A year ago I was convinced that there was no way a major political party, that too a conservative one, would nominate someone like Donald J. Trump as their nominee for the President of the United States. I was not alone in my unwillingness to take his candidature seriously, most of the pundits in the US and globally thought of it as a stunt or at worst a joke.
How could a person as fiscally irresponsible and ideologically liberal as Donald Trump even stand a chance in a party of hard core fiscal and ideological conservatives?
A year later, the answer to that is becoming crystal clear as we go through this Republican National Convention. The delegates, the speeches and the general atmosphere tells a story that most of us missed. It represents an undercurrent that has been going on in American politics for a while and only recently has gotten attention.
As a student of political science, I set out to understand what I and others like me got completely wrong about this phenomenon. A number of articles over the last couple of months have asked this very question and have represented a variety of explanations for how Trump happened and who are the people who catapulted him to the top of the Grand Old Party’s (GOP) ticket. The consensus seems to be that American heartlands have been suffering from economic heartache that has been exasperated by racial dissonance for years now.
The media, most of which is based on either East or West coast, ignored the suffering of middle America in favor of focusing on issues that are more metropolitan. This sense of having your issues ignored coupled with the shifting nature of the economy especially in the new millennia caught the heartlands by surprise. What used to be bustling factory towns quickly disintegrated in to ghost towns as factories left for greener pastures in East Asia and Latin America. Without any plans to replace the old economy with a new one, the citizens of these towns were left to fend for themselves in an economy that was changing too quickly and requires new training and skill sets. Add to this the changing nature of demography and social change in America; you end up with a perfect storm. That perfect storm has garnered us with a nominee like Trump.
I can go in to analytical details of how and why his supporters feel what they feel but instead I will narrate a few conversations I have had with his supporters across the South. Throughout my travels over the last few months across the South (Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana specifically), I met a number of his supporters and had conversations to better understand what they are thinking. I wanted to know are these people just racist? Are they afraid or they do not care anymore? What kind of a person would support someone who makes outlandish statements and has given no specifics on how they plan to do what they claim? What was their thought process? In finding answers for these questions I identified three core themes that nearly every one of his supporters falls under; Economic, Social and Systemic Betrayal.
The Economic Supporter
The most common among Trumpian support base is the economic voter. These are the voters who at one time did vote democrat or were independents but have now decided to back someone like Trump for purely economic reasons. Among all the conversations I have had with supporters like these, the one that sums it up nicely is the one I had with a 2 time Iraq war vet who was laid off from his job in September 2015 and just recently found a job in a different state. His logic for voting Trump was straightforward. He believed that he fought for his country and served two tours in Iraq on the pretext that he was going to come back home and be able to live his life again. On returning home, he was told that his qualifications did not fit most of the jobs he thought he was qualified for. Without a college degree and just a high school diploma, it became increasingly hard for him find a job and even when he found one it barely paid him enough to pay the bills of his 4-person family.
On top of that he saw people who were younger and mostly of Latino descent competing in a job market that is already rough for low skilled workers like him. He was angry at the fact he had to compete with people he thought were not ‘American’ while he had served his country with two tours. In his mind, he deserved the jobs even if he did not have the exact qualifications for them because his military experience should have counted for something. Additionally, he was angry at the President for not taking a stand for people like him. On further probing, he felt as if the President did not understand what middle America was going through and was too fixated in dividing the country instead of being the President for everyone. This is a sentiment I have heard over and over again in all my conversations and I will explain what it means in a bit. But going back to the vet, I asked him point blank if he thought people of color were any less American than he was and his answer was no. He went out of his way to specify that he was not racist but was simply sick of being accused of being a racist when he was just trying to make his point about having to deal with a bad economy that was unforgiving for middle aged workers with low tech skills.
The Social Supporter
This kind of supporters are mostly older people who are close to retirement or have already retired. They are concerned with the economy but their focus is primarily on how the nature of the society is changing. These are your values voters, the evangelicals and traditionally conservative voters. I met up with a group of them in Mississippi while on my way to Louisiana at a Greyhound stop. I ended up talking and listening to what they felt was going wrong in the country that only Trump could fix.
To begin with they think America is changing too fast. The demographic changes scare them because they are not ready for it all. Most of these people were staunchly against Marriage Equality and feel violated that it was ‘shoved down their throat by unelected people in Washington’. Same group of people firmly believes that America is for Americans i.e. White Americans are true Americans while the Latinos and African Americans cannot be trusted to uphold quintessential American values. It is pertinent to mention here that what they refer to as ‘American Values’ are very specific evangelical conservative values. One of the most telling features of this conversation was their insistence that President Obama was a Muslim born in Kenya and that he was elected as part of conspiracy to bring down America. And as a result of that everything has gone down the drain for them. On pointing out that the US economy is actually doing better than it has done in 15 years, their answer was ‘Well for people like you not people like us’. Which they insisted had nothing to do with my race but more to do with the fact I lived in a major city.
