Understanding (Many) Trump Supporters, and Moving On

Alright. Trump won.

And now we have to move on. To come together--somehow--as a country, after possibly the most divisive election of our lifetimes. There's a lot of healing to do.

This post is not written for the kinds of people that are considering violence if the election did not go their way. This isn't written for those considering packing up and leaving. This isn't for those who want to give up, or check out, or decide Trump's not their president. He will be our president.

This post is for those who, regardless of the outcome, want to move forward as a country. This is for those who know there is a deep wound to heal. 

This is an election motivated primarily by fear. To a large extent, that fear is a fear of the other party's candidate. Those who lost remain very, very afraid. And there's a major risk they will opt-out of the system. If that happens, we're in a lot of trouble as a country: democracy requires both consent and active participation from citizens to work.

So how do we bring Trump supporters back into the fold?

Healing The Divide

I'll avoid the petty kumbaya and even get beyond "hey go talk to people" here. Talking to people and building relationships with them is important, but I don't think it's going to happen. We have two groups of people in the country that are incredibly ignorant of each other, and don't really want to change that. To quote the New Yorker:

But the bigger story is one my colleague George Packer wrote tellingly about last week in the magazine: an America bitterly divided along class, racial, and cultural lines. To quote Benjamin Disraeli, the nineteenth-century British statesman, we now have “two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.”

I don't have much faith in the American people to be able to just start running around fixing this: there's too much distrust. But we need to understand where Trump's supporters came from.

Understanding Trump's Supporters

I think a lot of people can't understand how it's possible one could support Trump. Well, it's time to figure it out, as a pretty big plurality of the nation went for him. It bears repeating that he's the single most disliked candidate to run for office since we started tracking these things, so we have to assume that many votes for Trump were votes against Clinton.

But what about the folks that have been big on Trump the entire time?

I've heard a lot of ways of trying to deligitimze Trump supporters, in order to give ourselves an excuse to not pay attention to them. They're all racist, they're all sexist, they're all xenophobic. They're somehow all angry white old men, even though old white men make up about 10% of the country. I'm not saying there aren't racist, sexist, xenophobic people that voted for Trump, nor that Trump didn't say those things. Such positions are unacceptable, and we need to fight them, whoever they come from.

But if your narrative is, "these people all voted by racist, sexist, and xenophobic motivations," you are woefully out of touch with reality. You have made an active choice to put your fingers in your ears and pretend that nobody could vote for Trump with noble intent. And you're making things worse, as you'll continue to denigrate these 60 million people, and prevent them wholeheartedly from being able to participate in the system you want. 

Trump's supporters are primarily concerned about the economy: 90% say it's a top priority, compared to 80% of Clinton voters. 71% of Trump supporters say the economy has gotten worse since 2008; only 15% of Clinton supporters say the same. The recovery from the Great Recession has been patchy and clunky at best. It's been tough for manufacturing, mining, and energy--something that cosmopolitan Democrats never have to deal with on a daily basis. Trump has a lot of support in these areas, where their local economy is suffering in a very real way.

Clinton represents the Establishment more than... probably anyone. At least as a symbol--we can debate how much she does or doesn't. But Sanders supporters might agree with this as much as Trump supproters do.

I wrote about this before, and I feel confident: Trump is a populist, responding primarily to a sense of economic woe, and a sense that the establishment can't or won't solve those problems. Here's the narrative: the establishment is too controlled by moneyed interests (and Trump has an overwhelming advantage in belief that he can reduce special interest influence), by corporations, by trade-loving neoliberals, and by over-eager regulators that are unintentionally crippling the market's ability to create jobs. They believe lots of low-skilled labor immigration depresses the wages of the poor, and they're not wrong. Trump supporters believe Clinton is in the pockets of Wall Street, that she's big on free trade, and that she wants lots more regulation--all of which would mean more economic stagnation. They're afraid of European-style economies, many of which have persistent unemployment in the double-digits, and they're worried that the Democrats have become enamored with the idea of running down that path to become Denmark, but might unintentionally turn the US into Spain, Italy, or Greece. 

It also turns out that by a 3:1 margin, Republicans and Republican-leaners believe Clinton would have dealt with race relations better. Many are concerned about it, and voted for Trump anyway. The folks in this part of his supporters aren't particularly satisfied with how Trump wants to handle race relations. You can tell them they made the wrong decision based on this concern, but pretending they all gleefully accept Trump's racism and xenophobia, and voted for him because of it, is going to keep you out of reality. Many voted for Trump despite his racism. 

Ignoring this, and pretending that Trump supporters are all a bunch of racists or idiots, is folly. This isn't a defense of Trump's proposed solutions, his economic policy, his tax policy, any of that. It's a call to recognize that there are real problems, and an establishment that is so busy celebrating itself that it's ignored these problems. We cosmopolitans ignore these problems, and we look with disdain on the people that have them. We've done a lot to alienate them, and it's kindof boggling that we're so surprised that they've opted for a man that's about as far outside of the establishment's main-line as one can get. 

1 Comment

Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.