What could possibly be in the minds of Trump voters? Not only those who cast a ballot for him in 2016, but also those who have stayed by him since then, given that everything Democrats and many-if-not-most establishment Republicans knew would happen under such an obviously unqualified, tempestuous and malformed character has come to pass.
Broken promises, unrelenting self-aggrandizement, frayed international relations, bellicose nationalism, schoolyard taunting, tax cuts for the ruling class, disdain for the environment, chaos, vindictiveness and bullying as policy—all of this has indeed happened, and even been doubled down on through the president’s first 10 months in office.
Wondering how Trump voters continue to countenance all this has been the billion dollar question as our world careens and liberals try their best not to wake up every morning with yet another Trump hangover and visions of a future as an ex-pat piercing through the fog in their heads.
Jones makes an impassioned case that Trump voters can’t be summarily dismissed as mere racist, anti-immigrant yahoos. He also thinks it’s arrogant of liberals to generalize and thus dehumanize them in this way.
It is also the question that CNN commentator Van Jones, liberal and empathic to such a degree that he even demonstrates a certain bonhomie toward Trump voters, has been struggling with the past two years.
The fruits of that struggle are a recent book (”Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together”), and his forming of a web-based organization known as “The Love Army” (lovearmy.org).
Both the book and the organization have as their joint mission a return to civility, respect and the true listening that Jones sees as necessary to patch the deeply frayed social nets that are barely holding our country and culture together across an unforgiving political divide.
“I think we have invested too much confidence in the politics of outrage, accusation and confrontation.”
Jones riffed on that theme and much more in an hour-long presentation to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco a few weeks ago. He made a—typically, if you’ve seen or heard him on CNN—articulate and emotional case not, I should emphasize, for excusing Trump and his hard-core alt-right supporters who truly have no justification for their malignant views and behavior. Jones has mostly given up on that group, and for good reason. (Has there ever been a more odious political duo in American history than Trump and Steve Bannon?) (Well, maybe Trump and Michael Flynn…)
But absolutely critical in his view is that we listen seriously and respectfully to the millions of decent Americans, many of whom we undoubtedly know as friends, acquaintances and even family members, who unaccountably voted for Trump and remain as steadfast supporters. That support remains (at some 80 percent of Republican voters) even as many acknowledge they sometimes hold their noses and don’t, by a country mile, support everything he says and does.
Trump’s support from the white, high school-educated working class has been the subject of exhaustive review. This is where he found the 77,000-vote margin in three states—Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—that had gone for Obama, and which propelled Trump to the presidency despite getting thrashed by nearly 3 million votes in the unequally weighted Electoral College.
Jones makes an impassioned case that these voters can’t be summarily dismissed as mere racist, anti-immigrant yahoos. He also thinks it’s arrogant of liberals to generalize and thus dehumanize them in this way. It will also, he warns, almost surely result in another Trump victory three years hence if liberals don’t give a much closer listen to these voters’ concerns.
The payoff, he suggests, could be substantial, because just one of the paradoxes at work here is that disaffected, left-behind working class people replaced by robots or by jobs shifted to the third world are a far more natural constituency for Democratic ideals than they are for Republicans. But it is to the Democrats’ discredit that they have not argued a convincing case to these voters on that point.
In light of that Democratic Party failure, Trump’s working class support remains a powerful force. How could this be? What is inside their heads and guts fueling an obviously emotional decision for which they are flayed mercilessly across multiple media, both mass and social?
What is their beef, the energy that appears to fuel their resentments that are so carefully seized upon by Trump as supposed proof of his identification with suffering and forgotten Americans?
Jones suggests a sort of imaginative exercise, putting yourself in the heads of those who mostly acknowledge that sure, Trump can be mean and they really wish he’d get over his wake-the-dead Twitter attacks, but they would vote for him again anyway.
“Why and how could you?” we want to ask.
Let me see if I can help.
Many years ago, I was coaching the college freshman basketball team at my alma mater. Small school, small team, only nine players, so I couldn’t even hold a decent scrimmage without subjecting myself to being the 10th man, jostled and bumped much more than I bargained for in accepting the position.
