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Listening to Trump Voters

David Blankenhorn, The American Interest, 8/02/2016

The commentariat spends a lot of time talking about Donald Trump—time that might be better spent listening to the people who are voting for him.

Like everyone I knew, I couldn’t stand Donald Trump. But wasn’t that part of the problem? I’d watched Trump brag about himself endlessly on television. I’d heard countless furious denunciations of him, and had even written several myself. I was spending far too much time, in my opinion, talking and thinking about him. But in all this anxiety and aggravation, I hadn’t talked for one minute to a single American who actually wanted the guy to become our next President.

I wasn’t alone in this predicament. In March, I’d organized a conference of U.S. thought leaders to discuss political polarization. About half of the two-dozen leaders who attended were Republicans. So I polled people during the breaks. Does anyone here support Trump? No one. Does anyone here know anyone who does? One person said that an uncle of his might fit the bill, but nobody else—at a bipartisan gathering of civil society leaders and public intellectuals—knew a single Trump supporter.

It was a bit surreal and more than a little embarrassing. It was like watching a basketball game where the scoreboard at halftime says 52-48, while you and everyone else in the good seats know with certainty that the only rational score at this point in the game would be 100-nil. When it came to understanding the score in this political season of 2016, something important was amiss—and that something seemed to indict me and my friends more than Trump and his.

The afternoon the conference ended, instead of heading home to New York City, from my rental car I phoned Adam Garfinkle, the tolerant editor of this magazine. Please give me $500 right away, I requested, so that I can drive across the American Southeast for the next two weeks talking to people I don’t know about politics. And by the way, I asked, do you personally know anyone who likes Trump? He didn’t. And to my idea he said: “Go for it.” So I did.

 

“I’m saying about 60 percent of my customers are for Trump.” The guy making this estimate—we’re going to call him Steve—is the manager of small seafood store in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, just outside of New Orleans, where I began my journey in late March. A stocky, athletic-looking man with a dark beard in his late 40s, dressed the day I met him in cut-off shorts and an old T-shirt, Steve talks with me non-stop about politics as he works, while also introducing me to whoever has walked in to buy some of his seafood. A middle-aged woman who has come in to buy crabs says:

I voted [in the primary] for Trump. Because he is not a typical politician, and I’m fed up with typical politicians. We all elected people who have good intentions. Then, once they get in there, they realize that they’ve got to play the game, and they’ve got to please people, and Donald Trump doesn’t go with that. This is what needs to be done, and I don’t care if people aren’t happy with it. I like his ideas. I don’t like the way he insults people—that’s not presidential to me. But I like his ideas. We do have to secure the border. I like what he says about China. He has to calm down on his impulsive insults, but I still like him. People have very strong opinions about this election. Very strong opinions. More than usual. I felt I had strong opinions about the last election, but my feelings are stronger this year.

Why are they stronger this year?

I don’t know why. Frustration is a good word. You know what, it’s kind of like, if we don’t make changes now, it’s almost too late to fix all the problems we have.

Do you have a second choice?

Anyone running against Hillary, I would vote for. I mean, she’s a crook. She should be in jail.

Steve, the manager, says:

What do I like about Trump? Let’s see, he’s not politically connected. He’s got dirt on everybody. He’s different. Like John F. Kennedy. You know, if we get Trump in there, a lot of people are not going to like it. If we can get him in, he wants change, and I’m ready to see change, period.

Another customer, also a Trump supporter, says:

Everybody is pissed. There’s no difference between Hillary and Cruz, although one is a Republican and one is a Democrat.

At a convenience store in the same community, the woman I met at the check-out counter is in her 30s, with long red-brown hair and a pair of colorful facial piercings just underneath her lower lip. Born and raised in Texas, she moved to Louisiana 14 years ago. Politically, she says she’s an independent. I ask her, “What are your thoughts on politics this year?”

