Back in the 2008 election, John McCain spokeswoman Nancy Pfotenhauer was on MSNBC and made some waves talking about the senator’s chances of winning Virginia. She made a distinction between “Northern Virginia” and “real Virginia.” In fact, if you listen to the whole clip, Pfotenhauer’s claim was even grander than that — she dug in pretty deeply about the parts of the country that would be immune to Barack Obama’s campaign.
I bring this up because, as the 2016 campaign heats up, I’m hearing echoes of this kind of “real America” distinction being made again. Indeed, this month everyone is falling all over themselves trying to explain the parts of America that find Donald Trump appealing.
There are two predominant themes in these narratives. The first is the degree to which the modern global economy has devastated these parts of the country, combined with the fact that less-wealthy whites feel these relative losses more keenly than minorities. Reihan Salam got at this last Friday, citing Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin:
Working-class whites feel worse off than their parents while working-class blacks and Latinos feel better off. If you’re a white man in your mid-30s without a college degree, there’s a decent chance your father enjoyed steady blue-collar employment and a stable family life when he was your age, and you do not. Native-born black men, in contrast, might compare their circumstances favorably with those of their own fathers, who often faced intense racial discrimination. Similarly, Latino immigrants of modest means generally believe themselves to be better off than they would have been in their native countries. That’s no small thing. In this sense, at least, upwardly mobile working-class blacks and Latinos have more in common with upwardly mobile college-educated whites than they do with working-class whites.
The Guardian’s Chris Arnade strikes a similar theme:
For the working class whites, given our country’s history of racism, of segregation, of slavery, finding respect through race is dangerous territory. Yet, with the unions mostly gone, with so many other outlets for respect eroded, it has left many with few easy options other than surging ahead, led by Trump, into the ugly, unacceptable territory of outright racism.
The second theme in this narrative is that because elites are mostly horrified by Trump, they will naturally look down on Trump’s supporters, rendering them incapable of understanding the political movement he is spearheading. In an interview with Slate’s Isaac Chotiner, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald evinces this concern:
[I]f you are someone who wants to stop Trump or Brexit, your goal should be to communicate effectively with the people who believe it is in their interest to support Trump or Brexit. I think in general there is no effort on the part of media elites to communicate with those people and do anything other than tell them that they are primitive, racist, and stupid. And if the message being sent is that you are primitive, racist, and stupid, and not that you have been f–ked over in ways that are really bad and need to be rectified, of course those people are not going to be receptive to the message coming from the people who view them with contempt and scorn. I think that is why Brexit won, and I think that is the real danger of Trump winning.
And in The American Conservative, Rod Dreher notes:
I’m not a hillbilly, nor do I descend from hillbilly stock, strictly speaking. But I do come from poor rural white people in the South. I have spent most of my life and career living among professional class urbanites, most of them on the East Coast, and the barely banked contempt they — the professional-class whites, I mean — have for poor white people is visceral, and obvious to me. Yet it is invisible to them.
Or, to sum it up in a tweet from a Trump supporter:
So, to sum up: the reason the general election race is competitive is that the coastal elites who support Hillary Clinton do not understand the parts of America that like Donald Trump — and, what is worse, they don’t care. And since all they’re doing is talking to each other on Twitter, the group-think will render them unable to understand real America.
Each of the linked articles above is worth reading in full. The possibility that the elite consensus against Trump could lead to political blinders is certainly a real one. But just as Pfotenhauer proved wrong in her prediction that “real America” would lead McCain to win Virginia, Wisconsin, or Michigan, I’d suggest that Trump supporters — and the Trump-sympathizing elites who write about them — are wearing some pretty powerful blinders as well.
Consider, for example, Michael Grunwald’s reporting in Politico on the cognitive dissonance GOP delegates displayed at the Republican National Convention:
Just as most Americans say they hate Congress but routinely vote for their local congressmen, most Republicans seem to detect a national economic malaise while — with some exceptions in places like coal country and the oil patch — touting the economic progress in their local communities. They square that circle in a variety of ways — crediting their Republican mayors and governors, accusing Obama of manipulating data, or citing legitimate weaknesses in the recovery from the Great Recession. But with unemployment down from 10 percent to less than 5 percent since late 2009, one of Trump’s many challenges will be convincing non-Republicans that America isn’t working even though nearly 15 million more Americans are.
Or, for all the talk about a surge in economic populism, there’s the small matter that it’s not showing up in the polls all that much. Consider the latest NBC/WSJ poll, which showed that Americans believe that both free trade (55 percent to 38 percent) and immigration (56 percent to 35 percent0 helps America more than it hurts. This part was particularly interesting:
In addition, the NBC/WSJ polls shows that 52 percent of voters believe President Obama is in the mainstream when it comes to his approach to issues, and 50 percent say the same thing of Hillary Clinton. But just 40 percent say that Donald Trump is in the mainstream, while 57 percent say he’s out of step.
And 48 percent of respondents believe Democratic congressional candidates are in the mainstream, compared with 31 percent who think the same of GOP congressional candidates.
Wow. It’s almost as if Trump doesn’t understand real America.
That last sentence was a cheap shot, but I want to suggest there’s a grain of truth to it. Just as Trump sympathizers argue that elites don’t understand real America, the polling data suggests that a majority of Americans don’t actually agree with Trump’s message. Indeed, it is possible that Trump supporters overestimate their own strength because they hold their views so vehemently. For example, even if more Americans support free trade, protectionists are more passionate in their views.
The truth is that real America is messy and complex, and any pundits who claims they can measure the pulse of the country are selling you something. It is possible that the elites who are appalled by Donald Trump — including the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts — are out of touch. But I’m unconvinced that they are more out of touch than the writers who lean on phrases like “real America” or “middle America.”