Сытый голодного не разумеет (Someone whose stomach is full doesn’t understand a person who’s hungry)
As we head into the high season of the midterm election campaign, hope is building for a “blue wave” that will sweep away the Republican majorities in Congress and set the stage for the long-anticipated (since at least January 2017, if not November 2016) impeachment of President Trump. But will it be enough for the Democrats simply to rally their base, or must a sizable chunk of the 2016 Trump electorate express belated voter’s remorse by sending their local Republican officials packing? What might it take to flip enough Trump voters to generate a blue wave massive enough to engulf the White House?
The shocking upset in the 2016 U.S. presidential election prompted many puzzled souls to seek out Trump voters, to the extent they could locate any, to discover what had motivated their support of a candidate who seemed to go beyond all bounds of human decency. Some researchers paid a call on the oddball fellow with the Trump sign on his front lawn in their otherwise deep-blue neighborhood. Others undertook the hazardous journey into deepest, darkest Red America to observe masses of Trump voters in their natural habitat. Many of the subsequent reports had the air of popular anthropological studies, analyzing the savages and explaining their queer customs and predilections in terms comprehensible to civilized people. Some authors latched onto remarks by the subjects of their study that hinted darkly at underlying xenophobia, misogyny, or other primordial evils. Other analysts expressed pleasant surprise at the unexpected decency of their subjects, finding them to be, when all is said and done, folks very much like you and me.
Whatever the findings of this post-election research, the current stereotypical image of a Trump voter is an angry, ignorant white guy wearing a dingy “wife beater.” A senior FBI official captured the spirit when he derided Trump voters as “uneducated, lazy [pieces of shit].”1
In pondering the question of why anyone would vote for Trump, I quickly realized that I am at a decided psychological/cognitive disadvantage, as I lack nearly all of the usual “markers.” I have an undergraduate degree from a prestigious university and a Master’s degree from one of the top programs in my field of study. Globalization has been good to me. I’ve traveled extensively, including 15 years living overseas. I’m a quintessential “anywhere.” My wife is an immigrant, and my bilingual children have dual citizenship. My government job ensured that I was never at risk of unemployment, even during the Great Recession.
Yet for all my cosmopolitan transience, I retain tentative roots in southwestern Pennsylvania, where my grandfather was a steelworker and the majority of my mostly blue-collar relatives still reside. I know or suspect that my relatives there pretty much all voted for Trump. They live in a traditionally “blue” part of the rust belt inundated by the red tide that swept Donald Trump into the White House. The dislocations in the region occasioned by the collapse of the steel industry since the 1970s have been amplified by the continuous outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, with China the most likely destination. The city of Pittsburgh has managed to reinvent itself rather nicely, but the gritty mill town in the Monongahela Valley where my parents grew up remains economically and socially devastated.
How very different are my situation and perspective. I live in an area of northern Virginia that takes self-conscious pride in its Wilkommenskultur. My neighborhood is sprinkled liberally with signs proclaiming “Hate Has No Home Here.” Aside from a considerable number of legal immigrants, primarily white-collar professionals, we also have a visible population of presumably undocumented workers who tend our lawns, mind our children, and clean our homes. By a happy coincidence, the latter group is not numerous enough to besmirch the lofty reputation of our public school system or overwhelm our social services.2 Illegal immigration is a boon for us. How else would our high-powered, two-income professional families find the abundant, cheap unskilled labor they need to keep their households in working order?
One often hears how honest and hardworking undocumented workers are. It should come as no surprise. They have no recourse. The crooked and lazy ones don’t last long, getting deported after the first run-in with their employer or the law. How much easier than dealing with surly American-born workers, with their vexatious insistence on compliance with the minimum wage, Social Security, and other nettlesome labor laws! The only problem is that “undocumented” doesn’t last forever. Some illegal migrants work a while and return to Central America.3 Others eventually adjust status and move up the employment ladder, where they encounter the lowest rung of the legal immigrants who never had to work in the shadow economy in the first place. Certainly, the American-born children of undocumented workers aspire to do more with their lives than mow suburban lawns and wash dishes in tony restaurants. Thus, there is a constant need to replenish the supply of undocumented workers, and a built-in incentive to keep the illegal-immigration spigot open.
