Trying to explain Trump voters has become something of a cottage industry, both for those who want to exploit them and for those who want to marginalize them. They were motivated, we are told, by rage. They were motivated by being left behind in a modern, skills-based economy. They were motivated by racism. They were motivated by contempt for a particularly off-putting Democratic presidential nominee.
One of the more compelling accounts comes from University of Pennsylvania political scientist Diana Mutz. Looking at changes in voting behavior between 2012 and 2016, she finds little evidence for pocketbook interpretations of Trump support. “Change in financial wellbeing had little impact on candidate preference,” she explains. “Instead, changing preferences were related to changes in the party’s positions on issues related to American global dominance and the rise of a majority-minority America.”
Trump voters, in this interpretation, were convinced that the United States was losing status abroad and that the American way of life was changing at home beyond recognition (symbolized by the country’s increasing and, for some, disorienting diversity). Both of these fears were confirmed, in the eyes of many Americans, by the presidency of Barack Obama.
As Mutz describes it, a group that is losing social standing has some predictable reactions. It longs for a more stable, hierarchical past. And it is increasingly negative toward out-groups. This is not, Mutz concludes, “racism of the kind suggesting that whites view minorities as morally or intellectually inferior, but rather, one that regards minorities as sufficiently powerful to be a threat to the status quo.”
Mutz’s case has the ring of truth. The centerpiece message of President Trump’s campaign, after all, was a return to lost greatness. His rhetoric was (and remains) organized by resentment of outsiders — violent migrants, suspicious Muslim refugees, exploitative Chinese. U.S. military dominance must be reasserted. The American way of life must be restored to its proper, pre-PC form. In many ways, Trump unleashed the political power of nostalgia — in this case, nostalgia for a time when his supporters had more control over the political and social priorities of the country.
If this interpretation is correct, what are the implications?
First, the United States is experiencing not just an ideological disagreement but a cultural showdown. When liberals speak of gun control, many conservatives hear contempt for their entire manner of living. When liberals speak of diversity, many conservatives hear reverse discrimination and the promise of oppressive speech codes. To his supporters, Trump does not merely hold their views; he takes their side in a social conflict. Even if Trump betrays his ideological commitments, it is unlikely to undermine the support of 35 to 40 percent of Americans. Tribal loyalties are not broken over policy disagreements.
Second, it is unlikely that a progressive, populist economic message would poach much Trump support. Democrats may try to organize winning coalitions that don’t include his supporters. Or they may provide symbols — on, say, guns, abortion or religious liberty — that show they don’t hold more conservative ways of life and thinking in complete contempt. But it will not work to shake Trump supporters by the collar and tell them they should care more about the minimum wage. Especially if someone with the limited cross- ideological appeal of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is doing the shaking.
Third, a message of cultural nostalgia will eventually lose in a nation growing more diverse and progressive in its social views. But not yet. And not everywhere. Much about the quality and bearability of U.S. politics going forward will be determined by the grace and understanding of the ascendant group. Views about diversity, sexual norms and the nature of gender are changing. But that transition will be peaceable only in a society committed to genuine pluralism — allowing people with more traditional views to inhabit voluntary institutions (including religious institutions) that reflect their values.
Finally, it is important for genuine conservatives to rise to this moment. The social contribution of conservatism is to accommodate inevitable change in a way that honors the best of the past. This is different from being reactionary. Rather, true conservatives adjust to shifting circumstances in a manner that respects tradition. So diversity and inclusion — in the end, sources of strength — must be matched with individual responsibility, family commitment, patriotism and a concern for social order.
This is the high calling and enduring appeal of conservatism — not to undo change, but to humanize it and to root our shifting way of life in ultimate things.
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