It’s a joke, I mean honestly it’s an absolute joke. I think it’s all for show, especially this year. It’s not like, they’re doing what the people want. It’s more like, I’m going to blow smoke up everyone’s ass and tell them, I’m going to do what this group of people want, and the other one says, I’m going to do what this group of people want, and when they get into office, nothing is going to be anything like that at all. It’s just like with Obama.

Do you have a favorite candidate?

Like as far as Hillary Clinton, she hasn’t said probably anything that I’ve listened to. If Donald Trump could do everything he says he could do, I think that could help, like keeping all the bad immigrants out and not letting in the terrorists, because everybody else is like, “Oh no, just let them come over.” Well, OK, you need to have that select few that are allowed in, and you need to have a lot more stipulations on how and when and why they can come, you know what I’m saying? Especially with everything that’s going on. I mean, you got crap happening once a week in the schools. I mean, they’re bombing everything right now. It’s ridiculous. I like Trump, for the most part. Now, some of the stuff he says, it’s just outrageous, and I’m like just like, “You’re crazy, you should have never said that, I understand that you’re a billion gazillionaire,” but like, “Shut up, you take some things too far.” But I mean, because he has his own money, because he is a business man, because he doesn’t need anybody else per se, he could get the most done in the way that needs to be done, you know what I mean? Then we could start benefiting from it.

Anything else on your mind in this political season?

I just wish it would hurry up and be over.

Not far away, at a bait and tackle shop, I met two older guys organizing fishing lures on a table in the middle of the store. They let me sit with them, and they took a dim view of current presidential politics:

I wouldn’t vote for none of them.

You don’t like any of them?

Well, like I said it’s almost like a sideshow, you know. Even my wife, she said, “I can’t believe these are the people that’s going to be running this country.”

What’s your opinion, sir?

Out of all of the candidates out there running, [even] if we elect the very best one, whoever that is, America is the loser. In other words, we don’t have anybody running for President, in my opinion.

Amen.

Let me ask you this, when is the last time you voted for a candidate with pride?

You know it has to go all the way back to John Kennedy.

At a pawn shop not far away—“Guns/Jewelry/TVs”—I met the owner, his grown son, and a customer who’d come in to look at guns. All three favored Trump, though to different degrees. The owner says:

I don’t trust Hillary Clinton at all. She’s a liar and no good. Bernie Sanders, I think he’s a little whacko. I like what Donald Trump says but he’s so unpredictable. I think that both sides are afraid of him because he is not part of the establishment.

You’re in favor of anti-establishment candidates?

Yes. Of course. Because we’re tired of them getting nothing done. They get richer and we just again suffer. I am tired of it.

I ask the customer, “Why did you vote for Trump?”

Well, I’m military. I’m a veteran, and the Second Amendment is pretty important to me. I’m sure you know this, but the Second Amendment is not really for me to protect myself from the bad guys out there because that is something that should be a given. The Second Amendment is for me to protect myself from the government, from overtaking. And that’s how it was written. It shouldn’t be a thought that I should be able to protect myself from bodily harm with my gun. I shouldn’t need a permit, I shouldn’t need a license or anything for that—the Second Amendment is to keep the government in check. People don’t realize that.

And really, it’s an eye-opener to me that there’s a Muslim or Islamic problem, and yet they won’t say it. They absolutely won’t say it, and I think that Trump’s got himself in a lot of trouble for saying it, but I think he says it to keep the Muslims out temporary, until we figure out what’s going on. I think that he’s doing that because he really cares about America. Now, I could be duped, and all this stuff he’s telling us could be bullshit, but guess what, we’ve been lied to how many gazillion times, and so I’m willing to take a chance with him. Because I know Hillary is lying to me. And if you can’t see that plain as day, then you’re just short a couple of marbles.

The customer looked to be in his forties or fifties—a big, handsome, strong-looking man with a one-week-old beard, dressed in outdoor clothes. He speaks calmly, but at length and with obvious frustration about politics in general, including about his unhappy dealings with government employees about matters such as overdue child-support payments and health care at the VA:

I swear I’m not racist. I swear on the Bible, I am not a racist person. But when you go to the VA, it’s nothing but black people working there and they don’t give two shits about you. I went to the triage and there’s two black ladies back there just jabbering about home and stuff, and nothing about work, and I’m just sitting there, I’ve got shingles…I’m dying, I’m just waiting, and they’re doing their bullshit and they got an attitude.