Consider, however, the point of view of people such as my blue-collar cousins, one of whom works in a middle-school cafeteria and another of whom cleans houses. Illegal immigrants simply compete for their jobs, depress their wages, and push up the cost of low-end housing.4 Such working-class Americans are singularly unmoved by the plight of suburban professionals casting about for a reliable lawn-care service or the most affordable child-care option.
One should therefore forgive working-class Americans for questioning the degree to which the sanctuary city movement is inspired by humanitarian concerns, and how much it is driven by fear that a serious crackdown on illegal immigration would cause the collapse of the low-end service economy in various upscale areas. Speaking for myself, I always find it easier to embrace altruism when it happens to dovetail with my personal best interests. I therefore consider it unseemly for people who benefit materially from an abundance of undocumented workers to sling epithets like “racist” and “xenophobe” at working-class Americans whose economic interests are manifestly harmed by illegal immigration.
If immigration is a hot-button issue inclining millions of voters to continue backing Trump, government regulation is a less-recognized concern that nevertheless exercises a similar effect. The mainstream media portray Trump’s deregulation measures as a ploy to subject the country to wholesale plunder by the President’s rapacious corporate backers. Comfortable suburban professionals like me tend to regard regulation instinctively as an unblemished good—largely, I suspect, because we almost never experience it personally as a burden. In my socio-economic milieu, where the consumption of organic, locally grown produce is a token not so much of health-consciousness as of virtue, I detect precious little appreciation of the regulatory hurdles that attend agriculture, not to mention small business, the extractive industries, small-scale manufacturing, or rural life in general. And the problem is not even so much ill-considered regulations as the unforeseen consequences of well-intentioned ones.
For example, a relative of mine was involved in the opening of a new restaurant. Although their architect had already submitted plans and the city had approved them, a knowledgeable person warned them that the restaurant nevertheless did not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on a number of counts. They therefore hired an expert to review the premises. Among other shortcomings, the expert cited the fact that the grade of the wheelchair access ramp was a tiny fraction of an inch too steep—a deviation well within construction tolerances, and one based solely on a reading from the expert’s iPhone level. The fact that their plans had already been approved did not spare the restaurant from needing about $20,000 in retrofits to bring everything—including the wheelchair ramp—into compliance. Quite apart from legitimate enforcement of the ADA, there are also scammers who go around to businesses, identify real or fictitious regulatory violations, and demand payment lest the proprietors be reported to the authorities. Thus, the regulatory burden created even by noble legislation such as the ADA is a serious one compounded by overzealous implementation, lack of knowledge (in this case, on the part of the architect and city planners), and the possibilities for abuse by unscrupulous individuals.
Globalization, illegal immigration, and regulatory overreach do not exhaust the factors confirming millions of voters in their support of President Trump. For instance, it became apparent during Obama’s second term that the losers in America’s Culture Wars would not be allowed to withdraw in good order from the battlefield to live their private lives undisturbed in accordance with their own values and principles. Instead, the victors have pursued their vanquished foes into their convents, hobby shops, and bakeries to ensure the losers’ unconditional obeisance to progressive social doctrine. How many people as a consequence are prepared to support Trump, often holding their noses, over the issue of appointments to the Supreme Court?
In addition, much of our recent foreign and security policy appears to be disconnected from the wellbeing and interests of ordinary Americans. The working classes, who contribute the bulk of our enlisted soldiers, have struggled to make sense of resource-intensive, open-ended wars in distant locales where U.S. equities would seem to be minimal. More than 20 years ago Michael Mandelbaum described the policy of nation-building and democracy-promotion using the apt term “foreign policy as social work.” Decades later, foreign policy as social work has become further trivialized, and largely amounts to U.S. attempts to micromanage the social policies of other countries in pursuit of causes such as religious liberty, property restitution, gender equality, or LGBTQ rights. However worthy these causes might be, they are arguably more the purview of NGOs than of the State Department. They are also largely niche concerns dear to much of the American elites, but distant from the day-to-day lives of people in the heartland.
