The unhinged Hitler analogies and the angry charges of xenophobia, misogyny and bigotry say less about Donald Trump and his supporters than the dangerously insulated views of those who spew them.
The refusal to take Trump’s supporters seriously – to dismiss and demonize them rather than to explore their legitimate concerns – says a lot about why this coarse and thoroughly unqualified man appeals to millions of voters.
Trump may be a clever narcissist whose chief interest is his own fortune, but his campaign is not about the Donald himself. It is a symptom of the troubling conditions afflicting the working whites who provide the core of his support.
As detailed in two indispensable books, “Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010” by the libertarian scholar Charles Murray and “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis” by the liberal scholar Robert D. Putnam, this group has been especially hard hit by broad changes in our economy and culture.
The rise of the global economy and labor-saving technologies has been a boon to upper-income Americans, whose median income has doubled since the 1980s. But it has hammered the working class.
The economy, for example, lost about 2 million good-paying manufacturing jobs from 2004 to 2014. Despite the claims of Trump, Hillary Clinton and everyone else running for president, those jobs are probably not coming back. Instead the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates we will lose another 800,000 manufacturing jobs by 2025.
Help is not on the way. The BLS also projects that only four of the 15 fastest-growing job sectors require a bachelor’s degree. The median pay for nine of them is under $30,000.
“For white working-class men in their 30s and 40s – what should be the prime decades for working and raising a family – participation in the labor force dropped from 96 percent in 1968 to 79 percent in 2015, Murray reported in a recent article. “Over the same period, the portion of these men who married dropped from 86 percent to 52 percent. … In these communities, about half the children are born to unmarried women … (and) drugs have become a major problem.”
This dovetails with a recent study that found a sharp rise in the mortality rate for 45-54-year-old white men with no more than a high school education.
Ponder this portrait; it is heartbreaking.
The tragedy of displaced workers
As they have lost jobs, often to cheap foreign labor, blue-collar voters have watched Republicans and Democrats allow tens of millions of often unskilled immigrants to compete with them at home. Since major immigration reform was passed in 1965, the foreign-born population has more than doubled, to 13.1 percent. By 2050, the Pew Research Center projects this will rise to 19 percent.
Is it any wonder that they respond to Trump’s promises to get tough with China and end illegal immigration?
Given the government’s inability to reverse these trends – and I doubt there is a magic bullet solution – is it any wonder that many working-class Americans have lost faith in the political establishment and are drawn to a can-do business person worth billions?
This helps explain a RAND Corporation survey of GOP voters that found that those who somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement “people like me don’t have a say about what the government does” were 86.5 percent more likely to favor Trump than his rivals.
In this context, the knee-jerk denunciation of Trump and his supporters as ignorant bigots illustrates the growing divide between working-class Americans and those who are prospering in the new economy. It reflects the divide between those who increasingly see issues through the lens of partisan identity politics and those who see their lives slipping away.
Attributing these developments to “inequality,” or to ruthless, union-busting business people greedily seizing more than their “fair share,” substitutes blithe slogans for complex forces.
It is worth noting that a similar revolt of the masses is occurring across Europe, which is being riven by the influx of immigrants and the surrender of authority to the European Union. The French novelist Michel Houellebecq captured this tension in his recent novel “Submission,” when his narrator explains:
“I realized – I’d known for years – that the widening gap, now a chasm, between the people and those who claimed to speak for them, the politicians and journalists, would necessarily lead to a situation that was chaotic, violent, and unpredictable.”
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.