Here’s his final comment on Trump:

I’m willing to take a chance on Trump because I’ve been lied to by the rest of them. What’s the worst thing that can happen? He doesn’t do what he says he’s going to do? I’ve seen that for the last thirty years.

 

Leaving St. Tammany’s, I headed north toward Jackson, Mississippi. I grew up there. Today my parents, now retired, live in nearby Madison. When I was a child, my father took me quail-hunting in rambling, wide-open fields that since then have been systematically turned into affluent residential subdivisions, including the one in which my parents now live. From New Orleans, I’d phoned my brother, who lives in Nashville, to tell him, in as reasonable a tone as I could manage, about my plan to drive essentially randomly from southern Louisiana to southern Ohio, hoping to meet people I’d never met who would talk to me about Trump. What did he think about my stopping for a day or two in Madison? Maybe go with my father to a barber shop? “You’ll find them there,” my brother said. And he was right.

At a barber shop near Gluckstadt, Mississippi, my father and I meet a middle-aged man, a customer who seems in no hurry, and who tells us that he owns several small businesses and a farm in the Delta. What does he think about the presidential election?

I like Trump because he’s made payroll, hired a lot of people. Legal, illegal, he’s hired them all. He’s worked the system on both sides. I think he knows how it’s run, and I think he’s tired of paying off both sides. I know he has supported Democrats and Republicans, so he knows how it works. We are a system of lobbyists. In this country the lobbyists seem to have taken over. I think Trump knows how to work the system and I think he’ll be neutral. He sees both sides, and I just think he’s the most independent-thinking guy we’ve got. I just feel like we need a change like that. We need somebody that can work with Democrats and Republicans and I think he’s the man to do it.

What about the criticisms of him that you see on television?

[A guy I heard said] “That’s the biggest problem with Trump. He’s so outspoken, he won’t listen, he runs his mouth too much and this, that, and the other.” But I think Trump’s been successful because he does listen. He listens to tax attorneys and bankers, and I think he knows capitalism well. But on a personal level, it’s true that he can’t keep his mouth shut, and that could be a problem. What he says is not politically correct. Sometimes I kind of like a guy like that, but at the same time, I’ve always said that if you can’t say something nice about somebody, don’t say anything at all. That’s the way I am. I don’t understand why he feels like he has to slam other people.

So that’s not why you’re voting for him?

That’s right. I do think he’s the best guy we have. I think Rubio was a great guy, but he’s too young and he does not understand the system like Trump. I think Trump, coming in with a business background, knows what it takes…. He’s a broad spectrum type of guy. He said something years ago, that the only way that he would run for President is if the country got bad enough. And I think today it’s just a totally corrupt system.

One of the barbers—he told me he’d been cutting hair for more than forty years—adds his opinion:

This year, I’m sick of all of them. I’m going to vote for whoever the Republicans nominate, and vote against the Democrats. But I’m sick of all of them. They’re all stupid—working for themselves instead of for their country, and fussing among themselves, like these idiots have been doing. The President, the Supreme Court, the Senators and Representatives—most of them are crazy and all of them should be kicked out of office. Clean out the whole bunch. They’re as sorry as can be, and I’ll tell them that to their face. But I’m going to vote for the least of the two evils, and keep Hillary Clinton out.

In Madison, I meet with a middle-aged insurance agent who knows my parents. As a young man he was a Democrat—he was a Jimmy Carter delegate to the 1980 Democratic Convention—but (as did many white Southern Democrats) switched to the Republican Party in the mid 1980s. In the late 1980s, he read Donald Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, and was favorably impressed. He says:

As a successful businessman, Trump has to work with those establishment-type people, but he understands common people. He understands how to get them excited. Watching him say, “Let’s make America great again” and “I’m successful, I’m not a part of them”—that’s been kind of a sounding board to me.

