The majority of colonists in America either favored staying with King George or at least didn’t support the rebellion. The Revolutionaries who wanted independence were a minority. Status quo has a powerful inertial force.
I think of this as I try to understand how anyone — any one person not related to him — could possibly vote for Donald Trump. (Yes I realize people with the opposite view wonder the same thing about voting for Hillary Clinton. That’s the great divide right there.) I think it’s the economy, stupid, and the way things were. And the fact that we’ve let so many politicians get away with so much bullshit for so many years that we can no longer tell the difference between standard-issue political bullshit that comes from someone with at least some idea of how the real world works and the totally empty policy-free crap that comes from an Olympic-level bullshitter with no knowledge of a world beyond his own mirror.
I’m truly trying not to be reactionary. It’s easy to say many, or most (or half, Hillary?) Trump voters are ignorant or racist or xenophobes. It’s easy to dismiss them from many angles. But there are so many of them. Forty percent of voters polled. That’s a lot of people and they can’t all be ignorant racist xenophobes. Everyone I know is appalled by Trump. But, really, everyone? I bet many people I know are considering pulling the lever for Trump tomorrow, or already have. And just not talking about it, at least with liberal me.
Why would anyone vote for Trump? Many don’t like Obama policies, such as Obamacare, which has been presented to them by conservatives and their media lackeys as poison. Many don’t like Hillary Clinton, don’t trust her, don’t think she’s ethical. I’m among those. But I already voted for her because we agree on almost all policy and issues. And because she has actual knowledge of the world. A lot of veterans and active military support Trump, many because they don’t like how America is being pushed around by foemen not worthy of our steel.
I’ve been reading three memoirs from the South that help explain Trump voters. Hillbilly Elegy, by J. D. Vance (he’s been on every interview show there is lately), Dimestore, by Lee Smith, and Finding Grace, by Donna VanLiere. All three talk about small towns withering in the South and about what people who stay are like and what people who get out are like. A common theme is that, as the world and the economy change and jobs disappear, some people change with the flow and some stand pat and drown. Many who are overwhelmed by change lack agency — they feel as if the world is doing something to them, and as if they have no role to play in adapting or changing. And many of them are mad. At the world. At “them.” Whoever “them” is. In Vance’s book, a guy who lost his job by drinking too much blames his bosses. Vance says having someone to provide kids growing up with stability (for him, grandparents) and a view of larger possibilities can make all the difference between becoming someone who feels angry and helpless and someone who feels he or she can rise higher than their immediate surroundings.
I’ve also recently reread All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren, and read It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, and Lindbergh, by A. Scott Berg. As the books meander through demagoguery and America First-ism, they all shed some light on the world of Trump. There are clear bad guys in these tales. Bankers, European war leaders, subversives. There’s a “them” to blame. Different for everyone, but someone for everyone.
I recently talked to a Brit I admire who lives in the US, and I asked if he would have voted for Brexit if he still lived in England. “Absolutely” was his immediate response. And he began talking about immigrants and losing the culture of England. The England he grew up with is changing.
And I think that’s the key. How things used to be. Even if they weren’t all that good, they were what we knew. What we grew up with. It was how the world was. And was supposed to be. Too bad if the way things were was mostly good for straight white men.
Trump promises to turn back the clock. Make things better. Just like that. Flick of a switch. Take us back. Make steel jobs reappear. Make criminals disappear. He identifies the bad guys — them — and says he can fix what they’ve wrecked. Overtly he names the bad guys as immigrants and Muslims. People not like us. Covertly he identifies the bad guys as blacks and hispanics and women and the poor. People not like us.
There are many who feel the pull of Trump’s reactionary make-believe and know he can’t really just snap his fingers on day one and fix it. They know his plans don’t exist. But they buy into Trump’s siren song hoping that some of what’s gone awry can be righted by this guy who at least names the problems. Yes, there are also many who hear Trump’s fantasies and are too ignorant or too irresponsible to pay enough attention to see that Trump’s a charlatan. These people aren’t doing their duty as citizens — and, I believe, are the most likely to be racists and xenophobes and be the kind of people Vance says blame others for their problems. (Much of that blame is reasonable: companies that move jobs overseas — to meet our demand for cheap stuff — have indeed acted upon their employees in ways that are no fault of the workers. The issue is what do you do with yourself — and what does your upbringing and experience tell you is possible to do — after the job disappears.)
Many news articles lately have shown that the people most likely to fall for Trump are white people with the worst economic prospects. (Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans who’ve been suffering economically for generations aren’t jumping on his bandwagon, because they’re paying attention.) These white folks who’ve lost jobs as the economy and world change hear Trump shout out loudly that there’s someone to blame, someone to beat on, and he’s someone who’ll do it.
The most compassionate viewpoint about Trump voters I’ve heard came from Van Jones, a black social entrepreneur, activist and commentator on CNN. In The New York Times some weeks back he said “When I listen to Trump voters I hear Black Lives Matter people.” Both groups feel ignored, left behind, marginalized, feel like the system is rigged against them.
So, as Trump loses tomorrow, god willing and the creek don’t rise, let’s not scorn those who voted for him. Many are good people who feel they’ve been screwed. And America and her new president need to give them an ear and some hope. Yes, we can.
— Bruce Benidt