Imagining the Trump Supporter

A friend of mine emailed me about my last post, saying that she simply DOES NOT UNDERSTAND TRUMP SUPPORTERS. Another friend of mine recently mentioned somewhere that he was shocked to discover that racism actually exists within the Republican party. And I’ve read several articles about Trump’s popularity, ranging from “people are angry” to “people feel disenfranchised” to “people feel like they lost the culture war and want someone who will fight for them,” and all those things are true. And there are probably several more articles out there that already say what I’m about to say (this Atlantic piece is a good outline), but all the same, I thought I’d put out a few details. In this approach I am not attempting in any way to condone any of the opinions or viewpoints that I theorize the average Trump supporter holds; but I am attempting to present them with relatively little commentary on their merits or lack thereof.

Side note: Sunday afternoon, Trump held a rally in my home state, and one of our senators became the first sitting senator to endorse him. I heard about it during the hourly NPR news update, and for the first time in my life, I was ashamed to be from Alabama.

Let me be clear: I’m from Alabama. I know, okay? I’ve lived in the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest, driven through much of the rest of the country, and spent a fair amount of time on the East Coast. If I stopped to count I think I know someone from almost every state in the Union. I’m descended from the sister of a Confederate general and there are absolutely slaveholders in my ancestry. My hometown, though the first to integrate its school system (peacefully, no less), is still under a desegregation order. [Side rant about all the schools in the rest of the country that have never been under a desegregation order but are no less segregated.] We keep electing Roy Moore to be Chief Justice of our State Supreme Court, even after he was kicked off. I get it. There’s a lot to be embarrassed about.

Embarrassed. But it’s my home, and I love it, and I want the best for it. It’s part of why I always planned to move back, no matter how far away I went. I’m a strong believer in the value of getting out and in the power of going home. I’m an eternal optimist.

But when I heard Senator Sessions giving his endorsement, for a moment, my spirits were absolutely, totally crushed.

Side note the second: Trump is performing well, but his competitors are still in the fight. Not every person who fits into one or more of the categories I’m about to describe is a Trump supporter. (This means, of course, that Cruz and Rubio possibly also have racists voting for them, ironically enough.) Not every Trump supporter fits into all of the following categories.

So who are these people, and why are they supporting Trump?

To recap:
1. They are angry white people.
Duh.

2. They feel like they don’t have a voice.
Remember what I said yesterday about being in the silenced minority? The silent majority–i.e., the vast swath of country that isn’t the Coasts, that is less liberal and feels it is underrepresented and its concerns dismissed–is a real thing. Whether or not it’s a majority is a different question, but there’s a lot of people who view recent progressivist changes as inhibiting them from living their lives according to their societal preferences.

3. They are probably racist.
This can range from what I call “casual racism,” such as generally dismissing black males as “thugs” or generally distrusting non-whites, to active white supremacism.

4. They are tired of Washington politicians.
Which we all are, I think, but they’ve decided to go balls-to-the-wall with it.

 

In all of this, there’s one major point that’s been perhaps skirted around but which I haven’t seen addressed at any particular length:

5. They are uneducated and poor.
First of all, poverty is very effective at stripping people’s dignity away. People who lose their sense of dignity are prone to cruder appeals to their baser instincts, opinions, and beliefs. So that’s part of it.  Also, those without power are drawn to those who appear to have it.

On the other hand, there are poor people with great pride in what they do have and believe. More on that in a bit.

As for education, The Atlantic points out that a large swath of Trump’s supporters haven’t gone to college. Most of the thoughtful Republicans I know have, and I don’t know what kind of exposure they’ve had to their compatriots who haven’t. But it’s important for the elites of both side–as the Republican establishment is discovering–to remember, realize, and recognize that the vast majority of the country, blue or red, is not elite and does not, whether it be for lack of education or regional social mores or whatever, act or think or behave like the elite–or even the upper-middle-class–does.

Also, in this day and age, college degrees come in varying amounts of worth, and people often spend years in college without getting a degree, but there’s a crucial part of “going to college”:

leaving your home.