A big blue wave in November becomes problematic to the degree that people in flyover territory perceive the country’s elites to be suffering from a socio-political variant of Bicoastal Disorder. It is not even just a function of the disconnect in perspectives, but of a largely class-based enmity that has reached alarming proportions. Some months ago an older gentleman of my acquaintance, an erudite man with a Ph.D. in history, remarked that he has cut off all contact with an old friend who is a Trump supporter. He proceeded to vent against the disadvantaged, struggling rust-belt voters who put Trump into office: “I used to feel sorry for those people, but I don’t any more. As far as I’m concerned, all of West Virginia can rot in hell!”
We, the sated, not only fail to understand those with empty stomachs, but we even reproach them for their hunger.
If xenophobia is the fear/hatred of people different from oneself, then the problem in our country runs far deeper than some mere aversion toward immigrants. How many people sporting “Hate Has No Home Here” signs are actually seething with animosity toward the half of their fellow citizens who vote differently from them? And why the utter lack of sympathy for the other guy’s problems? Do we reflexively snuff out any budding empathy for the travails of people in the heartland lest we appear to validate opinions that we regard as racist, sexist, homophobic, and so forth? Do we feel a sense of righteous satisfaction at the thought of all those dreadful people rotting in hell?
After all, we bien pensants have been well-socialized. When we pass by a person with spiky purple hair and multiple body piercings, we instinctively think warm thoughts about tolerance and diversity. We have an altogether different reaction when we encounter a good old boy in a red MAGA cap blaring country music from the cab of his pickup truck.
The cover of the August 20 issue of the New Yorker, mischievously entitled “Safe Travels,” captures the point perfectly. A nice suburban family has arrived at a wooded lakeside for a boating vacation. As mom helps the kids with their life vests, dad glances over his shoulder at the car parked next to them—a rusty red Ford pickup truck with a gun rack and a variety of God-and-country bumper stickers. Dad’s expression is a mixture of unease and disdain. It says, “Gad, are we going to have to spend our vacation rubbing elbows with those people? Are my kids even going to be safe here?” I would add that this rustic vacation might be such a family’s only occasion for a close encounter with real, live Trump supporters. It is clearly an unpalatable prospect for dad, whose horror is no doubt compounded by a lurking suspicion that his guileless children might actually end up making friends with the kids from the pickup truck.
It is staggeringly ironic that a plutocratic New York real-estate tycoon should receive the mantle of rust-belt working-class hero, or that a self-absorbed, libidinous serial philanderer should emerge as the standard-bearer for Judeo-Christian values. However, rather than ponder the deep social and psychological reasons for this astonishing and utterly counterintuitive phenomenon, we blithely seize on it as further proof of the innate stupidity and gullibility of the Trump electorate.
As one of the few Trump supporters I know put it, in 2008 and 2012 the Republicans nominated two of the most upright and decent politicians in their party as their candidates for president, only to see them ruthlessly maligned and slandered en route to crushing electoral defeat.5 Having learned the lesson that nice guys finish last, in 2016 they chose as their candidate an unprincipled, take-no-prisoners street-fighter who could dish it out as well as he could take it. Indeed, I think my friend has grasped an important truth. For voters feeling helpless in the face of massive illegal immigration, regulatory imposition by unelected bureaucrats, and the seemingly unstoppable loss of manufacturing jobs, playing nice seems pointless, even counterproductive. There is a temptation to have someone like Trump go in and simply smash everything, like sans-culottes sacking the Cathedral of Notre Dame during the French Revolution. A bull in a china shop is a disturbing spectacle, but it’s precisely what you need if your goal is to break china. Or to break China.
Is it possible the uncouth working-class bubbas whom we love to lampoon detect a trace of self-righteousness in our attitude? Is there no small element of entitlement in our bleating about the direction that Trump and his deplorables have taken our country? The American working classes might not be credentialed, but they are clever enough to gauge their own best interests, and they understand when they are being patronized and belittled. Dealing with the Trump electorate by a combination of shaming, shunning, and ridicule might be psychologically satisfying, but it is unlikely to secure much working-class buy-in to the elite’s electoral agenda. In fact, to the extent that Trump drives presumptuous elites to paroxysms of irrational rage,6 voters in the heartland have an added incentive to double down on their support for the President.
