Thomas B. Edsall MARCH 30, 2016, New York Times [original article contains links]
uncaptioned image from article
Conservatives who once derided upscale liberals as latte-sipping losers now burst
with contempt for the lower-income followers of Donald J. Trump.
These blue-collar white Republicans, a mainstay of the conservative coalition
for decades, are now vilified by their former right-wing allies as a “non-Christian”
force “in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture,” corrupted by the same “sense of
entitlement” that Democratic minorities were formerly accused of.
Kevin Williamson, a columnist for National Review, initiated the most recent
escalation of this particular Republican-against-Republican power struggle. In a
March 13 essay, “The Father-Führer,” Williamson portrays Trump’s struggling
white supporters as relying on their imaginary victimhood when, in fact, he
They failed themselves. If you spend time in hardscrabble,
white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own
native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare
dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family
anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children
with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog— you will come
to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even
Washington, as bad as Washington can be.
Less well-off white voters have only themselves to blame, Williamson
It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic
as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that.
Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster.
There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign
occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades
do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and
the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America.
Not satisfied to stop there, Williamson adds:
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is
that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets.
Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical
Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about
struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories
about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs.
Finally, determined to blow a hole in the Trump hot air balloon, the columnist
The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish
culture whose main products are misery and used heroin
needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So
does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or
political. They need real opportunity, which means that they
need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.
Williamson’s bitterness over the refusal of Trump’s supporters to get in line
behind a more acceptable candidate is echoed across the right.
David French, also of the National Review, writes:
I grew up in Kentucky, live in a rural county in Tennessee, and
have seen the challenges of the white working-class firsthand.
Simply put, Americans are killing themselves and destroying
their families at an alarming rate. No one is making them do it.
The economy isn’t putting a bottle in their hand. Immigrants
aren’t making them cheat on their wives or snort OxyContin.
Obama isn’t walking them into the lawyer’s office to force them
to file a bogus disability claim.
In a March 25 post on RedState, Caleb Howe, another frequent conservative
commentator, welcomes the prospect of the departure of Trump supporters from
the Republican Party: “GOOD NEWS! Buchanan Says If Ted Cruz Wins, An ‘Awful
Lot’ of Trump Supporters Will ‘Just Go Home”
The “new Trump voters,” Howe writes,
aren’t motivated by what makes the Republican Party the
Republican Party. They aren’t in this to limit the size and scope
of government. They aren’t coming out to Trump rallies
because he’s talking about reducing the debt.
If Trump is not nominated and his supporters stay home on Election Day,
Howe believes that “there’s really only one response: Bye.”
Glenn Beck joined the chorus of anti-Trump conservatives on March 24, when
he told listeners to his radio show that such Republicans were not real Christians:
We’re not living our Christian faith because no Christian, no
real Christian — I don’t mean a judgmental Christian, I mean
somebody who’s living their faith — no Christian says, “I want
that guy, that guy is the guy for me.”
This repudiation of a whole class of voters has become a source of bitter debate
on the right.
In a prescient January 14 essay, “To Attract Disillusioned Voters, the GOP Must
Understand Their Concerns,” Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public
Policy Center, a conservative think tank, wrote:
America’s self-appointed best and brightest uniformly view the
passions unleashed by Trump as the modern-day equivalent of
a medieval peasants’ revolt. And, like their medieval forebears,
they mean to crush it. That effort is both a fool’s errand for the
country and a poisoned chalice for conservatives and
In Olsen’s view, disparaging Trump’s lower-income white supporters “will
simply intensify the masses’ rage and ensure that their political spokesmen become
more intransigent and radical.” Even worse,
keeping blue-collar white Americans out of political power will
result in exactly what Washington elites have wanted for years:
a series of grand bargains that keep the status quo largely
intact and the Democratic party in power.
Only now are major party leaders and contributors beginning to recognize the
full depth of this intra-party conflict.
On March 28, my colleague Nick Confessore documented in crushing detail
how Republican leaders, donors and strategists disregarded the mounting
discontent of white working class Republicans, thus setting the stage for the Trump
The history, Confessore wrote, is
one of a party elite that abandoned its most faithful voters,
blue-collar white Americans, who faced economic pain and
uncertainty over the past decade as the party’s donors,
lawmakers and lobbyists prospered. From mobile home parks
in Florida and factory towns in Michigan, to Virginia’s coal
country, where as many as one in five adults live on Social
Security disability payments, disenchanted Republican voters
lost faith in the agenda of their party’s leaders.
While white voters with a high school degree or less have steadily declined as a
share of the electorate — from 82 percent of adults 25 and older in 1940 to 29
percent in 2007 — they have repeatedly played a crucial role in determining the
outcome of elections.