Three of those nine players were African-American, and two of them were starters. The one who wasn’t—let’s call him James—was a guard, playing behind a fellow African-American and an accomplished white guard who was easily one of the two best players on the team.
He had played the race card, and, to anyone who examined the circumstance in even the dimmest light, he had done more than merely attempt to sully my own character.
Both starting guards showed up to practice every day, listened closely, worked hard on their game, and got better each week of the season. None of those things was true for James, who was clearly troubled, undisciplined, sorely lacking in fundamentals, missed practice repeatedly, and remained on the team for two reasons only: I really didn’t want to lose any more players, and I felt sorry, bleeding heart that I already was at that stage of my life, for him. I hoped that staying on the team would be beneficial for him in the long run.
That hope came to naught because James quit a few games into the season. I found out from another player; James didn’t bother to come tell me himself. I was disheartened, partly because I had bent over backwards trying to accommodate him, and now I wondered whether my relative laxity was ultimately in his best interests, not to mention the team’s.
A few weeks later, the head varsity coach sat me down in our office and let me know James had filed a formal grievance, alleging racial discrimination because he wasn’t starting. This was so outrageous I literally laughed before I felt very, very sorry for James, for his misbegotten self-assessment, and for his willingness to pin his own shortcomings on the handiest available scapegoat.
He had played the race card, and, to anyone who examined the circumstance in even the dimmest light, he had done more than merely attempt to sully my own character. He also made it harder for his African-American brothers and sisters to file and win legitimate grievances, because him going the grievance route had been so patently absurd as to potentially taint the process for anyone who had observed it.
James’s grievance came to nothing, because there was nothing behind it. While the incident informed me that truly anything could happen in this world and no good deed goes unpunished, I chalked it up to his difficult upbringing, and I hoped he would go on to overcome his challenges in life.
It also did nothing to change my steadily more impassioned liberal persuasions. I’d studied too much social science by then and had read too much African-American literature not to see what minorities had always been up against.
But: It could have changed me. Someone else of a different persuasion going in could easily have noted, “Yup, there goes the race card,” used it to exemplify the over-reach of discrimination grievances and lawsuits, because people will occasionally use such things to ill advantage, everyone being human and all. And then this person might be on guard and looking for that very thing in other such circumstances. Even, perhaps, legitimate ones.
This is the insidious power of a true incident that begets a false generalization—and everyone becomes the worse for it.
I’m guessing Trump voters might have encountered a situation or two like this over the years of their lives. Doesn’t necessarily take much more than that to jaundice one’s views.
A few years later, long story short, a department head at an early job of mine was far more bleeding heart than just about anyone I’d ever met, God love him. He insisted on hiring a black candidate for a job who was far less qualified than several more mature and credentialed candidates ahead of him—but who happened to be white.
I was on the interview committee, and though I didn’t fight his choice, I did have my concerns.
Pitiably enough, the person was a disaster and soon drummed himself right out of his job. (Pothead, sullen…)
Clearly, a kind of affirmative action had not worked to good effect in this instance—neither for the employee, those whom he was hired to serve, nor, again, to any black brothers and sisters who might follow in his tracks. They might well have had to labor under the shadow of his questionable elevation and subsequent failure in a process based not on merit but on the hoped-for achievement of some ultimate social good.
Do such occasionally dismal results mean giving extra consideration to a diverse workforce is a bad idea?
Not at all. Plenty of ostensibly “most-qualified” applicants of every race fail miserably as well, in every job.
Affirmative action has been a good thing for the culture, no doubt—our country is the richer and more just, in many ways, for the minorities who have been given extra opportunities where none existed before.
Only problem is it can be a bad thing for individuals—say, white students or job applicants with superior qualifications in a competitive situation—to lose out solely because of their color. For those particular flesh-and-blood individuals, affirmative action can appear to offer them up as sacrificial lambs to a process that, however noble the social cause it serves, was not about creating a just outcome for them.
I suspect that kind of thing is heavy on certain Trump voters’ minds, something similar to it perhaps having happened to them or to someone they know.
For my own part, I see and appreciate the value of race-based judgments in certain circumstances, and I maintain a philosophical, “That’s the way it goes sometimes, life is unfair” stance at the thought of it perhaps having happened to me.