Nevertheless, various analysts persist in assuring us that Trump owes his 2016 election solely to Russian meddling. However, Trump’s upset victory was merely the crest of a larger wave that has cost the Democrats more than 1,000 legislative and gubernatorial seats nationwide over the last four election cycles.7 While Russian “active measures” in 2016 were genuine (and nothing new), the amount of money spent on them was miniscule in comparison to the war chests of the Clinton and Trump campaigns, and the quality of the material was risible. To the best of my knowledge, no one has produced even a single voter who could point to a Russian-origin message that swayed his/her vote—or triggered a decision not to vote. With all the obvious reasons for working-class voters to plump for change, are there really any grounds to suppose that Trump is President because 70,000 voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania were hornswoggled by Russian disinformation? Is it not far more likely that Hillary Clinton lost because, say, 70,000 working-class Catholics in those states were outraged at how the Obama Administration treated the Little Sisters of the Poor?
In any event, contemplating the tsunami of our own self-generated political vitriol, I can’t believe it would make the slightest difference if the Russians gleefully threw on an additional bucket or two.
As the saying goes, in a democracy people get the government they deserve. But have we taken full and honest account of whose merits, precisely, have brought the scourge of Trump down upon our heads? And if not, are we doomed to suffer recurring nightmares from that 2016 grade-B horror flick entitled Revenge of the Flyover States?
1I wonder if the FBI official in question is the same one who coined the phrase “Viva le resistance,” which any high-school language student would recognize as an illiterate bastardization of Spanish and French. Uneducated and lazy, indeed!
2But if the academic or security environment in our exemplary public-school system should deteriorate, how many of us would quietly move our children into private schools—an option not available to working-class families maligned for their supposed unwillingness to mingle with immigrants?
3Some years ago I was touring the Ukrainian town of Kamianets-Podilskyi with its imposing medieval fortress. Our guide, a middle-aged man with excellent English, explained how he had made a little money on the side in Soviet times by helping would-be Jewish emigrants fabricate tales of discrimination on their petitions for refugee status in the United States. The tricky part, he vouchsafed, was to vary the stories sufficiently, lest the American immigration authorities spot a pattern and come to suspect that they were being scammed. I was taken aback, since the pervasiveness of Soviet anti-Semitism had always been an article of faith for me. Arguably, Moscow had no business forcing Jews to remain in the USSR, even if they had not all been victims of persecution. However, my tour guide’s unsettling tale has given me a more nuanced perspective on the current flow of purported refugees to the United States, particularly in light of the two-way human traffic between here and Central America. If victimization by gang violence proves to be the ticket for admission to the United States, rest assured that every aspiring Central American immigrant will be prepared to recite the requisite tale.
4In the August 6, 2018 Washington Post, Jeff Stein observed that a recent dip in surging rents “is being driven primarily by decreasing prices for high-end rentals,” while “[p]eople in low-end housing, the apartments and other units that house working-class residents, are still paying more than ever.” The subsequent, politically correct analysis in the article casts about for an explanation in faulty public policy and never even hints that illegal immigration might be an important—indeed, probably the major—factor in driving up the price of working-class housing.
5It has been distasteful to see so many of the media outlets that trashed John McCain in 2008 suddenly discover that he is a war hero and a man of scruples—and to recognize that they do so not principally in posthumous recognition of McCain’s qualities but to use the late Senator shamelessly as yet another stick with which to beat Trump.
6A sad recent example of sheer, mind-blowing irrationality is the August 28 Newsweek opinion piece by Robert Reich, who in all apparent seriousness argues for simply annulling the entire Trump presidency, as if such a measure were somehow constitutional or even feasible. Speechless, I am left pondering whether there might be some way to weaponize this Trump Effect and put it to better use against our country’s enemies.
7I expect it is only a matter of time before some enterprising investigative journalist reports “evidence” that Russian efforts to hijack American democracy actually date back to 2010 and account for all the Democrats’ electoral losses since then. Of course, the stage has already been set for such a claim with regard to 2018 should the election results fail to meet expectations.