Now, obviously there are plenty of college students who still live at home and commute to school. But the thing is, in college, possibly for the first time in your life, you encounter people from outside your neighborhood, school district, perhaps even your city. Even if the on-paper education you’re getting is nigh-worthless, there’s life experience and exposure happening that is less easily quantified. The same goes for joining the military and, to a potentially lesser degree depending on where you go, going to a trade school. While a lot of the current anti-college crowd decries socialization in college as entirely centered around drinking, they miss the fact that, for perhaps the only time in a person’s life, they will encounter people from without their own tribe.

Not going to college, or not even finishing high school, affects much more than just the ability to find a job. We’re talking about poor people who are surrounded by poor people and very rarely, if at all, encounter even poor people from other places. The myopia this engenders, as well as the exaggerated sense of the singular nature of their suffering, leads to a distrust of outsiders and an inability to empathize with or even consider other viewpoints.

Think about it. When you’re suffering, your default reaction is probably to withdraw into yourself, to have a pity party, to seek someone or something to blame, to bring others down to your level of suffering because misery loves company. These are obviously not good or healthy reactions, but having that kind of perspective can be difficult especially when everyone around you is also suffering and having the same reaction to it.

Add to that the fact that the white poor are much less likely to receive any sympathy than the black poor, especially from the liberal East Coast elite. They know how liberals view rednecks. (More on this sort of rhetorical problem in a minute.) And, going back to that problem of suffering, it’s much easier to look at another group and say well they get all the handouts and sympathy and affirmative action and we get jack, even though we’re just as poor as they are. And that’s without decades of racial issues.

The Republican establishment has been relying on this undereducated class to keep itself in power without actually allowing it to have a voice; it has found its voice in Donald Trump, and now the Republican party is basically caught in the position of being at the rehearsal dinner and finding out that the whole set of racist cousins at table 3 has the mic. We’ll come back to some of the specific things they’re saying in a minute.

6. Or worse, they’re educated and blinded.
I’ve seen a fair number of people I considered more or less reasonable (aside from being Southern Republicans in general, per my last post) float statements about Trump along the lines of “but he’s a good businessman” or “but it’s a good thing that he’s not a Washington insider” or “but the media is overblowing his statements and really he’s not that bad.” They’re not willing to out-and-out SAY they support Trump, and it’s unclear if they actually vote for him, but they’re buying into his narrative for various reasons:

      • a. They really, really hate Obama.
        b. They think Obama has made America awful.
        c. They think Washington in general is awful.
        d. They like the idea of making America great again.
        e. They are rich, and they appreciate Trump’s wealth.
        f. They are afraid of Middle Eastern refugees, because terrorism.
        g. They, like the uneducated and poor crowd, harbor certain distasteful opinions and are relieved to hear someone saying them out loud.
      h. They harbor opinions that go against progressive opinion, and since progressives have shut down any ability they might have had to express those opinions (this goes back to the evangelical crowd, for instance; I’m not talking about racism here, but more concerns about religious freedoms, etc.), they appreciate that someone is yelling things that shouldn’t be said, even if they don’t agree with those things in particular.

All of these reasons are somewhat hyperbolic and none of them excuse supporting Trump, but then, the whole point is that there’s a class of people who support Trump despite it being apparently inexcusable and we’re trying to figure out why.

7. They’ve internalized the Fox News narrative, but not necessarily the way Fox News wanted them to.
Since Jon Stewart left The Daily Show and I had a baby and started going to bed earlier, I’m a bit behind on how Fox News is presenting the Republican narrative these days. Based on the whole Megyn Kelly (whom I generally like, even if I think she’s a sellout) debacle, I’m guessing they’re not exactly thrilled with Trump’s lead and are scrambling, like many other Republicans I know, to explain just what the heck is happening to their party.

