I just finished reading the electoral safari inside Trump Country from the Associated Press. Coming a year after President Trump stunned the world by running and winning a racist, misogynist and xenophobic campaign for the White House (and the slew of stories about how it happened), this latest dispatch from the AP adds nothing new to the conversation.
Look, I know I’m one to sneer. On my podcast “Cape Up,” I’ve done my own deep dives into Trump’s aggrieved supporters. But that’s perhaps why the AP story — “In the heart of Trump country, his base’s faith is unshaken” — hit me with so much deja vu. Three podcast interviews in particular came to mind.
The focal point of the AP piece is a stuck-in-time Kentucky diner owned by Steven Whitt. “Everyone in town comes to his diner for nostalgia and homestyle cooking,” the story notes. In his book “The new minority: White working class politics in an age of immigration and inequality,” Justin Gest, a George Mason University professor, helped me understand that nostalgia is a hallmark of the white working class in both the United States and Europe.
“One of the principal arguments of this book and my research is that the politics of white working class people across both continents… is the politics of nostalgia,” Gest told me in May. “This is a politics that is consumed by the past.” He added, “Any conversation with white working class people in America’s heartland, in America’s Rust Belt, in our agrarian societies, what’s left of them, has to revere the past before prodding people into the future.”
The AP examination also points out that the strong bond between Trump country and the president they support is “as emotional as it is economic.” An astute observation that Gest talked about with even greater clarity in our interview.
So much of Donald Trump’s politics is symbolic. So, his purpose in many of his statements and policy visions is not necessarily practical in the sense that they’re actually achievable or feasible. They’re symbolic in the sense that this is what people want to hear and if it doesn’t get done, it’s almost beside the point because he’s elevating the prerogatives of his constituents to the national stage after having been relegated to the fringes of American politics for decades. And so, Donald Trump has become a white working class symbol because he is the one who has returned them to prominence in American politics.
Whitt told the AP that his diners like Trump because, “He’s a fighter. I think they like the bluntness of it.” Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, told me this is exactly why conservatives rallied around a thrice-married adulterer. “Donald Trump is not going to be careful. He is going to push through his agenda, and so they like the fact that he fights,” he told me in March. “Why are they rallying around him? The man fights.”
In that fight, the AP points out that for the white working class, Trump is “punching at all the people who let them down for so long — the presidential embodiment of their own discontent.” During an interview in October, Joan C. Williams talked about how at the root of that discontent is the overwhelming feeling of being forgotten by Washington and condescended to by coastal elites. “We call them rednecks with plumber’s butt in flyover states. And then they get offended,” said Williams, author of “White working class: Overcoming class cluelessness in America.” “Gee, why would that be? Because we’re insulting them.”
The AP reports that Whitt’s problems with health insurance were emblematic of a loss of trust in American institutions that led folks like him to Trump. And then there’s this riff on Whitt’s view of his poor neighbors. “Many of their welfare-dependent neighbors, he believes, stay trapped in a cycle of handouts and poverty while hardworking taxpayers like him and his wife are stuck with the tab and can’t get ahead,” the story reveals. “Where’s the fairness in that?” Whitt asks.
Whitt’s thinking is masterfully dissected by Williams in a chapter entitled, “Why does the working class resent the poor?” And during the podcast interview, Williams succinctly summed up its 10 pages.
White working class Americans have a very judgmental attitude towards the poor. Their attitude is I get up every day, I work hard at this unrelenting job, and I don’t understand why the government and the liberals only seem to care about these poor people who don’t keep their noses clean the way I do keep my nose clean. And so they have a very judgmental attitude toward the poor which Republicans over the past decades have very deftly used to undermine support for the government in general.
Gest, Williams and Schlapp helped give me a good grasp on what motivates Trump’s supporters. Rather than present the white working class as boiling rage frozen in amber, their research, writing and observations present them as complex, three-dimensional people. Once they helped me understand why Trump keeps playing to their resentments, I turned my attention to truly understanding the roiling left.
Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher and former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean all had messages for the Democratic Party that should be given much more attention. What they have to say and who they represent are just as important as Trump Country, especially since they represent the nation’s electoral majority.
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