Eight years ago Obama preached change, and it took off. Trump is doing the same thing. He’s appealing to the masses in a conservative way, but attracting people who haven’t been attracted to Republicans before. It’s been kind of boring to be a Republican the last eight years. You had McCain and then you had Romney. I liked Mitt Romney, but I guess he was just a little bit too polished for average Republicans like myself, on the lower economic scale. But I just like the way Trump has put excitement to it. I’m glad to see lots of people getting out to support him…. I don’t know about the world deal. I’m Catholic, and I think everybody ought to help somebody out. We need to be generous. When Trump says “the wall,” it kind of bothers me, but I don’t live in states that border Mexico, so I don’t know what the problems are. Saying “the wall,” it’s keeping people separate, and I don’t like that. But if there’s an issue, like they say it is in Arizona and Texas, in New Mexico, the influx coming in, then something needs to be done….

Another guy I meet in the area, a former high school baseball coach who now runs a small automotive-equipment business, is also a former Democrat who today supports Trump, though not without reservations. For political news, he regularly turns to “The Last Refuge,” a conservative political website. He says:

The Republicans are just like the Democrats. They are going to spend as much. They’re going to tell you that they’re not, but then when they get in office, it has been proved in the last two elections that they aren’t going to do what they said they were going to do. Here comes Trump, and there is a lot, believe me, a lot about Trump that I don’t like. Number one, I don’t trust him. How can you trust any of them? I though Ted Cruz was a good guy, and I do like what he says, but from the background I have learned he is controlled, too.

But my view of Trump is that he is at least saying the things that need to be done. They try to “get” him on policy, and he has got to give specifics, but you’ve got to have a vision, and then you can get the people to get the vision to happen. You don’t necessarily have to have the specifics of everything. He just knows we better do something about immigration. And we better do something about spending. That’s the kind of person I think he is, because he does great things in real estate, which are hard to do, but he gets them done and gets them done ahead of time. But by no means do I think he isn’t flawed in a lot of ways. But the thing is, he is saying what people won’t say.

 

At a Huddle House near Holly Springs, Mississippi, a trim, middle-aged African American man wearing a knit shirt and a baseball cap is sitting alone, reading from his mobile device, waiting for his breakfast order to arrive. I interrupt him, and he lets me sit down.

He’s a Republican—“Republicans don’t want so much taxing and so much spending [of] money that should be left in your hands”—but he says he also has some sympathy for the Democrats’ desire to “help people in need.” He works two jobs. The first is a small electronic repair business, which he started and owns. His second job is serving as a pastor of a small Pentecostal church. He says the two fit together well: “As a pastor, I can see people who’ve been going through this and that, and that gives me an opportunity to be a business man as well.” I ask him who he likes for President.

There are two guys that attract me very strongly. People who don’t mind making a stand. Whatever I believe, I make a stand for it, and I fight for it, and this year that’s Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Because at this time, I do believe we are scared, that we’ve been caught up in so much political happenings…. When it comes to [the presidential election], so many people today definitely don’t want to hear, “We have to go along.” I’m really looking for somebody who is different from that. I really fear there has been a lot of “acting.” But Trump has so much more meaning than that. He is showing the world a different mind. He’s different in that he says, “Whatever I believe, I’m putting it out there right now. You may not like it right now, but it’s what I’m saying.” That is really different, and I think Bernie does that too. They are really just different politicians.

Both of them?

Both of them. That’s where I am, I’m following no guide.

 

At a truck stop near Jackson, Tennessee, I introduce myself to a slender, gray-haired, gray-bearded fellow whose gray T-shirt says “Confederate States of America: Two Centuries of Defiance.” He’s a long-distance truck driver, heading that day toward Amarillo, Texas. His great-grandfather served in the Confederate Army, and he’s an avid Civil War reenactor: “I’ve got a couple of uniforms in the truck. We do cemetery fields, dedications, grave dedications.” What does he think about the presidential election?

I really don’t know. I just know I don’t want Hillary. At all. But it’s gonna go downhill, worse than what it is now.