Here’s the thing: for nearly a decade specifically, and longer in general, Fox News and conservative pundits have been whipping Republican constituents into a feeding frenzy over the Obama administration/liberals in politics. (Note: I am not saying that the liberal media doesn’t have its own sins, or that the media in general isn’t guilty for the polarized state of American politics. But we’re talking about Trump, so.) They have given voice to people who say despicable things and attack him personally. They wrote the book on modern American exceptionalism. From their openly biased “fair and balanced” news reporting to the American history textbooks coming out of Texas, they have made a brand out of protecting and promoting white “conservative” interests while denigrating any others.

They did this to keep the Republican party in power. Sure, the Tea Party came along, a little more extreme than perhaps the establishment would like, but their rhetoric fit in nicely alongside the things the network was already saying, and they adapted to include it. There’s elements of classism, racism, misogyny (oh the misogyny of Fox News), and a whole host of ills that have been given voice, but always, I presume, in a carefully controlled manner. Just enough to appeal to crowd #1 without openly acknowledging them so that they could count on their votes when the time came. In this way the Republican party could stay in power and the rich people in charge of Fox News could stay rich. This became especially important after Obama was elected President.

The thing is, Fox News watchers believe what they hear. (This is why they air so many commercials for various scams on the elderly, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.) They believe it, and they’ve internalized it. And it’s not just crowd #1.

Y’all, we live in a time in which I have heard college-educated adults refer to our sitting president as a monkey.

I for one don’t find the things Donald Trump saying to be particularly shocking or surprising–outrageous, yes, horrific, absolutely–because for the past eight years conservative-news-watchers, living in their echo chamber, have been ingesting a steady diet of this kind of rhetoric. (It’s the same issue that confronts angry pro-choice feminists.) And now someone’s giving voice to it, openly, outside the echo chamber. Of course they like what he’s saying. Fox News has been taking advantage of the fact that they like hearing that kind of thing for ages, and now they’ve lost control of the movement.

Speaking of,

8. The establishment has screwed them over.
This goes back a bit to yesterday’s post, about how the Republican party I know has done nothing but take without giving anything useful or productive back. But there’s a little more to it than that, and I’m going to focus exclusively on the South for a minute.

James, my friend I cited yesterday, has made a couple of articulate points across Facebook about how the Republican establishment has allowed the federal government to become even larger in exchanging for protecting the interests of the rich. He also took issue with the polls citing that 20% of Trump supporters oppose the Emancipation Proclamation and are therefore racist, pointing out that for conservatives it does represent an enormous overreach on the part of the federal government and that he has heard several lower-class Republicans recite just that fact, thus demonstrating their understanding and presumably non-racist reasons for believing it.

Crowd #1 is, perhaps surprisingly but perhaps not, historical in their approach to small government.

In the South, at least, the desire for small government stems from the fact that over and over again, the federal government has stomped all over their states’ rights, taken everything dear to them, and then punished them for it. It’s a total and complete distrust starting before the Civil War, justified by the Reconstruction, and reaffirmed during the Civil Rights movement.

I AM NOT SAYING that slavery or Jim Crow laws or the KKK are justifiable or excusable in any way. I am saying that these people want to keep what is theirs and for the government to stay the hell away precisely because they have been, in their eyes, robbed time and time again. It’s right there in the history: the “Reconstruction” was obviously anything but. (Ironically enough, northern Republican manipulations of newly freed slaves basically destroyed any opportunity for improved white-black relations in the South. Since they were powerless to stop the Northerners, Southerners turned their ire on the other mostly-powerless group in the area: the newly freed slaves. Rather than having the opportunity to relearn to treat blacks as people, they instead solidified the narrative of white supremacy and black inferiority/general awfulness, which was compounded by the aforementioned political manipulation of blacks.) And when they had finally rebuilt what they considered to be a halfway livable society, LBJ made them get rid of that too. Those systems were wrong, but the forcible removal of them has in certain corners entrenched a deep distrust of the government. So, they might not be solely against the EP because of racism, but if they’re from the South, it’s not unlikely that alongside their understanding of the ways in which the federal government screwed over their ancestors is a healthy (har har) dose of resentment/disgust/distrust towards blacks.

