Trump Voters

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Kevin D. Williamson made a splash with a column he published in the National Review in which he had little good to say about voters who like Donald Trump. He said they come from dysfunctional white communities around the country, some of which are found in New York State, some in Appalachia, and some in west Texas, and that nobody has failed these communities: they have failed themselves by alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide, and should simply die. My immediate guess was that he was some young privileged person contemptuous of any social class below his. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In fact, according to some of the columns of his I browsed, he comes from western Texas himself, which leads me to believe that his contempt isn’t the ignorant kind, but born of rather close acquaintance. It comes across as very personal.
He’s not some kid either. He has some fifteen years of experience in journalism, and his writing shows it. It’s vigorous and vivid. Whether one agrees with him or not, he seems to be a considerable personality. His beliefs are not lukewarm. I don’t particularly agree with him, but can’t simply ignore what he has to say.
One of his suggestions is that if one’s community offers no opportunity, the best option is to move away. I wonder if this might not set off the kind of migration we see from Hispanic America and Syria, but maybe it’s good advice. There certainly are areas (and probably more than just the ones he mentioned) where opportunity doesn’t seem to reside. I don’t suppose Mr. Williamson is entirely wrong in blaming the individuals of those communities, but I’m not sure he’s entirely right either. Opportunities for the untalented and uneducated don’t abound anywhere. Making a pilgrimage to a place where there are good jobs doesn’t guarantee you’ll get one.
Detroit is a large example of the sort of community he’s talking about. A population of 1.8 million in 1950, he says, has declined to well under a million since then, and many people have, as he recommends, voted with their feet. Those who are left aren’t in good shape.
The reason, in his analysis, is that too much of the money Detroit had sixty or so years ago was invested in the wrong things: large pensions and money that union leaders skimmed were some of those. Failure to invest in the future was the primary sin, though. It never occurred to a lot of political and industrial leaders that parts of the world ruined in World War II would eventually rebuild and begin competing with our country’s industries. Detroit auto makers, meanwhile, were building the large luxury cars they liked best to sell, allowing foreign manufacturers whose cars were smaller and more efficient, to take that part of the market away from them.
Then the effect of flight from the city kicked in: there was debt all over, and a drastically smaller tax base to pay for it. Public services became almost nonexistent. Few, he says, of the population are high school graduates. What industry is going to invest in Detroit, when there are so few who could plausibly become competent workers?
Sloth and corruption no doubt played their parts in this mess, as well as in many smaller cities and towns. I’m not so sure that’s the whole story, though.
Some of Detroit’s factories moved to Mexico. Was it because Mexicans are better educated than Detroit natives? That may well be true, but I doubt it was the decisive reason. I suspect (without knowing for certain) that it was possible for automakers to pay Mexican workers lower wages, and that they didn’t need to be as concerned about pollution there. That’s the liberal narrative, as the conservative one is to blame workers and government bureaucracy. I suspect both may have a measure of truth.
Industrialists tend more often to be conservative than liberal. Their dislike of unions has historically been visceral–they used to eagerly injure and sometimes kill workers with the temerity to strike for higher wages or better working conditions–and they haven’t been any more eager to regulate the pollution of their industries. Many of the factories that used to pollute so badly are gone to other regions or countries now. With them have gone many of the jobs that young people could use to start out in the workforce or be able to make into a career that could support themselves and their families.
There was a time when a person could begin their working career with one company and stay with that company until retirement. Not any more. Some companies don’t last that long. Others move from one area to another for one reason or another. The usual reason is the bottom line. If moving will save them money, they’re going to do it, and not worry about the effect on anyone else. Profit is every corporation’s main concern. Less of a concern seems to be how profit is obtained.
For-profit prisons and predatory lenders are two examples of industries that claim to serve the community, but mainly serve themselves. If, as Republicans say they wish, we slash regulations, we’ll have more such industries being even more predatory. And if we can’t depend on industries to be ethical enough to refrain from moving overseas, we’ll have to ask government to prevent it. Unless it’s preferable for the strong to prey on the weak.
Social Darwinism favors predators. Many conservatives claim to be Christians. Does their behavior show it?
Maybe Trump’s supporters are moral failures who deserve no consideration. Maybe they have no right to be angry. I wonder if there aren’t a lot of other people in America who are angry this year, though. Maybe the people angry with the liberal elite have now become angry with the conservative elite too. The contempt which is so personal for Mr. Williamson may be less personal with bigger names in the conservative movement, but I have the feeling that a lot of people may vote for Trump, a lot of whom have been voting Republican most of their lives, and don’t feel they’ve gotten much out of it, exactly because they’re tired of being objects of contempt.