You think it’s going downhill now?

Oh, yeah. It’s Obama bringing all of the Muslims in. You know all these people, bringing them in, and we’re paying for their food, their housing, everything. He’s just giving it to them. He’s just wanting all this done. He’s wanting us to foot their bill. And if we go over there, we’ll get shot.

And you figure Hillary Clinton will just continue that policy?

Yes, or make it worse.

 

On a busy street corner in Danville, Kentucky, I meet two street evangelists, both older white men, one wearing a baseball cap that says “Malawi.” He tells me he’s been to Malawi four times to distribute Christian literature and preach in the markets. What do they think about the presidential election?

I believe we’re in the midnight hour, as a nation. We’re going down the tubes because there’s no morality. They throw the Bible out of the schools, out of the government. And a nation like that will perish, as history proves to us over and over. And America is doing that, like England did and like Germany did.

Yeah, falling away from faith.

Yeah, socialism—the Democrats openly profess it. And that’s a step away from communism. And the Republicans—they ain’t much better. I think we’re in big trouble. If God doesn’t intervene, I think judgment will come to this country like it did in England, like it did in Germany.

I ask, “Who is your candidate?”

I don’t know. I like Trump’s ideas, but…maybe Cruz.

 

H

aving dinner one night at a White Castle outside of Cincinnati, Ohio, I introduce myself to a man with white hair wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt. He’s a truck driver, originally from Kentucky. Both of us have on our trays forlorn-looking piles of empty White Castle hamburger packages. What does he think about the presidential election?

There ain’t nobody there to choose from. I might not even vote, and that would be the first time not voting since I turned 18, and I’ll be 64 this year. I’m disgusted with the damn politics in the United States.

Looking back on it, are there any you were proud to vote for?

I liked Ronald Reagan. I really did.

Who was the worst, in your opinion?

Bill Clinton.

 

In Ohio, I visited with my friends David and Amber Lapp, who used to work for me at the think tank I direct, the Institute for American Values. Several years ago, as a part of that work, they moved from New York City to southern Ohio to do research on the views of white, blue-collar twenty-somethings on love, sex, family, and marriage. They came to study, but stayed on to raise their children there and be a part of the community. My admiration for them knows few bounds. They told me, accurately, that they knew plenty of the strangers I wanted to meet.

At a picnic in their back yard, I met Tim, age thirty with a wife and three young children, who works in an automotive components plant. Originally from Kentucky, he voted twice for Barack Obama and is passionately interested in politics.

I’m disappointed in the way that government in general has acted, and how there is a lack of cooperation from both sides, both Democrats and Republicans. Politics now, as opposed to when my parents were my age, is a totally different atmosphere, and it’s not a good thing. Today it’s a failure of the politicians to listen, to actually help the people instead of just helping themselves. Today it just comes down to, who can put more money into their pockets? Honestly that’s not okay with me, that’s the reason why we are several trillion dollars in the hole.

He says this year he “will have to go with Trump.”

I think having a lifelong politician in office is not what we need at this stage, especially with us being as far as in the hole financially as we are. I think we need to have a President who really has no political ties at all…. A lot of the old generation are backing Trump, because he reminds them a lot of Reagan in the ’80s…. Also, I like the fact that Trump is not doing any of this for money. He is not taking bribes from liberals or from conservatives. The thing is, I think a lot of politicians who have been lifelong politicians have lost sight of what makes this country the way it is. We need to get back to the roots of what this country was founded on, and that is the U.S. Constitution. We’re on the verge of becoming a socialist country—not a republic, not a democracy. We’re becoming a socialist and eventually communist country.

His wife joins the conversation. She supports Hillary Clinton. He tells me they argue a lot over the issue. He says: “Honestly, at this point I don’t think the United States is ready for a woman President. I don’t feel that we’re ready because we are so unstable.”

Indeed, he foresees growing discord and the escalation of political violence.

We are going to have a second civil war.

You really think there could be that kind of violence inside the country?

There is not a doubt in my mind that there will be violence.

I ask, where does he get his information?