But do I understand why it might appear to be outrageous or, at the very least, unfair to those who insist that equal opportunity must mean exactly that, to everyone all the time, no matter their color? Absolutely.
Does that make them a bad person or a racist? I’m with Van Jones here in suggesting that we not disrespect legitimate, if different, philosophical positions that emphasize a different aspect of the imperfect solution in an imperfect world that affirmative action represents. And not making those who hold it to be pariahs unworthy of our engagement.
And just to emphasize: Trump voters’ motivations go far beyond their take on African-Americans unfairly playing the race card or any individual citing a failed affirmative action.
We’ve heard almost ad nauseum about the disappearing Rust Belt jobs and the decline of the white working class. Trump’s craven and malicious appeal to racism in fostering images of immigrant waves stealing American jobs is unforgivable, but the reality is this: neither Democrats nor establishment Republicans have solved the working class’s problems. All that many dispossessed workers know is that their own circumstance is wretched: wages compressing or jobs gone altogether, many of them reduced to service jobs at a fraction of their former salaries. Or no job at all, ever, as they spiral down with their opioids.
So, they take a flyer on this mogul who promises to burn the whole house down. What have they got to lose?
Plenty more, as I think they will see when the rich get nothing but richer under Trump’s rule, public schools are ravaged, and the environment goes to hell, among other travesties still to come.
Finally, a nod to the “social values” voters. However contradictory their support for the amoral and irreligious Trump may appear to be, they nevertheless have plentiful rationale for concern about where the culture has been led by forces of secularism, permissiveness, and the increasingly brazen sexuality pictured by the Hollywood entertainment complex.
Got five minutes to behold an example? Then see this piece of “mass entertainment” offered up by the NFL on Thanksgiving Day in the form of a singer named Jason Derulo, holding forth at halftime of the Detroit-Minnesota game.
If you didn’t have those five minutes, let me just say that the trio of songs he squeezed into his halftime slot — “Talk Dirty to Me,” “Love Like That” and “Want to Want Me” seemed an odd and uneasy fit for a holiday in which family, gratitude and gracefulness are the prevailing themes. Untold millions of viewers have children they wouldn’t, if the parents are anything this side of brain-dead, let anywhere near lyrics such as the following:
Been around the world, don’t speak the language
But your booty don’t need explaining
All I really need to understand is when, you talk dirty to me
Talk dirty to me, talk dirty to me, talk dirty to me
Get jazzy on me
I’m making love to his girl, but he’s still my nigga
No we can’t control ourselves when we on that liquor
Can’t let the homie in this house
‘Cause I’m in love with his girl
Nah we ain’t supposed to fuck like that
We ain’t supposed to touch like that
Damn it’s too much, too much, might crack
Pressure burst pipes, baby I’ma burst back
So: just why is this music deemed suitable for daytime national television on a holiday? I would venture to say the answer lies in the most basic advertising maxim in the world: sex sells. Getting eyeballs to the screen is the goal, and it is well-orchestrated by music industry taste-makers who know a thing or two about human nature: how sex can be an unwieldy beast of endless fascination, allure and danger.
That “danger” is particularly severe when the id is allowed to run rampant in youth without countervailing voices of restraint and respect.
Many Trump voters are among those terrified by these trends, their children saturated with images of wanton sex and violence that are everywhere in modern media. Neither liberals, with their default setting on “freedom,” nor establishment conservatives with their finger-wagging emphasis on “morals,” have been able to stem these forces that have undeniably led to a coarsening and hyper-sexualization of American culture in recent decades.
So is it all that much of a wonder that Trump’s “values-based” voters have called a pox on both parties’ houses and thrown in their lot with a “Disrupter-in-Chief” who promises to burn all those houses down?
“Blow it all up!” these unlikely anarchists proclaim. Might we understand some part of the emotion that fuels such incendiary desires?
And assuming at least some measure of understanding, what do we propose to do about it moving forward?
A different quality of five minutes…
Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. See more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Van Jones photo near top of page by Gage Skidmore, Phoenix, Arizona, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/
Trump voters photo by kellybdc, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/130808023@N03/
Integrated schoolroom, 1950s, from historical archives