Those who oppose Donald Trump keep missing a major point. Whether during the Republican primaries, in the General Election against Hillary Clinton, or since he became president, critics have misunderstood the basis for Trump’s appeal to his supporters.
Given that our current president is the most unconventional politician of modern times, getting a clear handle on him is not easy. He has defied all the norms, broken quite a few rules and seems to lack any fixed set of beliefs. You shouldn’t pay too much attention to what he says at any given moment because he doesn’t. Trump lies, changes his position and backpedals and restates. He also is masterful at creating distractions.
It is conventional wisdom that Trump won the presidency in 2016 by connecting with white working class Americans who had been left behind in the new global economy. Books like J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” provided support for that view by arguing that poor working people had been ignored by traditional politicians. Trump, it was said by many, spoke to their concerns and promised solutions to their problems.
To add to that perspective, many in the Democratic Party argued that the Party needed to refine its message to reach out to those forgotten voters. The hand-wringing about the need for a more inclusive approach continues to this day.
The problem is that working class whites really aren’t drawn to Trump because of his economic message. They may wish that coal was coming back or that the president would create new manufacturing jobs, but his continued failure to achieve either of those objectives hasn’t led to a significant drop in support among that key portion of his base.
It’s actually not clear that white working class voters ever took Trump’s economic promises very seriously, either literally or figuratively. While his rallies always included assurances that he alone could remedy their economic woes, those were never the main applause lines.
Those who believed early on that Trump couldn’t possibly be elected relied on the faulty assumption that he was too erratic and too lacking in the most basic qualifications and knowledge ever to win the support of thoughtful Republicans. On Election Day, 90% of voters who identified with the Party voted for Trump.
That phenomenon goes far toward explaining why Trump won despite not having a believable economic message. Our highly polarized politics led many Republicans to vote for him solely because he carried the Party’s label. Many, if not most, of them will continue to support him in the future regardless of his record.
It is true that a portion of his support did come from voters who anticipated economic gain for themselves if Trump captured the White House and Republicans retained control of Congress. That group was not, however, the economically disadvantaged. It was the wealthy segment of the Republican Party who received their reward through the GOP tax cut that was passed in 2017.
Vance’s hillbillies may see marginal benefits from legislation that poured millions into the pockets of the richest Americans, but those few extra dollars won’t change their lives. My argument here is that getting the short end of the tax cut stick won’t at all diminish their support for Trump.
Why, then, do they cling to a billionaire president who is doing nothing to provide materials benefits to them? Will they rebel as they discover it is their health benefits that have been taken away or made more expensive? Probably not.
Understanding Trump’s hold on America’s economically disadvantaged requires looking in a different direction. The answer, it turns out, is staring us in the face.
As a candidate and even more openly since he took office, Trump has played on a different anxiety than economics. Trump’s supporters are overwhelmingly white. So is the Republican Party. His consistent message, which supporters do take both literally and figuratively, is that he will protect them from the encroachment on their way of life from minorities and immigrants. The theme is neither subtle nor indirect.
Take the two moments that best characterize Trump’s appeal. One is the promise to build a wall. Many observers thought that the assertion that Mexico would pay for the wall was a critical ingredient in the popularity of the promise, but his total and complete failure to get Mexican compliance hasn’t diminished his supporters’ enthusiasm. You can see the same thing about his proposed Muslim ban which keeps falling afoul of legal and constitutional objections.
The other Trump “highlight” was his observation that there were”good people on both sides” of the events in Charlottesville last year. What most decent Americans saw as a rally of racists chanting ugly slogans and intent on violence was used by Trump as a dog whistle for racist supporters.
“Make America Great Again” is nothing more than a veiled reference to an era of unquestioned white privilege and minorities who “knew their place.” Trump is presenting himself to those who are threatened and anxious about the changing demographics of the United States as the person who can hold back the tide. Whether he can is largely beside the point. Trump holds out hope at the very time that a portion of the population is losing it.
We are at an incredibly ugly time in our history. Trump will not change his stripes; we have not yet seen the worst from him. Appeals to reason won’t dissuade many of his supporters. Neither will a better economic message by Democrats. Saving the country from the worst features of Trumpism will require a clear rejection of the racist and nativist views bellowed by this demagogue and an overwhelming turnout in November by those who believe that America is better than that.