I am most certainly “the Elite.”
Post graduate educated. GRE verbal reasoning score in the top 98%. Resident of a capitol city in the wealthy and Democratic-voting part of town. Bar passer. NPR listener. Expensive coffee drinker. Good student in good schools.
Hell, I even write a blog.
When I graduated from college, it was just months into the financial crisis, and because there was a gap between when I graduated college and when I started law school, 22 year-old me took all those things—along with the knowledge and analytical skills I obtained from my bachelor’s degree in political science—and started working in a factory in White County, Arkansas. The production campus included 5 plants, each of which produced plastic wrappers for well-known candy and potato chip companies.
“We don’t have unions here,” was the first thing the HR manager abruptly and sternly told me. It kind of caught me off guard, seeing as the meeting was ostensibly about my job duties. Once the HR manager had observed me nodding sufficiently long enough—extra long for me, considering I could have taken this job as some wild-eyed, overeducated, latte-drinking teamster in disguise—she went on to describe my actual job duties. To this day, I’m not sure what worried her most—that I might show up to work each day and do nothing for ten hours straight or that I might organize 100 or so workers for a 1 dollar wage hike (not surprisingly, few of my coworkers took very much pride in any of their work; I was the only one who kept each of my lunch breaks to their allotted time).
So I went to work, and several hours later went to my first lunch break. Here is where I met my first Donald Trump supporter, Jerry, though he probably didn’t know it at the time. Jerry went into a discussion of the layout of the campus, what they do in Plant 1, what they do in Plant 2, and so on. And then, abruptly:
“We keep all the blacks in Plant 3,” he said, chuckling.
You have to understand, to this point I’d spent 15 of my first 18 years either in Hawaii, California, or the Philippines, and I spent the next 4 years in a secluded private Christian school. In my life, I’d never lived in a state that had been subject to a desegregation order. I’d never seen a memorial to the Confederacy, nor an actual Confederate Flag (both things that repulsed me). I grew up understanding the Civil War the way the rest of the world understands it—a war in which the highest ideals of freedom were pitted against one of the worst and most shameful institutions in American history. In short, I thought overt racism was something that basically went away roughly around the 1950s and 60s with the Brown case and the Civil Rights Act.
But according to Jerry and everyone else in that crowded break room (I assure you, Jerry’s comment was not controversial), the year was 2008 and “the blacks” were rightfully on some other part of the campus.
No doubt, a racial element is present among many of Donald Trump’s most fervent supporters. It’s 100% wrong, and the educated class that sneers at the Trump supporters is not wrong when it points this out.
But the impression of these people as wanting to see racial minorities sent to the gas chambers is not right either. When the Elite talk about the working-class, blue collards who vote for Trump, they are talking generally about people they’ve never met. As Thomas Frank recently observed, “[w]hen members of the professional class wish to understand the working-class, they traditionally consult experts on the subject.”
What follows is not my attempt to defend the ideas of Trump supporters so much as to defend the people themselves. Trump supporters are smart people, even good people. People who aren’t motivated nearly so much by some repressed Nazi-like desire for racial purity as their training to view the world as a competition with various outsiders with no one to forcefully advocate on their behalf even for their dignity, much less their economic chances.
The thinking goes that middle-class factory jobs used to be plentiful. Because they were plentiful, they paid really well (never mind that they also used to be unionized). Then those Washington elitists like Bill Clinton shoved NAFTA down our throats, and foreigners consequently took our jobs (never mind that NAFTA required Mexico to lower its tariffs significantly more than the United States had to lower its tariffs; never mind NAFTA and the bailout of Mexico also probably have reduced illegal immigration more than Trump’s wall could ever dream of reducing). Now we’re here working our butts off to make ends meet, and who is the government helping out?
“The blacks, who sit around all day and do nothing,” I’ve heard many times. A 2012 poll of 5,500 Americans found that the majority of white people believe white people work harder than black people (never mind that Americans, black or white, who go on welfare don’t tend to stay on it very long; also never mind that virtually everyone in the US economy who is not looking for a job right now is either (a) retired, (b) in school, (c) a homemaker, or (d) disabled).
