaha, the dentist in Atlanta—voted in large numbers for Trump even though they might have done so reluctantly. He would reverse the Obama policies they don’t like, cut taxes and regulations, put conservatives on the Supreme Court. A lot of White Republican women voted for Mr. Trump, defying predictions that his loutish behavior would drive them into the Clinton camp, or at least lead them to not vote on the top of the ticket. And, Good Lord, Evangelical Christians overwhelmingly supported our Sinner-in-Chief, justifying their vote with talk of forgiveness and redemption. Certainly on their minds were social issues and the Supreme Court. While some high-profile Republicans—foreign policy experts or big players like Meg Whitman—supported Clinton, most Republicans voted for Trump, with some opting for third party candidates. What elites wanted in this election—elites from the Never Trump GOP types to Katy Perry and LeBron James—was rejected in an angry spasm by those who felt ignored one time too many. In the bitterest of ironies, they voted for the most elite candidate of the lot, cocooned in a world of chandeliers and self-absorption.
This was the year of “change,” as we heard from pundits and from voters themselves. Bernie Sanders’ remarkable campaign revealed the desire for change as did Trump’s, though in quite different ways, their shared condemnation of trade agreements not withstanding. For some in the Trump camp, change meant new faces, not career politicians, and Trump’s gaffes and crude insults signaled how different he was. What is important to note, though, is that the message of change played side by side with Trump’s banner message to “Make America Great Again,” a look backward. Change meant reversal. “Make America Great Again” resonated deeply with many of Trump’s voters, and part of its effectiveness, I think, was the fluidity of meanings it had. For the folks I know in the Industrial Northeast, it meant a resurgence of some kind of manufacturing and a better quality of life. For those threatened by the speed of change on social issues, it meant a return to more traditional time—and for gun rights advocates, a quieting of any talk of regulation. For those whose fears of the foreign Other have been whipped up by Right-wing media—even though, given where they live, many have never encountered an African immigrant or Syrian refugee—for these folks Make America Great Again meant a return to a time (that might be more imagined than real) when everyone looked like them. And then there is the issue of race, which blended, as it often does, with economic issues, with nativism, and with law and order anxieties. Regardless of whatever progress we as a nation have made on race relations and racial justice, race remains a massively cofounding issue in our collective life. Trump’s campaign deserves national condemnation for the many ways it manipulated race to its advantage, from Trump’s own birther ploy to delegitimize our first Black president, to invitation of card-carrying White supremacists into his campaign, to the many ways the campaign wove race insidiously into other issues.
The fact that during the campaign Mr. Trump and his circle were still accepted in New York high society reveals the most craven hypocrisy among monied elites—something that wouldn’t surprise my Rust Belt brethren. Charges of racism were countered through a ritual of personal testimony: people came forth to vouch that Mr. Trump or his advisors like Steve Bannon were not racist or Anti-Semitic for they hire people of color and Jews. This testimony overrides the public use of racist and Anti-Semitic language and symbolism for political gain. One of Trump’s wealthy supporters excused all the racist pyrotechnics by saying it was part of being a “disruptive” candidate! Disruption. Silicon Valley business-speak as a synonym for bigotry.
As true and terrible as all this is, however, I think we on the Left side of our current nightmare need to be cautious about attributing any one motive to the whole swath of Trump voters, for that broad brush stroke is not only inaccurate but also will make it impossible to reach some segments of them in future elections. All the motives I sketched above, and some I didn't have space for (anti-government ideology, for example) came into play in this election. And I haven’t mentioned candidate Clinton herself; the intensity of dislike for her—cranked up by the Right’s Sleaze Machine—among some voters was motive itself to vote third party or vote for Trump. Trump’s surprising victory was the result of many forces in the United States coming together in the proverbial perfect storm. But even though certain of these forces such as race and nativism carried a lot of weight in this outcome, they do not explain every vote for Donald Trump.
A professional lifetime of talking to people and trying to understand how they see the world cautions me to tease out the strands of motivation, to understand how people think and what moves them to action. Let me give you one small personal example, small, but one that reminded me of a powerful truth. During George W. Bush’s first term as president, I was driving with several of my relatives into Western Pennsylvania. My Uncle Joe was at the wheel. Joe Meraglio quit school in the 9thgrade but worked his way from the assembly line at General Motors up to a supervisory position. He was a devout Catholic and a very by-the-book kind of guy. Somehow we started talking about immigration—Joe’s parents, my grandparents, both immigrated from Southern Italy—and I said something to the effect that at least Bush was better on immigration than some of his hardline Republican colleagues. Joe didn’t miss a beat. He said he didn’t like George Bush because “he’s against a woman’s right to choose.” What?! Joe Meraglio who never misses Sunday mass? Then, of course, it hit me. Joe’s two daughters, both quick, strong women, probably influenced him over the years. This was a reminder to me of a basic truth: People’s political beliefs can be complex, ideologically blended, not fixed.
