Whether you think Trump to be a saint or Satan (and there seems to be little space in between) it is important to understand the source of his rise to power. A revolt against the elites is a true but insufficient explanation, but the denigration of the lower-class white voters, dismissing them as ignorant and racist is both untrue and self-defeating.
The Democratic Party of the New Deal focused on the relief of the midwestern and southern farmers and sought to expand the political equality of the Constitution into the economic sphere; actively seeking programs to bring material improvement to the poor of the Midwest and elsewhere. Over time this blue-collar Midwest mainstay of the Democratic Party saw their economy crumble as factories closed to offshoring, tobacco subsidies expired, and coal mining became threatened. Wages were driven down by increased immigration, but this objection to immigration was not driven by bigotry.
In Trump Democrats Stephanie Muravchik and Jon Shields examine the sudden shift in the voting in the Midwest and other rural communities that favored Trump. Enough areas that supported Obama twice and Bernie Sanders in the primary switched to voting for Trump to push him across the finish line in 2016 and came closer than expected in 2020. These voters had much greater influence than any Russian or Alt-Right influence.
These voters were far more focused on their local communities and far less focused on national politics. This put them at odds with the coastal elite clerisy who were far less focused on their local communities and deeply focused on the national political scene. While these communities had deep Democratic roots going back to the New Deal, the new Democratic Party which is ruled by the government employee union members (the number of public sector union members passed private sector membership in 2008), academia, coastal media and urban minorities has abandoned the blue-collar Democrats of the New Deal era. Candidates proved to be tone deaf to the problems they were facing, openly threatening the coal industry that so many of the workers relied on.
The coastal clerisies may have been justified in their policies but were numb to the disproportional impact they were having in areas outside of their sequestered world. While the small towns may have been mired in hopelessness that does not mean that the individual voters were. Many of them were active in the community and working to address their problems.
Their focus on their community made them suspicious of outsiders moving in, especially immigrants who were not committed to the town, often working and sending their money back home, or drawing government benefits. As the immigrants established roots, started businesses and became a part of the community they became accepted and welcomed. The locals could distinguish behavior from race in a way that the increasingly racially dominated thinking of the national party could not.
The whites in these towns faced the despair of seeing their potential earnings decline from their parents, while Blacks and Hispanics saw their earnings increase from their parents’ generation. This does not make them racist, but it does make the idea of systemic racism or a white patriarchy ring hollow to their experience.
Because they were far less focused on national politics, they were easily able to justify conservative values with their Democratic affiliation. Many of the blue-collar midwestern Democrats were pro second amendment and pro-life. They became more aware of the values of the national Democratic party through Trump. As Trump struck a chord with them that both parties had missed, they paid more attention to the national news. They were dismayed at the harsh criticism he was receiving on most networks and were attracted to Fox News because they were the only ones who gave him any respect. Fox News did not lead them to Trump; Trump led them to Fox News.
Trump’s behavior was less foreign to their local norms than it was to the national audience. He resembled the local party bosses that protected their constituents, spoke plainly, and responded quickly and harshly to criticisms and disloyalty. Muravchik spoke of an honor culture in these towns very much like that found in groups of ethnic minorities. What seemed thin skinned to the coastal elite appeared normal to them. Trump spoke the language of local politics on a national level.
This explains how so many Bernie Sanders supporters had little problem switching to Trump. Bernie also spoke in their language. They dismissed any ideological connection as the language of the coastal clerisy. They embraced Bernie’s language, not his socialism.
Muravchik is no fan of Trump but maintains a relatively objective effort to understand the motives of the blue-collar Democrats who voted for him. Joan Williams in Working Class Whites made a similar effort to explain this group’s behavior to her fellow liberals; why they do not leave for better opportunities or go to college. While she makes an honest effort, Williams falls into the trap of thinking it is just a marketing problem and fails to examine policy failures.
Mark Lilla in The Once and Future Liberal focuses more on the trouble with identity politics and how this inevitably alienates the blue-collar Democrats. Just as the last election showed that Blacks and Hispanics are not single amorphous entities it is even more foolish to speak of whiteness as any sort of single focused voting bloc.
Selena Zito and Brad Todd took a similar approach to Maravchik and Shields in The Great Revolt. Zito got more specific with differences in policies but hits many of the same issues, although Muravchik examined cultural issues that Zito and Todd did not.
All of these efforts to understand the blue-collar shift to Trump caution against demonizing all Trump supports as racist, ignorant, or deplorable. They have legitimate concerns that have been neglected, but the problems of lower-class whites rank very low in the hierarchy of identity politics.
Muravchik cautions her party against ignoring their concerns, but it is difficult to reconcile the culture of these towns with the increasingly leftward tilt and woke zealot wing of the current Democratic Party. It would also be a challenge for whatever is left of the traditional Republicans to address their problems in any meaningful way. She warns that the nature of electoral politics makes it essential for the Democrats to include their concerns; over-reliance on urban clusters of ethnic and identity groups is not a path to political success.
All of these efforts fail to address any ideological or policy failures and perhaps that would require a separate effort and focus. Few voters are motivated by discussions of policy and while that is disappointing it is a fact to accept. It would require an exceptional leader to translate good ideas into acceptable policy.