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6 thoughts on “Trump Voters

  1. Julian Scala

    One thing that strikes me about the campaign is how nicely Trump and Clinton complement one another. Clinton is “progressive” on social issues — gender, race, abortion, gay rights, etc. — but a neo-liberal in economics and a neo-conservative in foreign policy. Trump, in the midst of his bellowings about immigrants and his flashes of racism and misogyny, will introduce, sotto voce, remarks in favor of universal health care and against the TPP and foreign wars.
    In other words, he is in effect a Coolidge-style Republican of the old school: isolationist, protectionist, nativist. It was in 1924, during Coolidge’s presidency, that for the first time in American history Congress adopted legislation that severely curtailed immigration — and, in particular, immigration from areas outside northern Europe. Nor was the nativist impulse restricted to Republicans: the most influential single group at the Democratic National Convention in 1924 was the Ku Klux Klan.

    Nativism flourished in 1924 and flourishes today largely in the South, the lower Middle West and the rural districts generally. Today, it also does well in those bastard minglings of country and city, the suburbs. The irony is that in this case many of the nativists are descended from people of the kind that the 1924 immigration act was intended to keep out. My wife and I both went to high school in Pearl River, New York, a town on the New Jersey border only eighteen miles from the George Washington Bridge. During the 1950s, Pearl River stopped being a small town largely inhabited by the descendants of Dutch colonists and became a burgeoning suburb largely inhabited by the children and grandchildren of Irish, Italian, Slavic and Jewish immigrants. Until they moved to the suburbs, the great majority of these people had been Democrats. The Jews stayed that way; the others tended to become Republicans. The change is probably explained by the fact that these people had been apartment-dwellers when they lived in the city but were now owners of property. In any case, all through the large demographic changes that redefined Pearl River in the 1950s and 1960s the district re-elected to Congress, term after term, a conservative Republican.

    Gail, my wife, has a Facebook page, and through it she receives postings by a number of people that she — and I — went to high school with back in the late 50s and early 60s. The former classmates who have left Pearl River and its vicinity tend to be Democrats. The ones who have stayed in Pearl River or settled near it are for the most part Republicans and enthusiastic supporters of Donald Trump and enthusiastic haters of Hillary Clinton. They scarcely bother to conceal their loathing of black people, immigrants, know-it-all “liberals” and so on. Fear, hatred and anger are their primary motives. They vilify the weak and admire, sycophantically, the strong — that is, the rich, provided they’re not George Soros. But these people are not the woebegone losers that Kevin D. Williamson makes Trump’s supporters out to be. Pearl River is by no means a dysfunctional place. Its population includes no really rich people and almost no poor people. Trump’s supporters there would appear to be mostly lower-middle-class and upper-working-class. The town is a bedroom community for the NYPD. The construction trades have a strong presence there. There’s a large pharmaceuticals plant. And so on.

    It is difficult to locate exact information about these matters, but my impression from county returns in the primaries is that the votes of poor white people in “dysfunctional” communities have tended to go not to Trump, but to Sanders. At any rate, Williamson’s generalization is a risky as well as an unpleasantly contemptuous one. It’s not surprising, however, to find a piece like his in The National Review, which is no doubt working hard to promote the Republican establishment’s “stop Trump” initiative.

    Studies of nativist and racist movements in America’s past have indicated that nineteenth-century anti-abolitionist and nativist mobs were usually made up of “respectable” citizens — storekeepers, tradesmen, lawyers, farmers and the like — rather than workmen or rural proletarians. The Ku Klux Klan, in both its original incarnation after the Civil War and its revived form after 1915, was led by solid citizens, and solid citizens did more than their fair share in organizing, directing and carrying out the organization’s outrages. This state of affairs is not limited to the United States: rank-and-file support for fascist movements in Europe and Latin America has always come largely from elements of the middle class and, in particular, the lower-middle-class of small-business owners, minor officials, office workers and younger or relatively unsuccessful professionals.

