The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama revives his ‘cling to guns or religion’ analysis — for Donald Trump supporters

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump energizes the crowd during a campaign rally Dec. 4 at Dorton Arena in Raleigh, N.C. (Ted Richardson/AP)

In April 2008, then-senator Barack Obama, a relative upstart Democrat from Illinois, was locked in a presidential primary with then-senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.). Pennsylvania's important primary was less than two weeks away, making Pennsylvania the temporary center of the political universe.

Then, the candidate whom some reporters were already describing as almost preternaturally aware of the American voter psyche made what just about everyone considers a mistake. At a San Francisco-area fundraiser, Obama took a shot at explaining the mostly white voters in those hard-scrabble and once-booming Pennsylvania industrial towns. He was speaking to a largely wealthy and well-educated California audience, and these Pennsylvanians were people that, in the minds of many liberals living along the nation's coasts, seemed to be voting against their own personal interests.

They seemed angry and politically confused, casting their votes with some regularity for conservatives who support, without modification, the trade deals, labor practices and shrinking wages that were making these voters' lives so hard. These are the people the 2004 book "What's the Matter with Kansas" was talking about. An unpaid "citizen-journalist" and Obama supporter following and writing about the Obama campaign for the Huffington Post -- at her own expense -- was at the fundraiser and, to her credit, reported precisely what Obama had said:

You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Bam. Obama had made not only the rookie political mistake of appearing to diminish or disparage Americans' affection for guns and God; he had also displayed the temerity to talk about a group of Americans accustomed to viewing themselves simply as "regular Americans" or the American norm — not as if they were just one important segment of a rapidly changing American mosaic.

He had described these white, working-class Americans who do not have college degrees or access to the ever-expanding universe of tech- and thought-centered jobs as understandably frightened, struggling and politically misguided — or perhaps anesthetized into believing that more guns and more God would solve their problems.

Needless to say, Clinton pounced, calling Obama an "elitist." Soon, Obama was, according to the Clinton camp, a candidate who didn't understand and couldn't lay claim to the votes of "working, hard-working Americans, white Americans." Therefore, she was the better bet.

We all know how that turned out.

So here we are, seven years later, and a now President Obama has said some things about this same set of voters — white Americans, and specifically men with limited education who once had near-exclusive access to industrial jobs that paid family-sustaining wages — and the Republican candidate who so many of them seem to support, Donald Trump.

Here's a portion of what Obama told NPR News in the interview airing Monday:

I do think that when you combine that demographic change with all the economic stresses that people have been going through because of the financial crisis, because of technology, because of globalization, the fact that wages and incomes have been flatlining for some time, and that particularly blue-collar men have had a lot of trouble in this new economy, where they are no longer getting the same bargain that they got when they were going to a factory and able to support their families on a single paycheck.
You combine those things, and it means that there is going to be potential anger, frustration, fear. Some of it justified, but just misdirected. I think somebody like Mr. Trump is taking advantage of that. That's what he's exploiting during the course of his campaign.

Sound at all familiar? It should. Obama just made largely the same, perhaps less-volcanically phrased argument that he did all the way back in 2008 about the psyche of economically struggling, largely white voters. He shared his ideas on what brings these voters political comfort but perhaps not the real solutions that they seek. Just read the two statements again.

And then there's this: There is objective evidence that the president is in large part correct.

Trump is, indisputably, the Republican front-runner and has been for several months. He's held forth at the top of the very large Republican primary presidential contest well past the point that many an experienced political reporter, prognosticator or consultant loyal to other candidates have predicted. He's managed to say things in public that for other candidates would be deadly and to draw crowds to his campaign events that really are remarkable in size — if sometimes troubling in their, shall we say, intensity.

But what we must say here is this:

A very big and very substantial share of Trump's support — the people putting him at the top of almost every poll — are white, male voters who do not have a college degree. We double-checked on Monday. When The Washington Post's polling team looked closely at the combined results of the November and December Washington Post-ABC News polls, they found that, while 35 percent of Republican-leaning voters described themselves as Trump supporters,  those figures were even higher among white Americans who do not have a college degree — and particularly white men. In fact, 47 percent of white men in this group said they are Trump voters, compared to 32 percent of white men with college degrees.

That is what the numbers show. And there's no funny math involved. The sample size is small, so the margin of error in these calculations is high — plus or minus 8 points — but it's still statistically significant. And poll after poll has shown the same thing.

What we are telling you is not, as too many Trump supporters all too often assume, that Trump voters are to be discounted as intellectually inferior. Educational attainment in the United States is rarely a pure reflection of ability or intelligence. After the free K-12 years, how much education Americans obtain is often much more a reflection of opportunity and personal circumstance and what kind of high school they attended. But educational attainment in the new technology- and thought-driven economy is a strong indicator of what types of jobs pay, security and stability that workers and anyone who depends on them can access. Even the best K-12 public schools — the ones most likely to prepare a kid for college then help them get into the kind of school where most students actually graduate – overwhelmingly serve white, middle- and upper-middle-class children of people with college degrees.

Education is in this way a real indicator of what American voters are experiencing in their everyday lives, what they think should rank among the country's political priorities, what they fear for themselves and their children and what may sound like feasible solutions to their problems.

And that's the most neutral and empathetic description of what's driving Trump voters. There are — without a doubt — uglier and more sinister things that can be found in the hearts and minds that show up en masse to Trump rallies too. Trump tells these people that the country can and will be great again if certain people are booted out of the country or blocked from coming in and even physically attacked. (Remember when Trump said maybe a Black Lives Matter protester "should have been roughed up?")

Is it really a wonder that some Trump supporters sucker punch, spit, hit, kick and spit upon protesters who don't share their views? He's a master at what he does: manipulate legitimate frustration and anxiety for political gain. Or, at least that's how the president put it Monday.

[Cheers, a punch, a slur. What it’s like in the crowd at a Donald Trump rally]

It's certainly also true that there are lot of Americans — of all races, ethnicities and genders— struggling with some of these same economic and social challenges. But only white men have ever historically enjoyed exclusive access to family-sustaining or actual high pay with limited education, then for decades more enjoyed at least reliable access to those same jobs.

As a result, only white men in the United States and perhaps those whose economic and social fortunes are most closely tied to these men have developed a sense that this was not just a state of affairs created by social and legal structures that tipped the scale in their favor. These Americans balk at any description of themselves as a distinct group — an important but still limited part of the American masses — precisely because the country operated to their exclusive and then their primary benefit for so long that no matter what has changed, their economic and social dominance and stability just seems like the natural and proper state of affairs.

White male entitlement — yes we said entitlement — and the actual and not-all-imagined paucity of jobs with solid pay for those with limited education are part of what make these voters so angry and so eager — as oh so many Trump supporters have said — to consume Trump's "politically incorrect" comments about who is to blame and what needs to be done to restore American greatness.

In this sense, Trump's campaign slogan isn't some kind of haphazard catchphrase that happens to fit well on the width of a trucker hat. It's a thing of brevity and brilliance. It's a love letter to the white, American male voter with limited education (and some others). It is a message tailor-made for those who believe that booting 11 million undocumented immigrants out of the country and surveilling Muslims wholesale will resolve their economic woes and keep their families safe.