I usually get daily, if not a couple of times a day, updates on politics and on local news, national news. Usually on my phone. I usually go online, I got through CNN, Fox News, all the major news sources that I will follow. MSNBC as well. I follow all of them.

Really, all of them?

I usually try to, yeah. Because most people don’t do that. Most people pick their favorite. I don’t believe in that. I try to follow all of them because I know not every news source is going to carry all the facts.

The next day, also courtesy of Amber and David, I meet a couple who appear to be in their late 60s. They are full of hospitality, local history, and charm. She was a letter-carrier and is now co-founding a local historical society. He is an artist and a building manager. Both have a strong interest in restoring old buildings. Together they have five children and 14 grandchildren. She says they are both for Trump.

A lot of it is because we need someone in there [who is] strong. He believes basically in the same things we do, but I do believe that he can do it. I think he can make our country great, when he says it. I believe he will earn the respect of other leaders. I believe that he will not waver on his word. Like he said, you got to sometimes take it a little at a time and negotiate. Just, when he talks, I believe in him. Because he has already proven himself with his businesses, and mainly, I’m worried for the future generations. For their security and safety.

Say a bit more about that.

I think our present leader has put us in jeopardy. I think he’s caused a lot of the racial problems that we have right now. I believe our present leadership caused it—caused our society to be what I would say is a little too sensitive. And I believe it’s true, what Trump says, that they’re afraid to identify the enemy and say it. I feel for our military and police out there trying to protect us. They can’t do their job properly. People are just too sensitive, and I blame it on our leadership. Like I said, with Trump, I know a lot of people say he’s rude and crude and whatever, but he speaks the truth. That’s the way I feel.

It’s frightening to think, if Hillary was in there. It’s scary….

Her husband says:

I remember the day Trump entered. Now, I can’t tell you that about any other politicians in my entire life, that I remember the day. At first I thought it was a joke. I said, “Wouldn’t that be great if Trump would really run?” I said, “I know it’s a joke, but what if he did?” Then I’m like, oh my gosh, this is no joke. And I thought, this is fantastic! This is what we need. He’s not a politician. Here’s somebody that really knows what he’s doing, knows how to run a business, knows how to put good men together. Isn’t backed by any of the big political money or anything else in the country. This has never happened. This is amazing, and this is someone that appeals to more than just Republicans, he appeals to Democrats, too, you know? Because before this, I wasn’t really interested. I thought, “It’s over, Hillary is going to get in and that’s it.” I really thought that way. I thought, it doesn’t matter, I will vote—I always vote—but it doesn’t matter, she’s going to win. But Trump was the first person where I said, wait a minute, he could be there. We could actually have a chance now.

He says it’s important to defeat Hillary Clinton “so this country can survive.” He says this election is important because “you got to go somewhere so you can take back control of this country.”

Because we’re going to lose it. I mean this last judge, if they put one on the Supreme Court and the Court tilts, we’re screwed. There’s your Second Amendment rights gone, and there’s nothing after that. Once they do that, everything shuts down. I mean you look at every country that takes your guns, they can do anything they want, because you have no way to fight back.

We are always the losers. And I’m like, how did that happen? This is our country and we’re losing everything.

 

I can’t claim that what I’ve reported here proves anything about anything. The people who talked to me in late March and early April of this year do not constitute what scholars call a representative sample—not of Trump supporters, of Southerners, or of lower-middle-class and blue-collar Americans, much less of American society. They are just a few people I met while driving along a few American roads. Nevertheless, I’m glad I did it, because I do believe that I learned, or at least convinced myself of, a few meaningful facts about U.S. politics in 2016.

I learned that people who describe Trump’s supporters as ignorant haven’t talked to them.

I learned that many, possibly a majority, of Trump’s supporters vote for him not because, but despite, his frequently outrageous comments.

I learned that many of Trump’s supporters don’t necessarily trust him.