In the presidential elections of 1960 and 1964 – both Democratic victories –
John Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson each won 55 percent of the votes cast by
whites without college degrees, according to the widely-cited 2008 Brookings paper,
“The Decline of the White Working Class and the Rise of a Mass Upper Middle
In the next two elections, 1968 and 1972, in the wake of the civil rights
movement, urban riots and a sharp increase in violent crime, white working class
support for the Democratic nominees fell by 20 percentage points, to 35 percent,
according to the paper’s two authors, Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz. “The
Democrats,” they wrote, “were the party of the white working class no longer.”
These two elections marked the establishment of a conservative majority that
produced Republican presidential victories in 1980, 1984 and 1988 — the only
exception being 1976 when Watergate briefly stalled the ascendance of the right.
White working class voters were crucial later in the 1994 Republican takeover
of the House engineered by Newt Gingrich, now a leading Trump supporter. While
non-college whites supported Republican presidential candidates beginning in
1968, many remained loyal to the Democratic Party in Congressional races until the
Contract With America was on offer. In 1992, 57 percent of white men without
college degrees voted Democratic congressional elections. In 1994, the percentage
shrank by 20 points. Republicans captured the House that year and maintained
control in 8 of the next 10 elections.
The challenges facing the white working class are indeed severe. According to
Teixeira and Abramowitz:
Between 1979 and 2005, the average real hourly wage for those
with a college degree went up 22 percent and for those with
advanced degrees, 28 percent. In contrast, average wages for
those with only some college went up a mere 3 percent, actually
fell 2 percent for those with a high school diploma, and for high
school dropouts, declined a stunning 18 percent.
These setbacks have provided fertile recruiting opportunities for Republicans. David
Wasserman, writing at fivethirtyeight.com in December 2015, found that of five
voting groups (whites with college degrees, whites without college degrees, African-Americans,
Latinos and Asians/others), whites without college degrees are
“Republicans’ best group by far.” In 2008, John McCain carried these voters by 14
points, and in 2012 Mitt Romney won them by “a whopping 26 points.”
The virulent attacks on less affluent Republican voters by Williamson et al raise
the question: As a matter of practical politics, how can a party that is losing ground
in virtually every growing constituency — Hispanics, Asians, single women and the
young — even consider jettisoning a single voter, much less the struggling white
The Republican Party has seen its core — married white Christians — decline
from 62 percent of the population of the United States to 28 percent in 2015,
according to the Public Religion Research Institute.
Trump has won his biggest primary margins among less financially secure, less
educated voters, turning the traditional winning coalition in Republican primaries
upside down. Mitt Romney consistently did best among the most educated and
most affluent Republican primary voters. So did John McCain in 2008.
The accompanying chart [pls. refer to the original article], based on an analysis by the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies, illustrates aggregated exit poll data from the Republican primaries held through March 21. It shows the demographic groups that have provided Trump with relatively high and relatively low levels of support.
The comparatively low levels of support for Trump among college-educated
Republicans, women, young voters and those with incomes above $100,000 suggest
that these voters are most likely to sit out the election or to vote Democratic if
Trump is the nominee. Conversely, groups that gave him higher than average
support in the primaries — the less well educated, those with incomes below the
median, men and rural voters — are likely to deliver his best margins in the general
If there are two key themes in the election so far, one is Trump’s ability to
enrage; the other is his ability to exceed expectations. The disregard of liberal and
conservative elites for working and middle class voters has manifested itself in a
consistent underestimation of the anger, resentment and pessimism of these voters
— and hence of their electoral power.
A November 2015 WSJ/NBC survey found that 69 percent of respondents
described themselves as “angry because our political system seems to only be
working for the insiders with money and power;” 54 percent said that both the
economic and political systems were “stacked” against them.
The primaries have demonstrated the importance of the primary process in
making unheard voices audible.
On March 14, 1968, less than a month before he was assassinated, the Rev. Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech, “The Other America,” in which he contrasted
white America with black America.
In the former,
millions of people have the milk of prosperity and the honey of
equality flowing before them. This America is the habitat of
millions of people who have food and material necessities for
their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom
and human dignity for their spirits.
The latter, the “other America,” has
a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope
into the fatigue of despair. In this other America, thousands
and thousands of people, men in particular walk the streets in
search for jobs that do not exist.
It is an irony of history, then, that King’s language perfectly describes the
conflict today between the privileged establishment and the hard pressed rank and
file of the overwhelmingly white Republican Party — a conflict between haves and
have-nots that is taking the Republican Party to a place it has never been.