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Who is the kind of person who would vote for Trump? The answer is more complicated than you think.
When it comes to the crowded field of GOP presidential contenders, one candidate’s still holding on to his Trump card.
The divisive businessman holds an unlikely, growing lead, with a current double-digit buffer between him and his next closest rival, Jeb Bush. Some of Trump’s fellow candidates, and other political experts, believe Trump’s numbers are a flash in the pan. Few people seem to understand why Trump is leading in the Republican race—and if they do attempt to rationalize it, they chalk it up to Trump’s voters being a horde of virulent racists.
How we talk about Trump voters reveals a troubling underlying issue. We have no clue how to talk about poor, rural, conservative white voters and why they support certain candidates. With Trump now polling in double-digits for the Republican primary, there may very well be a solid explanation for his popularity—it’s because he’s speaking to a group that believes mainstream American politics has left them behind.
Trump skeptics often wonder who could ever support a man who called Mexicans “drug dealers” and “rapists,” and publicly pressured President Obama into disclosing his long-form birth certificate. But Trump’s remarks, as deplorable as they are, reflect the sentiments of a specific kind of American voter—and he knows it. He’s taking the kinds of voters seriously that we’d often like to pretend don’t exist.
People who rally candidates like Trump are often derided as nothing but backwoods rednecks—who do nothing but blame liberal politicians and people of color for their problems. As GQ’s Drew Magary notes, the voters supporting Trump line up for rallies in large numbers because they “hang on every word of his ridiculous pitch for how he will wheel and deal America back to the top.” His policies don’t have to be good to speak to voters. One Trump supporter told Bloomberg, “Specifically, he said he’ll put a wall on the southern border. When you talk about common sense, that’s a common-sense thing to do.”
If we were in the position of a Trump diehard—living in overwhelmingly white communities, with little-to-no opportunity for jobs or to build affinity with people who are different from us—could we say that his message of blaming Mexico for all our problems wouldn’t resonate? Or would we be pledging our support for him, too?
There may very well be a solid explanation for his popularity—it’s because he’s speaking to a group that believes mainstream American politics has left them behind.
Trump speaks to this group, to the people that mainstream America likes to ignore or derisively refers to as “white trash.” It’s a stereotype that not only dismisses and marginalizes people experiencing poverty, but also attempts to convey a message about the white people who matter versus the white people who don’t. On any given week, in a city or suburb across America, residents discard their unwanted goods, leaving it a dumpster for someone else to pick up and handle. It’s a process that also mirrors how politicians treat poor, white voters living in rural, conservative communities; they’re simply debris, the wreckage of a dying America.
In order to understand a Trump voter, we need to talk about how it feels to be left behind. It’s arguably what President Obama attempted to do—perhaps unsuccessfully—during his first run for the White House. At an April 2008 campaign stop with wealthy donors in San Francisco, Obama tried to explain how the sentiments of voters in small-town Pennsylvania weren’t so different from what all of us want.
As the Huffington Post’s Mayhill Fowler noted at the time, “qualities of hospitality, patriotism, and endurance are exactly what Californians need to hear about Pennsylvanians,” who reflected a working-class culture vastly different from the affluent enclaves of the Bay Area. After all, the two camps had similar hopes and desires, even if they come from different places.
But while attempting to explain that idea, as Obama would admit soon after, he painted over those voters with too broad a brush. (Emphasis added.)
You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.
And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
As the New York Times reported, Obama clarified his statements by further explaining that “he meant… that voters in places that had been losing jobs for years expressed their anxiety at the polls by focusing on cultural and social issues like gun laws and immigration.”
In other words, wedge issues propagated by the GOP frame the issue of economic opportunity to their conservative base as a matter of “us vs. them,” a cultural war about who deserves access as opposed to ensuring there’s fairness and equity. So far, in 2015, Donald Trump has made headlines less for his ideas on the economy than his inflammatory remarks about immigrants, black people, and his promotion of a government shutdown to destroy Planned Parenthood once and for all.
Seven years later, Obama’s gaffe encapsulates much of what America still believes. He’s learned, however, and even set up a White House Rural Council to ensure those constituents’ concerns are included and addressed. But a candidate like Trump is milking this voting base as much as he can, appealing to their fear and alienation by deceptively marketing himself as the solution to their struggles. That’s despite Trump’s actual (perhaps exploitative) business practices suggesting his politics only go the distance for himself and people who are as rich as he is.
It’s a process that also mirrors how politicians treat poor, white voters living in rural, conservative communities; they’re simply debris, the wreckage of a dying America.
But it’s too early for many Trump voters to see him for who he really is, because the debates are only just beginning. Over time, however, Trump may face serious pressure at town halls and public events to move beyond what he thinks rural, white conservatives care about and directly explain how he will address their needs. Preferably, Trump would be doing so without scapegoating other social groups who are not only vulnerable to class discrimination, but also face issues such as race, gender, and nationality. (Don’t hold your breath.)
These needs run deeper than the wedge issues Trump offers up in order to inflate his numbers. According to a September 2014 report from the Housing Assistance Council, the rural poverty rate has been on the decline, but it’s consistently been higher than the national average. “These higher poverty rates in rural areas, combined with low and stagnant incomes, continue to hinder many rural families’ ability to access quality and affordable housing,” said Moises Loza, the executive director of the Housing Assistance Council, in the report.
Indeed, rural poverty is a major problem, even if we’re not having a real discussion about it.
Instead of sweeping this issue under the rug, the political dialogue—especially in the GOP primary—needs to include some of America’s most vulnerable—and most ignored—groups. Without figuring out a way to speak to white rural conservatives’ concerns, we’ll have no idea what to do with a candidate like Trump. And we’ll have even less of a clue what to do with the kind of person that would vote for him.
Derrick Clifton is the Deputy Opinion Editor for the Daily Dot and a New York-based journalist and speaker, primarily covering issues of identity, culture and social justice. Derrick tweets at @DerrickClifton.
Illustration via Max Fleishman
Derrick Clifton is an identity and culture reporter and columnist. His work has appeared on NBC News, the Guardian, Vox, the Root, Quartz, MSNBC, HLN, and Mic. He is the communications manager for ProPublica Illinois.