I learned that, although much of the country today appears to be brimming with anger, very little of that anger seems to take the form of class resentment. Trump’s self-proclaimed status as a billionaire appears to be an unambiguous plus for him as a candidate. Non-affluent Americans seem increasingly to detest and mistrust politicians, but far fewer seem to detest or mistrust rich people, big corporations, or the growing concentration of wealth in the upper tiers of U.S. society.

I learned that very large proportions of Southern and of blue-collar white people, especially men, hold Hillary Clinton in utter contempt. In all my conversations, I met exactly one woman, and not a single man, who said anything positive about Clinton. In the movie The Grifters, the son can’t understand why his mother detests his girlfriend so intensely. Frustrated, he asks, “What’s your objection to Myra?” Her answer: “Same as anybody’s.” That’s how nearly everyone I met seemed to feel about Hillary Clinton.¹ I’ll leave it to others, or perhaps to myself on another day, to explain why this is so.

I learned that, in addition to a steadily growing partisan divide—liberals vilifying conservatives and vice versa—the United States is also experiencing a growing governing divide, such that millions of Americans find themselves voting for candidates that they can’t stand and don’t trust. The overwhelming majority of those I interviewed simply do not believe that their elected leaders, including those from their own party, are honest or can be trusted even to try to do the right thing. In my view, this sentiment is toxic, particularly in a democracy, and, probably more than any other factor, explains Trump’s rise. He’s an alluring candidate for the large and growing proportion of Americans who believe that the core problem with our politics is politicians.

I learned that many non-affluent Americans fear that the hour is late and that “we’re losing everything.”

I learned that many decent, sincere people who feel disregarded, disrespected, and left behind—in ways that I do not feel and have never felt—can disproportionately embrace political opinions that I view as bigoted or paranoid. And I wonder, if there is fault here, whose fault is it?

I learned that possibly the most significant divide in American life today is the class divide. Much current scholarship, and certainly the interviews reported here, suggest that the approximately one-third of Americans with four-year college degrees are essentially thriving, while the other two-thirds fall further and further behind on nearly every measure.² And to make the matter worse, today’s upscale Americans are less and less likely even to interact with, much less actually give a damn about, those other Americans.³ Again I wonder, if there is fault to be assigned here, where should it be assigned?

In 1962, a writer named Michael Harrington, who had a big early influence on my life, wrote a book called The Other America that helped to inspire what, during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, was called the “War on Poverty.” Poor Americans in 1962, Harrington argued, are “increasingly invisible.” He said: “Here is a great mass of people, yet it takes an effort of the intellect and will even to see them.”&sup4; In 2016, the poor are certainly still at the center of “the other America.” But as far as being “invisible” to most upscale Americans, and treated with arrogance and ignorance and indifference by so many of our political elites, today they have a lot more company.

  1. A July 2016 Pew survey finds that about 78 percent of white Evangelical voters plan to vote for Trump. And of that pro-Trump group, a solid majority say that their vote for Trump will be “mainly a vote against Clinton.” White Evangelical Protestants currently constitute about 20 percent of registered voters and about one-third of Republican and Republican-leaning voters. See “Evangelicals Rally to Trump, Religious ‘Nones’ Back Clinton,” Pew Research Center, July 13, 2016.
  2. This historically recent class-based bifurcation involving the upscale and rising 30 percent and the downwardly mobile 70 percent is evidenced by many measurements, including education, family structure, income and job security, household debt, physical and mental health and life expectancy, interpersonal and social trust, happiness, faith in the future, the likelihood of experiencing poverty, neighborhood quality and safety, outcomes for children, and others. See Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (Crown Forum, 2012); Robert D. Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Simon & Shuster, 2015); “When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America,” in The State of Our Unions: 2010 (Institute for American Values and the National Marriage Project of the University of Virginia, 2010); Louise Sheiner, “Implications of the growing gap in life expectancy by income,” Brookings Institution, September 18, 2015; “The American Middle Class Is Losing Ground,” (Pew Research Center, December 9, 2015.
  3. See, for example, Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008).
  4. Michael Harrington, The Other America (Macmillan, 1962), p. 2.

This article was originally published on August 2, 2016 in The American Interest.