Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution has surveyed the post-election analytic landscape, and considered the varying explanations for the outcome. He traces what he calls “the malaise of white middle America” in the trending data about mortality, life expectancy, suicide and opioid use, and suggests that it ought not be surprising that areas in which people are turning to oxycodone are also the ones that turned to Trump.
Bernie Sanders says that Trump’s “campaign rhetoric successfully tapped into a very real and justified anger.” To his mind, people are “tired of having chief executives make 300 times what they do, while 52 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent.” Well, maybe.
Meanwhile Jenny Beth Martin, president and co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, says that Trump’s victory is a validation of their agenda: “Repeal…Obamacare, protect our borders, stop illegal immigration, restore fiscal sanity and get the government off our backs and out of our lives.” Well, maybe.
There is lots of work to be done to truly understand the complex picture that emerged on November 8. But it doesn’t look to me as if economics will take us very far in terms of understanding white pain, at least in any simple way. Scott Winship of the new think tank Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity delves into the numbers, and concludes that “there is little empirical support for the idea that ‘it was the economy, stupid’.” I agree. This was an identity vote more than an income vote. Many white men, especially those of modest education, feel as if they are being overtaken and left behind. “It’s relative status, stupid!”
Kathy Cramer is the author of a recent book, The Politics of Resentment, in which she relays her research and conclusions from her interviews with the white, working class men (and some women) who voted for Trump. She says they compare their lives to a bygone world in which men like them could easily get jobs paying a decent wage, were automatically considered the “head of the household,” and “always knew that they were superior to people with darker skin.” All of those basic assumptions about the way the world works have been challenged, to say the least.
And of course we’ve had a black President since 2008. As James Baldwin warned almost half a century ago, “the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity…The black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken out of their foundations.”
The unanswerable question is: what happens when these people realize that Trump cannot undo inexorable social change? That despite “telling it like it is”–i.e., giving voice and “respectability” to their resentments–he cannot put women back in the kitchen, gays back in the closet, or send African-Americans back to the back of the bus?
As Reeves concludes,
Loss of relative status is painful, no doubt. But it is the inescapable price of equality. Trump has no cure. Nobody does.