Photo: Frank Boston
Over the last couple of months I’ve visited three states that went solidly for Donald Trump: Louisiana, Mississippi and Missouri. My goal was to spend time with Trump voters, especially the white working class that overwhelmingly put him in office, and that all of the political pundits say we all need to pay more attention to.
I’ll admit it: I don’t get it. Why did the working class vote for someone who doesn’t understand their lifestyles, struggles, and needs? Why did they put their trust in a guy who inherited all of his money, and seems to have little empathy for any other kind of lifestyle?
I sat down and shared meals and long conversations with these voters. No, I didn’t choose alt-right or Nazi flag waving extremists. I’m not crazy! All of the people I interviewed were wonderful, hospitable, deeply kind people who welcomed me into their homes and lives. But they do inhabit a political universe my blue state friends and I have little connection to. And I won’t sugarcoat it, some said things that made my blood boil. But the point of this was listening for the sake of understanding. I tried to, as we geeky anthropologists say, make the strange familiar.
All the normal caveats apply – these are just my impressions based on a small number of interviews.
Here are some of the things I learned on my journeys into Trumpland:
- THEY HAVE A STRONG SENSE OF THEIR CLASS IDENTITY: Whoever said class is irrelevant in American society? Working class identity is alive and very strongly felt and articulated. They characterize themselves as the hardest workers in America, the ones that put their heads down, work for everything they’ve got, and don’t complain.
- THEY WANT US TO RESPECT THEIR KIND OF WORK: There is a strong sense that “elite” Americans (meaning anyone in a white collar profession) don’t respect the work that they do. They believe we look down on them, and don’t appreciate the fact that their labor is essential to the prosperity of this country. They don’t understand why we only seem to value education, innovation, technology and science. For them, it’s the fundamental things around building homes, keeping factories running, etc., that should be celebrated. I get the impression they feel like the American dream has changed, and they don’t embody it anymore.
- THEY ARE ANGRIEST AT THE POOR: Class conflict theories tell us that the working class must surely resent the very wealthy (aka Trump and his buddies). They don’t. They despise the poor. Strongly despise. They characterize the majority of them as not deserving of the benefits they receive, but rather, taking advantage of the system to get food stamps, free computers, free healthcare – entitlements, as they put it. They perceive these people as being able to, as one woman said, “buy cell phones and lobster on their handouts when we have to work hard to get those things.” And they don’t understand why we, the coastal elite/bleeding heart liberals, have more empathy for the undeserving poor on entitlements than for them, the working class, who “don’t take a dime” from taxpayers.
- THEY HAVE COMPLEX VIEWS ON IMMIGRATION: On the one hand, all of the people I spoke with strongly support the idea of the wall. And they complain that illegals take jobs away from Americans. And they complain that Mexicans resist assimilation by speaking their own language and keeping to themselves. But on the other hand, everyone I spoke with also said that they respect Mexican immigrants because of their work ethic, and contrast that to the poor whites who take advantage of entitlements. And they don’t actually want to kick out these hard workers. Rather, they want all of them to get in the system legally and start paying taxes and stop (as they believe) getting free handouts from the government. One theme I noticed was the belief that the undocumented stay illegal by choice, and that if any of them wanted to, they could easily change their status.
- THEY CARE ABOUT FAIRNESS MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE: They want everyone to pay taxes like they do, wait in line like they do, and take care of themselves like they do. Interestingly, they see the poor who take entitlements as violators of their fairness doctrine, but they don’t mention the ultra rich as having any unfair advantages.
- THEY AREN’T VERSED IN THE INTRICACIES OF THE HEALTH CARE DEBATE: They want Obamacare repealed, but what do they want instead? A lot of them describe something that sounds a lot like free, universal health care to my ears – but they would never call it that, and never describe it as a form of socialism. I want to investigate this more.
- THE ISSUES THAT RATTLE US AREN’T ON THEIR RADAR: What Russian interference?
- FOX NEWS IS THEIR WORLD: I spoke with a wide range of people but they all quoted the same “data” and anecdotes which, turns out, all came from Fox News. We can’t underestimate how deep the media divide is, and how one network is shaping the world views of a large number of people.
- RACE RELATIONS WERE GOING FINE UNTIL HE CAME ALONG: It was Obama that incited Black Lives Matter and all of the violence, including police killings. Before Obama, race relations were getting better. Their attitudes about race are complex and this short piece won’t do it justice. Being the good anthropologist, I’m also highly aware of the fact that my status as a person of color may have affected the conversation.
- THE WOMEN WANT TO BE RESPECTED FOR THEIR OWN FORMS OF STRENGTH: The women I spent time with truly wrestled with Trump’s misogyny. “He’s a man, and he sins. But we ladies know how to deal with that,” said one woman in Louisiana. They definitely echoed the “boys will be boys” and “it’s all locker room talk” explanations…But I did sense an unease in the way they excused him (and all other men). But also, they definitely don’t appreciate the judgements of left wing women who think they are weak. What I think they want us to understand is that they are strong in their own way, having endured sexism throughout their lives, and having thrived despite all of it.
- THEY ACTUALLY SAY A LOT OF THE THINGS WE SAY: More than once, I heard Trump voters say that at the end of the day, what they want is a brighter future for their children, opportunities for business and self fulfillment, clean water and air (so much to mine here!!), and a diverse yet united America.
So…What does a rich guy who has no connection to the working class have to offer them?
From what I’ve seen and heard, they support Trump not because of any one policy or promise. In fact, it seems they take most of his campaign promises with a grain of salt. Rather, they support him because of one singular belief: he’s gonna SHAKE.THINGS.UP. He’s not from the political class, which means he can’t be bought and sold (so they believe). He may make mistakes along the way and may not represent everything they believe in, but he’s going to break the system so that, once the dust settles, it can be rebuilt. They don’t really care whether Trump will himself do any of the rebuilding. His appeal is purely in his ability to destroy the status quo.
More to come as this blue state girl gets out of her own bubble. I welcome everyone’s thoughts and feedback!
About the writer
LiAnne became an anthropologist because, as her third grade teacher once told her, anthropologists get to travel, poke their noses into closets, listen to grannies gossip on the front porch, and call that a good day’s work. She splits her time between San Francisco, which raised and shaped her, and the Big Island of Hawaii, where she can listen to locals talk story to her heart’s content.
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