    This is not to deny that in parts of the US, especially the South, ingrained habits of humility and servility among poor whites lead many of them to follow the lead of their relatively prosperous neighbors in supporting the Republicans in general and Trump — or even worse, Cruz — in particular. But the initiative and the real enthusiasm come from people who are doing just fine, thank you — people such as those former classmates of mine in suburban Pearl River, New York.

    There’s a parallel case that’s worth considering here. Last week saw the untimely death of Toronto’s former mayor, Rob Ford, who had certain points in common with Trump and who enjoyed the reliable support of Toronto’s suburban outer municipalities in his unceasing war against the recent immigrants, welfare bums and smart-ass liberals who infested downtown Toronto. Ford’s supporters were not poor and their communities were not dysfunctional — except in the sense that any suburban community, however prosperous, is inherently dysfunctional. Many of them were the children and grandchildren of immigrants who had arrived in Canada from Italy, Portugal, Britain and Asia in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

    • As I noted, Williamson’s contempt seems in this case to be quite personal. I agree with you about the riskiness of his generalization, though. In 2012, when I lived in a suburb (not a wealthy one) outside the Roanoke area I occasionally got political things in the mail, but only from Republicans, which amused me. I think your equation of conservatism with the upper middle class is accurate generally. The same phenomenon you talk about around NYC also happened in Chicago, I remember reading long ago, in areas in which Saul Alinsky had been active, and in which he was saying then he should work in again. I guess he was too old by that time, though. One lesson of the past 50 years or so seems to be that conservatives are generally better at organization than liberals, though liberals can do it too, if they get inspired. They seem to generally be less inspired by bitterness than conservatives, though. Liberals tend to be intellectuals, and thus not bothered as much by smartasses. I wonder, though, if my political views would be any different if I hadn’t been brought up in the Society of Friends with a mother who was very liberal–her brother was much less so. I’d like to think I would feel the same, but can’t guarantee it.

      • Julian Scala

        Conservatives are better at organizing than liberals are because conservatives are generally against things rather than for them, and it’s always easier to organize people in opposition to something than in favor of something. This is so because the great negative emotions, anger, hatred and fear, are as a rule both stronger and easier to come by than the positive ditto.

        Some years ago, a professor at the university here wrote a microhistory of the riding (a riding is the district represented by a member of parliament) immediately east of Kingston, which has reliably sent a Conservative to Ottawa in every election since time began. He argued that the riding was a place whose inhabitants knew what they were not but didn’t know what they were. So they could only get together against things and never for things, with the result that when there was nothing on hand to be against the community turned inward against itself in a carnival of mutual rancor and malice. I would add to this generalization what I suggested above — namely, that it’s a lot easier to know what you are not than it is to know what you are, which is why conservatives, when they don’t actually outnumber liberals, nevertheless confidently and aggressively shout them down.

        In any case, what the riding east of Kingston has always known is that it isn’t Roman Catholic and isn’t French and therefore isn’t Liberal either, since the Liberal Party is traditionally both of those other things. Thirty years ago, when we were living in the riding and separatist feeling was riding high in Quebec, Lansdowne — the village a few miles from our farm — nearly precipitated a civil war: a gaggle of Lansdownians were filmed by the CBC in the act of trampling on a Quebec flag, and this purely local exhibition of hatred and rage was extrapolated by the separatist media in Quebec into proof that English Canada hated French Canada, which should therefore secede. It was a highly entertaining brouhaha while it lasted.

      • That may well be. It seems to me that conservatives tend to be more easily offended than liberals too, notwithstanding conservative complaints about political correctness, which I’ve written about here. I think your riding’s trampling of a Quebec flag is a good example, but there are obviously plenty more. Why they should be offended that Quebec might want to secede from Canada I don’t know. Lincoln apparently thought the USA needed the South as Well as the North if the democratic experiment was to succeed, and if the South had successfully succeeded I’m sure we would have had plenty of trouble of a different sort from what we historically had. When people get bitter rationality is one of the first things to go.
        The other thing that is a general human problem, but maybe especially acute in conservatives, is having enough imagination to think, “I wouldn’t want anyone treating me this way, so I shouldn’t do it to anyone else.” It’s kind of amazing how little the Golden Rule seems to get applied. I could give examples all night, but you probably already know most of them.

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