Understanding Trump Supporters

Last week I received an email from a good friend and Trump supporter with a copy of a Wall Street Journal op-ed essay (October 22) written by a computer science professor at Yale, David Gelernter, who stated his reasons why so many people, including himself—over 40 percent the adult population of the United States—support Trump. He cited many factors—Trump’s  “unwillingness to walk away from a fight, his bluntness, his certainty that America is exceptional, his mistrust of intellectuals, his love of simple ideas that work, and his refusal to believe that men and women are interchangeable,” among others.  His main reason, however, boils down to an us-them feeling on the part of “average Americans,” who feel dissed by the liberal, elite establishment.

As blog readers know, I have been obsessed with Trump and cannot stomach him or what he stands for. However, as I read the Gelernter op-ed piece, I could not help realizing that I belong to the tribe that according to him is in part responsible for the divisiveness in our country. When I see angry people at Trump rallies waving “Make America Great Again” signs, I cringe and shake my head, wondering who are these people.

According to Gelernter they are simply ordinary, hard working Americans who believe for a variety of reasons that they have gotten a raw deal and are looked down on by liberals, intellectuals, and “leftists” of all types. They are “the farmer, factory hand, auto mechanic, machinist, teamster, shop owner, clerk, software engineer, infantryman, truck driver, housewife.” Trump, for these average Americans–many  from the [white] working class– is their ticket to payback time. He is shaking up the establishment as he said he would and is making life miserable for those who have lorded it over them for them for decades. The ancient proverb, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” says it all. It is no wonder that his popularity remains remarkably stable regardless of how outrageous or hateful his tweets are.

Gelernter sums up what he thinks  the attitude of liberals is toward ordinary Americans: “What I see on the left is often plain, unconditional hatred of which the hater—God forgive him—is proud. It’s discouraging, even disgusting. And it does mean, I believe, that the Trump-hater truly does hate the average American—male or female, black or white. Often he hates America, too.”

I believe that Gelernter has a point in arguing that the resentment of class prejudice is a major reason behind Trumpism. He is also right that many “leftists” and Democrats have contributed to the divisiveness  by patronizing these “average Americans” and in the past taking their votes for granted. We are in some ways guilty as charged.

The year Embry and I spent with blue collar families on Clay Street gave us a perspective that we would not have had without that experience. Hard Living on Clay Street, published in 1973 and still in print, came out with a third edition this year with a new cover endorsement by Joan C. Williams, a Berkley professor, which reads, “If you want to know why Trump won in 2016, read this book.” The characters in the book were hard working Americans but were struggling to get back by. They were proud and independent but also felt marginalized. I have no doubt that most would be Trump supporters today. Yet they were good people. Given the odds they were fighting and the hands they were dealt, Embry and I could see then and understand now how they could feel resentment and alienation. And rightly or wrongly, they did not see themselves benefiting from government programs and were especially fearful of their diminished position in an America becoming more racially and ethnically diverse.

So Gelernter is  right. We liberals are in part responsible. Shame on us! We need to do better.

But wait a minute! You can surely hate Trump without hating his ardent followers. And you can surely speak truth as you see it: Trump is a fraud. Trump has never cared about working people, and the policies and actions he has promoted do not make their lives better. The tax breaks went mainly to the top 10 percent. Weakening  Obamacare does not help working people nor does his opposition to increasing the national minimum wage. He is anti union. His trade tariffs are at best a mixed bag, helping some working people but hurting others. The next target for Trump and his party will surely be dismantling the social safety net, using the massive deficits created by the tax breaks as the excuse. He is promoting hatred and discord. He is a consummate liar.  He has not stood up to racists or Neo Nazis and spreads fear about people of color entering our country. His number one concern is himself. Many people believe that he is edging the country toward a tyrannical future. 

Yes, I can certainly understand why many in the white working class cast their ballot for Trump as a protest vote. But in the end they chose the wrong horse. They were duped. Agreed, the economy is doing pretty well right now, and people have jobs, but the income gap is not getting any better. The growth we are seeing this year is a sugar high caused mainly by the tax cuts, which are overheating the economy, a situation for which we will have to pay the piper sooner or later. The Trump presidency will turn out to be a disaster for working people.

