News & Politics

Trump, Poor Whites, and the Sneers of the Elite

The rise of Donald Trump has many political insiders still scratching their heads as to how such a bombastic person could do just about everything wrong, yet still manage to grab their party’s nomination. After all, no GOP candidate in recent history has been as reviled as Trump, yet he handily grabbed the mantle of Republican nominee and is currently leading in the polls against Hillary Clinton.

However, a recent interview with author J.D. Vance at The American Conservative is rather enlightening on that front.

Vance grew up poor in Appalachia, and wrote on the subject. His take on why Trump resonates with poor whites is something people should consider. The whole interview is fascinating, but here’s something worth remembering:

My grandma (Mamaw) recognized this instinctively. She said that most people were probably prejudiced, but they had to be secretive about it. “We” — meaning hillbillies — “are the only group of people you don’t have to be ashamed to look down upon.”

During my final year at Yale Law, I took a small class with a professor I really admired (and still do). I was the only veteran in the class, and when this came up somehow in conversation, a young woman looked at me and said, “I can’t believe you were in the Marines. You just seem so nice. I thought that people in the military had to act a certain way.”

It was incredibly insulting, and it was my first real introduction to the idea that this institution that was so important among my neighbors was looked down upon in such a personal way. To this lady, to be in the military meant that you had to be some sort of barbarian. I bit my tongue, but it’s one of those comments I’ll never forget.

There is a tendency among the so-called “tolerant” to view rural and small-city whites as being a certain way, which is usually described as backward, ignorant, and uneducated. If you don’t believe it, look at how often someone with a thick southern accent is portrayed on television. How often are they educated, understanding, or well read? How often are they either stupid, backward, lazy, or some other negative thing?

Additionally, Vance notes how a Yale law professor he respected wanted the school to stop admitting people from state colleges, arguing that Yale wasn’t there for remedial studies. Vance, however, went to Ohio State and pointed out how it was his only shot at a good education. The elitism clouded the professor’s view, which was supposed to be tolerant.

But how does that tie into Trump? Vance offers this:

From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican policy platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and paeans to the noble businessman and economic growth. Whatever the merits of better tax policy and growth (and I believe there are many), the simple fact is that these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis. More importantly, these policies are culturally tone deaf: nobody from southern Ohio wants to hear about the nobility of the factory owner who just fired their brother.

Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears. He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas.  His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground. He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.

As a proponent of free markets, this isn’t necessarily what I want to hear. However, if you lose your job because the company figured out a guy in Mexico can do the same job for a fraction of the cost, you don’t really care. All you care about is how you’re going to feed your family.

Donald Trump addresses that, while few politicians have really tapped into that anger.