The Quintessential Trump Voter, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Many more solid emails from readers are coming in over the Notes discussion sparked by Molly this week following her appearance on WBUR’s On Point. Here’s Les Carter:

Excellent notes. The media, party leaders, and the majority (so far) of the electorate have summarily dismissed the Trump candidacy because he is a moron and a buffoon, per Don [the radio caller in Kentucky whom Molly excerpted here] and Nick [the Atlantic reader here, along with anti-Trump reader John]. But John’s condescending dismissive attitude is too generalized and does not address the plight of Trump’s voter base. “Probably a Fox News viewer”? Could well be, but the guy's calling in on On Point! And I agree he really was eloquent. [On Point host Tom Ashbrook and Slate’s Jamelle Bouie], with their own agenda, went straight to Trump’s failings and did not discuss caller Don’s plight except to dismiss it on racial grounds.

Now if you examine the issues in the forefront of the media and of politicians, the plight of these men and women isn’t there. I’m pretty liberal on racial and income equality, and on LGBT issues. But contrast how much attention has been given to North Carolina’s HB2 with the economic downfall of the working class, and then contrast how many are affected.

As in so many presidential elections, I will support the candidate I dislike least: Clinton. But the pundits and political leaders who have continually dismissed the Trump candidacy as nonviable have failed us all.

Another regular reader and Notes contributor, Mike, also empathizes with Don but defends John against charges of smugness:

I’m generally with your reader response about not consigning the typical Trump voter into being a backwards racist. My own sister (fairly socially liberal) is seriously considering Trump. As she put it, “The choices this year are like picking between being hit in the face with a hammer or a baseball bat.”

My sister isn’t ignorant. She simply doesn’t follow politics religiously, hates the dysfunction of Washington, and isn’t a fan of the drama that inevitably follows the Clintons. Because it’s only May and she doesn’t follow the nomination process like a fiend, most of the controversies swirling around Trump are a sort of white noise to her.

And yet, I feel myself sympathetic to reader John; supporting Trump is stupid. Does it make me “smug” to say that, in relation to political support for a xenophobic, misogynist demagogue? I’d like to think not, since America’s political environment isn’t a vacuum for the left; when half the country considers itself “real America” compared to coastal liberals, you tell me who is the smug one.

Which simply leaves us all talking past each other. But we on the left and center do this at our own risk. We have to understand where Trump’s appeal comes from, and doing so means accepting that it isn’t all coming from KKK members. My guess? It’s coming from voters who don’t dream of riches, but of being part of the traditionally secure middle class, and who are hearing different voices (Bernie Sanders being the other one) promising that it can come back.

It won’t, of course. But the desire for it to be made so is real. And apparently people are willing to overlook a lot of ignorance and bluster for that type of message, because the alternative? Another Clinton. More politics as usual, by virtue of the name.

Joseph is on the same page when it comes to the dynastic, establishment tendencies of U.S. politics:

Your reader, John, says about the working-class Trump supporter in Kentucky, Don: “And he’s hurting. But he is clueless as to why. Now he’s voting for a buffoon, because?”

He’s voting for a buffoon because neither political party has been able to give him a compelling vision for how things are going to get better in that part of the country. Trump’s whole pitch is based on the idea that he cares about people like this guy. Even if the promises Trump makes are ludicrous, there is a neglected constituency that is desperate to be paid attention to at all. If you want to convince people like this guy to not vote for Trump, you can’t accuse them of being racist, etc. You have to give them something they can say “yes” to.

If you think you’ve been failed by both parties, why not go vote for someone to shake up the system?

That question is addressed in our growing reader debate on third party candidates in this presidential cycle, and we’ll be airing more of your emails on that thread very soon. This final reader, Kathy, doesn’t want let Don and other Trump supporters off the hook:

Don sounded just like my aggrieved parents and sisters, and they are doing just fine. Other than Don being factually incorrect about the source of many of his problems, the thing we need to think about is how we encourage the Dons of the future to prepare themselves for the next jobs. I have worked next to people who bragged about not reading books, or the newspaper past the sports page.

I don’t think Don deserves his fate, but he bears some responsibility for how his life has played out.

Has he done anything on his own to improve his skills? Has he voted for visionary leaders, who might want to raise taxes to build better roads and schools, or who will bring new technologies and industries to his community, or has he voted for tax cuts? He’s stuck doing two jobs, but what is he teaching his kids—to hate Obama because the U.S. doesn’t use as much coal because other power sources are cheaper and cleaner (and does Don want to pay more to heat his house, just to heat it with coal?), or is he teaching his kids that they better learn all they can in school, and keep learning after they graduate?

Kathy’s sentiments are similar to Kevin Williamson’s in his controversial National Review piece, “The Father-Führer”—which is only available to subscribers, but Williamson’s colleague David French lays out the basics in his post “Working-Class Whites Have Moral Responsibilities—In Defense of Kevin Williamson.”