I would like to point out that this sentiment is pretty common across the South given the penetration of conservative talk radio in these parts of the country. Most outsiders fail to understand the hold conservative talk radio show hosts like Mark Levin, Hugh Hewitt and Laura Ingraham have on people living in the heartlands. Media outlets like Fox News and conservative new sites have spent years garnering an audience that is controlled like a flock for the GOP. It is an economic cycle for these corporations and individuals that provides them with a steady audience that needs a reason to justify why things are the way they are.
For these voters, the demography of the US is changing too quickly. To them all Latinos are ‘Mexican’ and came here illegally even though Latino citizens make up about 19% of the total US population. The other factor is they overestimate African Americans in the country which are 11.7% of the population of the US. This fear of the ‘other’ is used to justify everything from why the economy is bad to why the small town is suffering from an opioid addiction. For these voters, the US is changing fast and they cannot make peace with it as it makes them feel irrelevant. So the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ is a rallying cry for them to make America a country that it was in 1980s when the demographic change was not in their face and they could feel comfortable at the pace at which things were moving. No one was telling them what to say and what not to say. There was no political correctness (or decency as it is normally called) and that was the essence of freedom. They want to be in control and Trump offers them that.
These make up a vast majority of new Trump supporters who have become some of his most ardent supporters in recent months. They hail from all over the country and effectively have grievances that bring together the social and economic voters. They feel they got betrayed by the system.
While travelling between Pennsylvania and Georgia, I met up with a few of these supporters in Virginia. Most of them come from industry towns and have lost their jobs after the factories closed and moved away. The low end jobs in their towns were taken over by immigrants, mostly Mexicans, and now they are dealing with unemployment and piling debt. For these supporters the system betrayed them. The system promised them that if they worked hard and paid their taxes things will improve. So they worked at the factories and small business. They paid their taxes and expected to get what their parents had gotten; a house and an American dream. Instead the factories closed up because free trade, their saving got eroded in the 2008 crash and the nature of the economy changed such that their skill set became obsolete. Now they are angry, irrelevant and feel betrayed.
To top it off they see minority groups moving in to their old neighborhoods and see a few them using government entitlements such as social security and that triggers a reaction of betrayal. With racist undertones the number one question I keep getting asked in these conversation is ‘What have these people done to earn this free money?’. ‘These people’ are mostly African American groups and ‘free money’ is social security. Upon bringing up the fact that 64% of social security entitlements are used by white families, the response changed to ‘well they deserve it because they pay taxes’. This underlying assumption that only ‘White is Right’ is what Trump was able to exploit tactfully. The support base he has built is a wide coalition of economically disenfranchised, socially disappointed and systematically betrayed Americans who just want things to go back to the way they were when they could have a high school degree and still find a factory job that paid well.
The problem is that is never going to happen and this is something they are not willing to listen to yet. Neither is Trump telling them that. For these supporters, jobs are a zero sum game. If they lost their job, someone took it. The media they are exposed to and the rhetoric they are provided explains their job went to an immigrant. So for them immigrant stole from them. And yes while some of them are legitimately racist bigots, a lot of them just want their life back because they believe someone stole it. At no point are these populations told that their job skills are obsolete in today’s economy, at no point are they given the harsh reality that college education is a must now and they cannot compete in this market with just a high school diploma because jobs at that level simply do not exist anymore. They are looking to justify their failures in this economy and Trump gives them the targets they can blame.
Probably the most telling example of this mind set is the exchange Trump had at a recent campaign rally where a lady stood up and asked why veterans could not be given jobs in the TSA while ‘hibijabis’ were readily being hired. She wanted to get rid of the “hibijabis’ and give those jobs to veterans. That is the kind of simplistic logic that has been fed to these groups for years and now it’s becoming mainstream logic. Trump does not beat it down neither does he embrace it. He simply acknowledges it and promises to look in to it. And that is what they feel no one else has done for them. To acknowledge, not tell them they are wrong and promise to look in to it.
So while none of us saw the rise of Trump, the reality is we forget that the old economy left a lot of people disenfranchised and those people have a vote. And while these groups may not make the make up a majority, they are a significant minority. They are not ideologically stringent, they are just economically tired and socially scared.