The Misunderstood Base - By Greer Clem
A friend of mine recently shared with me an illuminating series by Guardian reporter Chris Arnade. The series, titled "Pride and Poverty in America - what I learned after 100,000 miles on the road talking to Trump supporters," sheds light on the predominantly white, lower class base that got Trump elected. In one article in particular, Arnade analyzes the similarities between drug use and politics, aptly titling the piece "Drugs and Trump - Reckless Decisions."
Arnade writes, "People don’t make reckless decisions because things are going well. They make them because they have reached a breaking point. They are desperate enough to trying anything new. Especially if it offers escape, or a glimmer of hope. Even false hope. That might mean drugs. Politically that might mean breaking the system. Especially if you think the system is not working for you. And viewed from much of the America the system doesn’t work. The factories are gone. Families are falling apart. Social networks are frayed."
Before I jump in, I want to expressly state that this op-ed's focus on the white, lower-class does not devalue the threat minorities are currently facing under the Trump presidency. Rather, I don't have to write an article to minorities to convince them they are not being represented fairly - that is plain as day. I do, however, feel an obligation to better understand why white middle-America took a chance on Trump, because in four years, I will be imploring them not to do so again. Please also note that when I use the term "middle-America," I do so loosely and am referring to predominantly uneducated, lower class, white voters.
So why did middle-America take this risk? Why did they make that reckless decision? I think my friend said it best. He told me, "I have a bunch of family members who live in a dying industrial town in a rural area in a flyover state and they never voted because they felt (somewhat correctly) that no one in Washington gave two shits what happened in Gridley, IL. They all voted for trump. Mostly, I think, because he told them that they mattered."
He didn't have to mean it. He just had to say it.
The disenfranchised, those who felt that they had been humiliated, lunged at the prospect of re-validation. This is the glimmer of hope, even false hope, that Arnade is referring to. In perhaps his most well-constructed speech, given in Charlotte, NC in August, 2016, Donald Trump said the following:
"I will always tell you the truth. I speak the truth for all of you, and for everyone in this country who doesn't have a voice. I speak the truth on behalf of the factory worker who lost his or her job. I speak the truth on behalf of the Veteran who has been denied the medical care they need - and so many are not making it. They are dying. Our campaign is about representing the great majority of Americans - Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Conservatives, and Liberals - who read the newspaper, or turn on the TV, and don't hear anyone speaking for them. All they hear are insiders fighting for insiders."
At the time, I don't think his words resonated with me as anything other than hollow. How could a man born into millions who has little regard for anyone but himself possible advocate helping the lower class? How could a man who had lied repeatedly throughout his campaign keep a promise to tell the truth? But honestly, I don't think the base cared about his lying or his money. They didn't care if his campaign was smeared with lies in every other regard so long as he kept his word about making America great again.
I've been so up in arms about the Betsy DeVos confirmation. I thought, "Shouldn't his voter base care? Shouldn't they, who have experienced public education themselves, want someone with more credentials? Someone who can relate?" But I don't think they care. They don't care who she is or who Trump is. They had reached their breaking point, and here stood a man with no experience, a man who they did not have to sift through political filters to understand, who said he would never lie to them. They injected his confidence into their veins, hoping to revive their spirits and their pride. They made a reckless decision hoping for an escape.
I spent so much time validating Hillary's well-educated arguments and supporting the voices of our minority constituency, that I had become deaf to the clamoring of those who have felt disenfranchised for years. And it all snowballed perfectly for Trump. He didn't have to be qualified, he didn't have to be politically correct, he just had to acknowledge that he heard them. And for middle-America, this rang much truer than the words of Hillary Clinton. I had been thinking Trump's lack of sophistication worked against him, but perhaps it was the opposite.
To me, this makes our task over the next four years more easily understood but all the more difficult to execute. We won't win back those voters through political rhetoric. We will win them back by showing them that we understand why they took the risk that they did. We hear them, and even though they may think Trump hears them too, he remains deaf to any cause that does not directly affect him. Donald Trump was a temporary high, nothing more.