Explaining the appeal of Trump

I, like most people, never saw the rise of Donald Trump coming. I figured he would wipe out in the Republican nomination process the same way he did in 2012.

So what happened? Part of what I didn’t understand, I think, is that there was a real sense, especially on the part of people in the midwest, that they got screwed by trade deals like NAFTA, as well as the lack of policing against illegal immigration. Is this correct? I dunno… I talk a bit about it in my current acid logic article, but in the end it’s hard to really determine what the statistics on these topics tell us. Regardless, people feel it’s true, and Trump, and to some degree Sanders, have been talking about these issues a lot.

Yesterday I stumbled across this interview with the author of a new book called “Hillbilly Elegy.” He argues that the people of poor white America, particularly in the midwest and the south, are really struggling. Drug use is an epidemic and poverty is taking a disastrous toll. And I have to concede that this bleak picture is, again, news to me.

What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by.  Heroin addiction is rampant.  In my medium-sized Ohio county last year, deaths from drug addiction outnumbered deaths from natural causes.  The average kid will live in multiple homes over the course of her life, experience a constant cycle of growing close to a “stepdad” only to see him walk out on the family, know multiple drug users personally, maybe live in a foster home for a bit (or at least in the home of an unofficial foster like an aunt or grandparent), watch friends and family get arrested, and on and on.  And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops.

The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades.  From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues, a la Thomas Frank (more on that below).  Maybe they get a few handouts, but many don’t want handouts to begin with.  

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.


I think he touches on a point I’ve addressed in the past. The standard liberal nostrum for economic poverty is basically handouts. And many on the left feel exasperated that the very people they are trying to support are fans of Trump. What I think the left doesn’t get here is that people take their definition of self very seriously. They don’t want to think of themselves as peasants begging the system (who would?), they want to think of themselves as self-sustaining entities. Thus, when Hillary Clinton says something like she’s going to put a lot of coal miners out of work, coal miners get pissed—this is their livelihood she’s talking about. (It should be noted that Clinton’s comment was taken out of context.)

Now, I don’t think Trump really has any answers here. He has some vague talk about negotiating better trade deals and building a wall, but I doubt that will really do much (especially as I’m unconvinced whether bad trade deals or immigrants are the source of the problem.) But I can understand the appeal of Trump here, to these people.

Anyway, the whole article is worth a read.

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