George Packer, The New Yorker; via LJB
How Donald Trump is winning over the white working class.
image from article
Last week, Donald Trump became the leader of the Republican Party. He thrashed his way to this summit by understanding what many intelligent people utterly failed to see: the decline of American institutions and mores, from Wall Street and the Senate to cable news and the Twitterverse, made the candidacy of a celebrity proto-fascist with no impulse control not just possible but in some ways inevitable. It shouldn’t have been such a surprise. An early tremor came in 2008, in the person of Sarah Palin, who endorsed Trump before almost any other top Republican. In her contempt for qualifications, her blithe ignorance, she was an avatar for Trump. A lot of Republicans, many of them female, saw in the small-town common woman an image of themselves; many men see in the say-anything billionaire an image of their aspirations. Palin showboated her way from politics to reality TV, while Trump swaggered in the opposite direction. Together, they wore a path that is already almost normal.
Trump also grasped what Republican élites are still struggling to fathom: the ideology that has gripped their Party since the late nineteen-seventies—anti-government, pro-business, nominally pious—has little appeal for millions of ordinary Republicans. The base of the Party, the middle-aged white working class, has suffered at least as much as any demographic group because of globalization, low-wage immigrant labor, and free trade. Trump sensed the rage that flared from this pain and made it the fuel of his campaign. Conservative orthodoxy, already weakened by its own extremism—the latest, least appealing standard-bearer was Ted Cruz—has suffered a stunning defeat from within. And Trump has replaced it with something more dangerous: white identity politics.
Republican Presidential candidates received majorities of the white vote in every election after 1964. In 2012, Barack Obama won about forty per cent of it, average for Democrats in the past half century. But no Republican candidate—not even Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan—made as specific an appeal to the economic anxieties and social resentments of white Americans as Trump has. When he vows to “make America great again,” he is talking about and to white America, especially the less well off. The ugliness of the pitch will drive some more moderate and perhaps more affluent Republicans to sit out the fall election, or even to vote for Hillary Clinton, the nearly certain Democratic nominee. #NeverTrump and #ImWithHer are trending on select Republican Twitter feeds. Trump’s toxicity, combined with a decline in the white electorate—which, since 1976, has dropped from eighty-nine per cent of the American voting public to seventy-two per cent—might make this a year of Democratic routs.
The Democratic Party has a strange relationship with the white working class. Bernie Sanders speaks to and for it—not as being white but as being economically victimized. He kept his campaign alive last week, in Indiana, in large part by beating Clinton nearly two to one among whites without a college degree. Coverage of Sanders has focussed on his support among the young and the progressive, but he has also outperformed Clinton with the white working class. Even in losing, Sanders has shown that a candidacy based on economic populism can win back some voters who long ago deserted the Democratic Party. It’s hard to know whether these voters, faced with a choice between Clinton and Trump, will revert to the Republican side, stay home, or vote for a Democrat who until now hasn’t known how to reach them.
Identity politics, of a different brand from Trump’s, is also gaining strength among progressives. In some cases, it comes with an aversion toward, even contempt for, their fellow-Americans who are white and sinking. Abstract sympathy with the working class as an economic entity is easy, but the feeling can vanish on contact with actual members of the group, who often arrive with disturbing beliefs and powerful resentments—who might not sound or look like people urban progressives want to know. White male privilege remains alive in America, but the phrase would seem odd, if not infuriating, to a sixty-year-old man working as a Walmart greeter in southern Ohio. The growing strain of identity politics on the left is pushing working-class whites, chastised for various types of bigotry (and sometimes justifiably), all the more decisively toward Trump.
Last fall, two Princeton economists released a study showing that, since the turn of the century, middle-aged white Americans—primarily less educated ones—have been dying at ever-increasing rates. This is true of no other age or ethnic group in the United States. The main factors are alcohol, opioids, and suicide—an epidemic of despair. A subsequent Washington Post story showed that the crisis is particularly severe among middle-aged white women in rural areas. In twenty-one counties across the South and the Midwest, mortality rates among these women have actually doubled since the turn of the century. Anne Case, one of the Princeton study’s co-authors, said, “They may be privileged by the color of their skin, but that is the only way in their lives they’ve ever been privileged.”
According to the Post, these regions of white working-class pain tend to be areas where Trump enjoys strong support. These Americans know that they’re being left behind, by the economy and by the culture. They sense the indifference or disdain of the winners on the prosperous coasts and in the innovative cities, and it is reciprocated. Trump has seized the Republican nomination by finding scapegoats for the economic hardships and disintegrating lives of working-class whites, while giving these voters a reassuring but false promise of their restoration to the center of American life. He plays to their sense of entitlement, but his hollowness will ultimately deepen their cynicism.
The Democrats probably won’t need the votes of the white working class to win this year. Demographic trends favor the Party, as does the bloated and hateful persona of the Republican choice. Nonetheless, the Democratic nominee can’t afford, either politically or morally, to write off those Americans. They need a politics that offers honest answers to their legitimate grievances and keeps them from sliding further into self-destruction. ♦