So what are we to learn from people like the Yale professor and others who cast us as demons? We can agree that we Democrats and progressives have at times let down working people and that too many of us have disrespected and looked down our noses on the “average Americans” who now are Trump supporters. We have to do better. But we can’t take our eye off the ball. We have to champion a progressive agenda  and  hammer away by supporting policies that will make life better for working people— affordable health care, greater access to higher education, stronger unions, higher wages, available childcare, a strong social safety net, and laws that ensure a level playing field regardless of race, ethnicity, sexuality or one’s place in society….The list is long. We have to keep up the fight for what we believe in. We have to work hard for a more tolerant and inclusive America.

On Tuesday our country will vote in what has been described as the most important mid term election in generations, perhaps ever.  On election eve we do not know how it will turn out. The Republicans–more accurately “The Party of Trump”– will probably gain seats in the Senate, and the Democrats will gain seats in the House but are not guaranteed a majority. In order to put brakes on the Trump presidency it is critical that Democrats retake the House. Talk of a blue wave has subsided as the polls show the preference gap narrowing for Democrats. Voter turnout will determine the outcome.  It could be a cliffhanger.

Nail biting time.


8 thoughts on “Understanding Trump Supporters

  1. Good piece. David Gelernter got severely wounded by the an exploding package from the Unanomber. He’s the son-in-law of a good friend. Also a longtime conservative and an Orthodox Jew and very pro-Israel which may be another reason he likes Trump.

  2. Here’s an interview with him from just after the the piece ran. To say he’s all over the place is an understatement. I’m sorry he thinks his academic colleagues are mean to him.


    When I hear him talk about real Americans it reminds me of the one good thing about 9-11; for 2 or 3 months people who lived in New York got to be referred to as real Americans. Now it’s back to “New York values” etc. Which I’ll have to admit if trump’s values are “New York values” those are objectively bad.

  3. Thank you dear Joe for this wonderful clarification!!
    Your clarity helps my understanding of what has
    been happening and causing me such distress!
    I live in one of the wealthy Cape Cod communities
    and work in the more down to earth barely
    making a living community ( Provincetown) !!!
    I feel much more at home in Provincetown❣️
    And I worry about it as it becomes more
    gentrified with bigger, fancy homes…
    Thanks again for your clear writing!!!

  4. Is the world (and certainly the US) moving more and more to the right? Nationalism? We’ve been there before – and the result was not good. Here in the UK we can’t cast the first stone – Brexit could be disastrous, and not just for us. But it’s part of the same movement – and I agree, caused at least in part by the (so-called) masses feeling disenfranchised.

  5. Very good analysis. Helps to explain the bubble we’re in (the Democrats). It’s not so much Trump that his supporters vote for (or his behavior), it’s what he represents politically, or appears to. They are rejecting the status quo.

  6. Good analysis. It helps to explain the bubble we’re in (the Democrats). It’s not so much Trump that his supporters vote for (or his behavior), it’s what he represents politically, or appears to. They are rejecting the status quo.

  7. Joe,

    Hillary Clinton’s basket of deplorables remark could be costing democrats votes for years to come. If Main Street America felt dissed by the liberal, elite establishment it’s because they were dissed by the liberal elite establishment, and her unguarded comment proved it. One hundred years after it was first published, a lot of people in our native South still remember H. L. Mencken’s column “ The Sahara of the Bozart.” You can think what you like with impunity, but you can’t say what you like with impunity.

    Best, JGK

  8. I may be judged to be part of the liberal elite, but if I could choose my affinity group I would choose to be included the liberal non-elite. I think there are plenty of those folks. I hope they accept me into their fold. They are more fun on the whole, and more down-to-earth. By the way, who are the “elite”? Does anyone have a definition, or is that all in the eye of the beholder? And who are the “liberals” for that matter? We are tied up in semantics here.

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