I grew up in western Iowa, in the meatpacking town of Sioux City. I recently spent almost three months there, where I had the privilege, or arguably the misfortune, of observing firsthand the political ascendancy of Donald Trump.
I learned an important lesson in Iowa: Donald Trump’s supporters are not, I repeat NOT, primarily motivated by racism, nativism, and a disdain for the Eastern Establishment. Rather, they’re members of the white middle-class who believe they are defending their class and its values against the domestic and international forces aligned against it. To conclude that Trump’s constituency is simply racist, uninformed, or worse – a bunch of wackos – is to underestimate it and its determination to overthrow the dominant political and economic order. Trump’s supporters are rational, informed (by right-wing media), and radicalized like no other political cohort in the United States. If we, and by “we” I mean The Left, fail to take Trump’s campaign seriously, The Donald may actually be the next President of the United States.
For decades, GOP leaders, right-wing talk radio, and Fox News have nurtured the worldview of Trump’s backers. Their paradigm consists of several core assumptions.
First, Trump’s supporters do not consider the U.S. a land of superabundance. Instead, they believe America is a country of increasing scarcity. I know this idea is difficult to understand. America is the richest nation in the world. Its GNP currently stands at 17.5 trillion dollars. Its malls, grocery stores, and online shopping sites are brimming with consumables. Its agricultural lands are producing record harvests year after year. Its factories are pouring out trinkets and machines at unbelievable rates. The economy has grown at an average rate of 2.14% per annum for the past 6 years. Nonetheless, Trump’s supporters believe the American resource pie is either static or shrinking. Why? Because in Iowa and elsewhere conservative media outlets, as well as GOP political leaders (such as Iowa Governor Terry Branstad) are constantly harping on the lack of money for education, health care, and assistance to the mentally ill. If you took Branstad’s budgetary assessments at face value, you’d come away believing the money just wasn’t there, that the state teetered on the precipice of bankruptcy. Of course, the money is there, it’s just increasingly in the hands of the rich, who no longer pay the taxes necessary to maintain public services and infrastructure.
For Trump’s white middle-class backers, the distribution of wealth in America is a zero-sum game. Trump’s people are convinced that any federal or state assistance to the poor or immigrant class will come at their expense, either through higher taxes or fewer benefits. They cannot imagine a country where everyone attains upward mobility together or that money going to the poor might eventually benefit them. No, for a large number of Iowans, America is a land of winners and losers. Trump promises to keep the white, middle-class on the winning side, while ensuring illegal immigrants, minorities, and the poor remain losers.
Trump’s popularity rests on another belief – that multiculturalism and globalization have been disastrous for the white middle-class. Trump’s supporters ask themselves a simple question. How does multiculturalism (through immigration) benefit me? The answer for the majority is a resounding “not at all.” Mexican immigrants in Iowa have undermined unions (formerly made up of Irish- and German-Americans), fostered the stagnation of real wages, and contributed to social problems related to their integration. The benefits of multiculturalism have gone mostly to the corporate elite, who lives in exclusive, gated communities far removed perceptually and geographically from the neighborhoods of working-class Mexicans, Vietnamese, Somalis and whites.
Globalization has had the same effect on the white middle-class as multiculturalism – it’s shattered unions, shuttered factories and mom and pop stores, shrunk wages, and impoverished millions. Trump has promised to ship 11 million illegals back to Mexico and reverse globalization by forcing U.S. corporations to return their manufacturing to American shores. His “Make America Great Again” slogan is about re-establishing the American middle-class and the jobs that underpinned it. His call is resonating with Iowans and others across the U.S. because no other candidate has the chutzpah to challenge Washington and Wall Street’s long-held faith in globalization and labor-busting immigration.
Everyone knows Trump is playing on fear – fear of the immigrant, fear of ISIS, fear of blacks, and fear of Muslims. His hateful rhetoric expresses what so many whites have thought and felt for so long. You see, middle-class whites view themselves as the stalwart defenders of order and progress. Immigrants, minorities, and the poor are considered the purveyors of chaos. This isn’t necessarily a racist belief. Immigrant neighborhoods frequently have higher per capita crime rates, a larger number of people on the public assistance rolls, and they contribute less to public coffers through taxes. Relying on such data, the white middle-class has concluded that the immigrant class, minorities, and the poor are not contributing their fair share to the social compact. And so whites all-too-frequently see the “other” as a threat to social stability, the safety of their neighborhoods, and their children’s future. Trump’s supporters do not recognize how poverty, unemployment, and ignorance foster crime, drug dependency, and mental illness. They blame the poor for being poor, the mentally ill for being sick, and the addicted for their addictions.
The idea that Trump cannot possibly win in a general election is downright dangerous. Trump is not an anomaly. He is the real deal. Trump and the millions who back him should not be taken lightly. Their concerns deserve attention and corrective action. Dismissing them as racists, ignoramuses, or crazies solves nothing. We cannot wish them away. They are not going to go gently into the night. The problem with America isn’t Trump. He’s just a symptom of a deeper malaise afflicting the country and its white middle-class. If America is ever going to get its house in order (and that’s a big IF), it better get to solving the problems of the group Trump endearingly refers to in Nixonian terms as “The Silent Majority.”