If you have the money, it’s easy to manipulate hard-working people like Jerry. Jerry has been trained to believe that if you work out a deal with a foreign country, it’s because you’re some latte-drinking weakling who only cares about political correctness and “getting along” with foreigners. He’s been trained to believe that intellectuals are simultaneously soft to the core when it comes to standing up to outsiders, yet are now ruthlessly shoving their ideas down the throats of real Americans—though they aren’t really their ideas so much as they are indoctrinated ideas from atheist college professors—also, mind you, latte drinkers. Jerry probably believes these things because millions (really, billions) of dollars are spent every year (usually from actual Elites who exemplify everything that Jerry hates) to make Jerry believe these things.
Making an economy that works for everyone requires a profit motive, but it also requires a powerful entity—such as a government— to say “no” to powerful people who profit most as the Jerrys of the world suffer. But what I’ve grown up seeing in my lifetime is that when those people don’t get their way, they go to work on the Jerrys of the world, saturating every media outlet with out-of-context images of welfare queens, incompetent inner-city school teachers, and foreigners each of whom working together to take our freedom.
The Jerrys of the world harbor many wrong views (hence, my frequent use of the words “never mind” in this essay), oftentimes about race. But my point is that people can simultaneously be wrong and be victims. Their economic fortunes have withered away along with the government programs that were designed to help them.
Take the financial crisis, and the opposition to the Dodd Frank Act.
“You lost your house? That’s terrible! It’s not because we bankers have lobbied Washington for decades to make our banking practices less regulated. It’s because Washington forced us to loan money to racial minorities!”
If you think I’m making up a straw man, I’m not. This argument, advanced by many thought leaders on the right, is demonstrable nonsense. And it would be great if virtually every serious person who had ever studied modern finance all their life could come along and totally discredit the argument, but Jerry has been trained to believe that such people are just part of the elite politically correct crowd who like to impress each other by the lattes they drink and the racial minorities they won’t offend.
Take the Freedom to Farm Act. Who could be against the freedom to farm? If people aren’t free to farm, that’s a problem that surely must be corrected. Or so that’s how the Act was sold to small farmers throughout the south and midwest. Instead, the Act removed just about every bargaining lever the small farmer had as they sold their produce in the marketplace. In other words, the small farmers, who voted on members of Congress to protect them against the thems of the nation, essentially voted themselves off their own land. The Agriculture Adjustment Act, while not perfect, had been overwhelmingly successful in the 60 years it had been implemented by the US Department of Agriculture. It had largely staved off the agricultural death spiral of prices dropping, overproduction, and prices dropping even further.
This is a problem for the conservative Elite (see what I did there) who want people to believe that the Washington Elite are a bunch of bumbling fools, all for the purpose of eliminated government programs so their taxes can go down.
So we eliminated the Agriculture Adjustment Act.
And prices plunged.
Just as the Elites said they would.
And farmers reacted to falling prices by overproducing.
Just as those smug university professors who have studied agricultural practices for decades said they would.
And this caused prices to plunge further.
Exactly as those who lived through the Great Depression remembered prices did then.
But Jerry never heard any of that. When every farmer he knew lost his or her farm, the media sources that saturate his life only reinforced the narrative further that government is the problem.
The Freedom to Farm Act and hundreds of other acts that have been passed in the last two decades that either “reduce the size of the Federal government” (a phrase that polls well among most people, regardless of how much they benefit directly or indirectly from federal programs) or “reduce the size of ‘job-killing’ unions,” keep getting passed. These acts and various tax cuts, which certainly benefit CEOs, don’t benefit Jerry at all. Reducing the size of the government means less safe drugs, worse infrastructure, dangerous working conditions, no disability insurance when those unsafe working conditions actually lead to injury, no health insurance, no one to force health insurance companies to honor their commitments even when people do have health insurance, and so on.
These shortcomings may be worth it if as a result our economy produces more jobs.
But it never has.
It means that the CEO of the health insurer that has just wrongfully denied Jerry’s claim and thousands more will make $55 million this year instead of $50 million. And virtually none of that extra profit will be reinvested in Jerry’s town.
Why does Jerry effectively vote for this to happen to him every election cycle? Because in his mind and the mind of everyone who the Republican party has trained all these years, Jerry’s economic troubles are hardly the predictable result of anything the Democrats have been saying for decades, but the result of over-educated weaklings who only care about political correctness.
So Donald Trump comes in. Spouts off nonsense. Threatens to effectively dismantle the Republican Party. And now the Republican Party wonders why it can’t stop him.
They should have gotten to know Jerry.