And the systems the government has in place now are, in their eyes, doing nothing to help them. This extends beyond the South, to the oil fields of the Plains, to Trump’s own construction sites, where immigrants and blacks keep getting work and “handouts.” And since the current president is “one of them” (and also probably a Muslim), all they’ve been able to do is sit and gesture at their TVs in raging agreement with the talking heads–but now their time has, they think, come.

(It goes without saying that their understanding of the welfare system is somewhat warped [and that our welfare system needs improvement], and that there’s a vast irony that when Robert Bentley refused to expand Medicaid/care under the Affordable Care Act his constituents applauded him for hurting them. But it hasn’t been enough to kick out the real sources of their problems. They want more, and Trump is tapping into that.)

9. They deeply love America.
This may surprise you, but it’s important to keep in mind that they fact they are so deeply against the Syrian refugees is because they are terrified of something like 9/11 happening again. It’s also important to realize that their vision of America is based on the Pledge of Allegiance (“always-been-there” under God and all), Fox-News-esque American exceptionalism, the presence of white men on their dollar bills, Thanksgiving (aka the pilgrims aka religious freedom), and their surrounding community. Like I said, if you don’t encounter the diversity this country has to offer, it’s easy to assume that everywhere is like where you are, both the good and the bad.

(That blindness doesn’t belong to just Trump supporters, obviously. Heck, I remember This American Life doing a story on children from a school in the Bronx busing over to visit a private school and being absolutely devastated by the disparity between their impoverished lives and the luxury they encountered. And that’s within the same burrough of NYC. Let’s not talk about the number of people I fancy I’ve shocked by proving that there are, in fact, educated people in Alabama.)

And let’s not forget that when your own circumstances are less than desirable, as much as you look for something to blame, you look for something to aspire to, as well. Being an American–being a citizen of this great nation–can be a source of pride when you have very little else to be proud of. (Alternatively, even when you are proud of the little you have, it helps to have something great to back it all up.) But when you look around and see things in your great nation that seem (to you) to be less great, well–you want it to be better, according to your vision. And Trump is promising that–through sheer association, before he even makes a policy decision. He is great, so he can Make America Great Again.

10. They’re hoping to become his VP.
I struggled to decide if Chris Christie even deserves his own number, but I didn’t want to lump him in with other Trump supporters who, despite how much I disagree with them, I believe genuinely have one or more principles guiding their decision. Even if that principle mostly boils down to “screw Washingtonian politics,” it still has more character and justification than Mr. Christie.

 

In sum, I in no way mean for this to be an exhaustive list, or even an exhaustive consideration of all the points on this list, though I will gladly go into detail on the hows and whys of my conclusions. I will admit that it skews Southern, given that that’s simultaneously my area of expertise, as it were, and a place where the mentality of Trump supporters breeds. But it also skews Southern because the friends I mentioned in the beginning are not Southern and, to my understanding, have had very little contact with the South. To me it’s just as shocking that a Republican wouldn’t recognize that his party has a racist element–even in places where it’s the subtle racism that simply persists in creating and maintaining structures that make it impossible for impoverished blacks to make any sort of progress. (Then again, as I often say of the South, at least we have black people. It’s easier I think to think of your party as not-racist if you don’t actually see the wealth disparity and results of your policies on a regular basis.) Like I said, I’ve been all over, and I’ve seen how people view the South, so I’m always happy to offer some illumination, even as paltry as my own suburban upbringing can provide.

I hate that in this instance it’s on such an awful subject, but that’s all the more reason I think it’s important to remember in this approach that these are people we’re talking about, and that just because they’re wrong doesn’t mean they’re mindless idiots. As with any time we find ourselves on opposite sides of an issue, it’s our duty as fellow human beings to treat them as such, even if we’re met with obstinate resistance or terrifying white supremacy talk (though in the latter case, we also have a right to back away slowly). The polarizing rhetoric problem isn’t strictly limited to their side of the equation, and if we can’t learn to talk to each other again, the problems are only going to get worse, and Trump is only going to keep on winning.

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