Unlike many political observers, I have spent the bulk of this campaign season focused not on Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican Party nomination for president, but on the people who are supporting him, seeking to understand what is motivating them to essentially turn the political establishment, especially the Republican Party, on its head.
Rod Dreher has written some of the most compelling articles on this topic under the moniker of "Trumpsplaining", and he links to several other excellent resources, past and present, to explain the rise of the Trump electorate. You won't find a more complete compilation of information on this political phenomenon, and he readily admits that he is obsessed with the subject:
I am preoccupied with Trump, and what he means for our nation. He is single-handedly destroying the Republican Party. We haven’t seen a political party collapse in this country in well over a century. It’s happening now. Institutions that are strong don’t collapse overnight. I don’t know that even Trump saw the rot in the GOP. But it was rotten, and that’s why it’s collapsing.
If you are a mainstream Republican or Democrat, and aren’t trying to understand Trump’s appeal (as opposed to simply writing his backers off as racist clods), then you are making a big, big mistake. Trump may be denied the GOP nomination, in the end, and he probably won’t be elected president. But the people he motivated, and who voted for him, they aren’t going away — and neither are their problems and concerns.
Who will speak for them then?
Indeed. When he explained in one of his articles, "I am only trying to do what so many people on the left and the right seem to be incapable of doing: understanding why he makes sense to folks", that made sense to me. Whatever the outcome of the election, Trump's candidacy has stirred something unexpected within the body politic - anyone who says they saw Donald Trump as a serious contender for the GOP presidential nomination the moment he entered the race is either lying or a family member! Like Mr. Dreher, I am soaking up every bit of information and opinion I can about the people who have cast their political lot with Donald Trump.
As I offer my thoughts and observations, I am aware that not every Trump supporter fits this profile. This is simply a place to begin what I believe is a conversation we need to have.
I have come to realize there is real tragedy in the lives of these people, who feel that the political elites in both parties have left them to die. As one study highlighted, this is not hyperbole - a segment of the white middle and working class in America is dying in numbers akin to what one would see in developing nations, with a mortality rate that exceeds even that of blacks and Hispanics. This may go against every perception created in our popular culture, but the facts speak for themselves:
“Drugs and alcohol, and suicide ... are clearly the proximate cause,” said Angus Deaton, the 2015 Nobel laureate in economics, who co-authored the paper with his wife, Anne Case. Both are economics professors at Princeton University.
“Half a million people are dead who should not be dead,” he added. “About 40 times the Ebola stats. You’re getting up there with HIV-AIDS.”
The causes of this dramatic spike in the mortality rate among white middle-aged Americans with a high school education or less are noteworthy - "Drugs and alcohol, and suicide..." - because they reflect desperate attempts to escape their dire conditions, either through self-medication to the point of abuse, or the permanent solution of ending one's own life.
As I read more about this alarming statistic, it began to open my eyes to calamities among the American middle and working class of which I was not aware. The national heroin epidemic was not on my radar until the New Hampshire presidential primary, during which Governor Maggie Hassan declared, "the heroin and opioid crisis is the most pressing public health and safety challenge facing our state." According to the most recent data, on average 125 people a day are dying in America of drug overdoses, 78 of them from heroin and opioid abuse. This epidemic "cuts across rural-urban boundaries"; according to county-by-county figures, "Some of the largest concentrations of overdose deaths were in Appalachia and the Southwest", reflective of the fact that the death rate in rural communities has surpassed that of urban areas.
What is the cause of this societal rush to relieve pain, often with fatal consequences?
At the risk of oversimplifying a complex problem, it is that they have lost the economic security once available to them through high-wage manufacturing, mining, construction and industrial work, they are ill-prepared educationally or culturally to make similar wages in the information and services economy of the present day, and as their economic prospects darken, so does their hope for the future and the future of their families. They've lost their homes, which for most Americans was the primary source of their generational wealth, and as the gulf between the wealthy and the middle and working class in America increases, so does their despair - and their resentment. As a North Carolina attorney who works in the one of the poorest counties in the state recounted to Mr. Dreher:
So if there are winners and losers in America, I know the losers. They lost jobs to China and Vietnam. And they’re dying younger, caught in an endless cycle of jail, drug charges and applying for disability to pay the child support bill.
They lost their influence, their dignity and their shot at the American Dream, and now they’re angry. They’re angry at Washington and Wall Street, at big corporations and big government.
Others have argued, and I agree, that it's not just economics which jerked the rug out from under their feet. The two-parent family is rapidly becoming an anachronism in Western society; while fatherless homes are tragically the norm in minority households, it is becoming increasingly common throughout all of American society:
Fatherlessness has exploded in our country over the past fifty years. In 1960 just 11 percent of U.S. children lived in homes without fathers. Today that number is 33 percent. Almost 40 percent of school-age children live in a home without their biological fathers.
Writer David Murrow, who cited the statistics in the quote above, believes the unusual political allegiances we are witnessing today stem in part from fatherlessness and voters looking to our politicians as substitutes! It's a fascinating premise that I suggest you review for yourself to determine whether or not it rings true for you.
On a more fundamental level, fatherlessness has contributed to a rapid rise in child poverty, and the belief pervasive in America that the next generation will be the first to be worse off economically than the previous one.
Socially, cultural changes and the diminution of institutions which once gave security and stability to the middle and working class further erode the confidence of people who find themselves in dire circumstances. R.R. Reno places the skyrocketing mortality rate mentioned earlier in this article squarely at the feet of those clamoring to destroy "outdated" cultural norms:
To a great extent, our progressive culture strips ordinary people of almost all settled roles, other than economic ones. This heightens the existential pain of the already harsh economic realities of our globalized economy, which can be very punitive to the poorly educated. Two generations ago, a working class man was often poor or nearly poor, but he could be respected in his neighborhood as a provider for his family, father to his children, law-abiding citizen, coach of a Little League team, and usher in church. The culture that made such a life possible has disintegrated, partly due to large-scale trends in our post-industrial society, but also because of a sustained and ongoing ideological assault on the basic norms for family and community. Death rates are likely to continue to rise for poor Americans. I see no signs that the war on the weak will abate.
When all is said and done, however, how are we responding to the very real pain of the Trump electorate?
The typical response of the elites on the left and the right is to dismiss Trump supporters as unworthy of serious thought. They are branded with the scarlet letter "R" - racist, reactionary, rough, rude, redneck - and because they are such unlovely, unlovable people, they receive scorn rather than attention. The elites look for examples of rude, boorish, sexist, homophobic or racist behavior among them so as to tar all of them with the same brush. Their condescension makes it easier to ignore their humanity and dismiss their pain.
If the elites believe that rallying behind an "anti-Trump" candidate to deny Mr. Trump the nomination or, failing that, defeating him in the general election, will bring an end to this strange political season, then they are delusional. There are tens of millions of Americans, at least 41 percent of the voting age population if the polls are correct, that will still be dissatisfied and looking to take out their frustrations on the people they hold most responsible for their plight. At the very least, as I indicated previously, several of our venerable political institutions will be forever changed. The elites may be incapable of seeing this, as their primary concern is for the power they wish to keep, and they are so blinded by might they can't see the train that's headed straight for them.
That leaves the rest of us, and I have a novel idea - why don't we look upon these people as our neighbors, deserving of being treated as we wish to be treated, and put aside our politics to be human beings for once?
Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. ~ Romans 12:16-18