There’s much talk now among Democratic leaders about the need to reach the White working class, something Bernie Sanders’ candidacy made abundantly clear. Democrats have been talking about this need for outreach since they began to see their blue-collar base turn to Ronald Reagan. But they haven’t been very successful—though, to be fair, President Obama proposed large infrastructure projects but hit a stone wall in the Republican Congress. (With a GOP House and Senate Trump will likely have an early success on this front.) Two quick thoughts here.
First, it will be difficult to reach some of these voters, for they are bitter and distrustful and for decades have been dialed into Right-wing media and now the Internet echo chamber, developing a coherent worldview that is hostile to many Democratic causes. Also their economic interests, in some cases, have gotten interwoven with other political and social issues: gun rights, immigration, abortion. Winning them over will not be easy and might well involve more than a jobs program. Still some of these folks did vote for Barack Obama, so the right kind of economic and educational initiatives could gain traction.
Second, Democrats need to find the right people to not only deliver the message but also to learn the details of local conditions—and what is learned needs to have a fast-track conduit to the top levels of the party. I remember the unease I felt soon after the 2008 election when I saw either a photograph or video clip of President Obama talking with what might have been his Council of Economic Advisors, Austan Goolsbee and people like that. University of Chicago types. Suits. Something visceral in me registered no. These people are very smart but light years away from the guy on the forklift, the woman in a cannery. Find at least a few advisors with that level of economic expertise who also have an intellectual as well as emotional connection to the warehouse and the factory floor. In a recent article in the New Yorker the ever-astute George Packer interviews Larry Summers, Bill Clinton’s final Secretary of the Treasury, who admits that in all his trips to review antipoverty programs, he visited Latin America, Africa, and the poor sections of large American cities but never “Akron, or Flint, or Toledo or Youngstown.” An honest but stunning admission.
As I’ve been arguing, people voted for Donald Trump for a wide range of reasons. I’ve been interested in those voters who saw in him an understanding of their hardship or at least an outsider who would shake things up in their favor: stop jobs from disappearing, or help restore their blighted neighborhoods, or control housing or food or health care costs. To comprehend this attachment to Trump, I don’t think we can underestimate the power of celebrity—and even though Donald Trump is unique in many ways, his rise to power should prompt a deep reflection on something we are all susceptible to: the potent celebrity culture of our time.
And our time was primed for Trump. Politicians and politics have been degraded and in the eyes of many hold no virtue. The press is in financial turmoil and has been effectively maligned by the Right to such a degree that important investigative stories on Trump’s business dealings, his foundation, and his behavior were easily dismissed by Trump supporters and replaced with social media postings, including, we are discovering, fake news. There are certainly legitimate reasons to criticize our political class and the media—I have done both—but when major institutions are undermined, the result is not necessarily liberation, but chaos, generating the conditions for authoritarianism and demagoguery. Enter Donald Trump, a fabrication of the media he now assaults.
It is eerily instructive to watch the creation of the man. Take, for example, his long involvement with WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment—he has been inducted into the Celebrity Wing of the WWE Hall of Fame. Trump’s blustery rally persona is not that far from trash-talking pro wrestlers hyping their next battle. Pro wrestling is all theater, of course, and Trump spent years around it, playing tough guy without having to take any of the actual life-shortening punishment of WWE’s leaps, slams, and tumbles.
But it was The Apprentice that catapulted Trump to big-time national celebrity. There is much in the on-screen Trump that reflects the man himself—the arrogance, the narcissism—but what overrides all else is assurance and bone-crunching power. He can crush (“you’re fired”) and therefore he can create. The Thor of business. What remains hidden behind the illusions of the celebrity dream machine is Trump’s pathological dishonesty and long trail of raw deals: The decades of bankruptcies, legal maneuvers, swindles, exploitation of contractors and service providers, financial sleight of hand. When the reality of all this was revealed through investigative journalism, it was masterfully deflected by Trump and his campaign. The press was part of a corrupt and rigged system. Facts don’t matter. Nor does history. You can believe in this man. Welcome to electoral politics in the Age of the Kardashians.