Last week’s post exploring the alt-right twitter universe seemed to generate some interest. Given that, I’m going to continue on this topic for a bit, this time diving beyond the extreme.
While the look at the extreme could have been off-putting to some, it needed to come first and is critical to understanding the modern Right as a whole. Similarly, any look at the collective psychology of the modern Left needs to really focus on the actions and beliefs of the Bernie Sanders contingent of the party. Our current systems encourages and almost forces extremes to drive things until such a time that moderate forces can unite. But for now, our focus is on the extreme of the modern Right because it is in power and the anger behind it is dangerous.
Even so, it’s important to look beyond the extreme as well. After all, the extreme contingent of any party will never win an election on its own.
In my mind, there are two other kinds of Trump voters out there who were largely responsible for his election. Let’s take a look at both. First, come the folks who ultimately swayed the election with their incredible enthusiasm:
The Back Row Kids
To help with this feat, I’m going to borrow the work of Chris Arnade. Who’s that? Chris has a PhD in Physics from Johns Hopkins and spent the next twenty years on Wall Street. Recently though, he left to focus on photojournalism and has spent the last six years driving around the U.S. getting an intimate understanding of people in all walks of life.
If you take nothing else from this: follow him on Twitter. His work is largely shared there and provides a look into the nexuses of Trump support that is both very unique and compelling. While others have drawn on this look and profile of the “forgotten” Trump voter, Chris does a better job at understanding them than most of the regular journalism I’ve seen out there.
At the top of his page is a tweet chain (the first one is shown below) that outlines his central tenant: that we are fundamentally divided on education and that it was the fundamental driver behind Trump’s rise and continued support in rural America. Read that chain (19 tweets), and then come back here.
1. The US right now is massively divided. The biggest division is race. Even after Obama. The next biggest division is education. pic.twitter.com/LONx9tGqtu
— Chris Arnade (@Chris_arnade) February 2, 2017
So what Chris outlines is that education divides us into “Front Row Kids” and “Back Row Kids.” My world (and likely yours if you are reading this) is entirely the “Front Row Kids” universe: well-educated, mobile, and value intellect and rationality over faith and tradition.
Chris asserts that this Front Row world doesn’t understand the world of the “Back Row Kids,” those who are less educated, build their social networks based on their local community, Church, and other local institutions, and see faith as core to their belief system. These are the folks that many other pieces describe as “the forgotten population” whose anger Trump has channeled.
This reality is borne out by the data as well. A while ago, FiveThirtyEight profiled the county-level election returns and showed that education level of an area was the critical factor that drove voting changes between 2012 and 2016 (while things like race and income level absolutely drive voting behavior, neither correlated with the shift toward Trump after adjusting for the effect of education).
Looking through the photos in Chris’s feed, I see images of a country that I know is out there, but that my mind does glaze over as I drive through it, fly over it, or even avoid much of the area and people who grew up where I did (south central Pennsylvania). You probably feel the same way: seeing pictures of something that looks and feels foreign, yet something you know is close.
These folks saw Trump as a hope that they would finally have their voices heard, which overrides all other concerns they may have had.
When you put yourself in the shoes of a high school grad in small town America, Trump’s speeches make more sense. He talks of “inheriting a mess” of a country – to these folks “a mess” accurately describes their reality. When he speaks without the polish and nuance of other politicians (a charitable description), they see someone who speaks like they do and is a “straight shooter,” no matter what comes out of his mouth.
So we must take from this the fact that “back row kids” are struggling. Their needs will need to be listened to and understood if we ever want their anger to dissipate. Despite being a Physics PhD and having documented all this over the last six years, Chris does not have an answer. It’d be disingenuous for me to claim that I can find one after reading his work. But it is a discussion that’s worth having, and unfortunately one that the danger of Trump obscures.
The Rural Elite
It would be a mistake to assume that all Trump voters fall into this bucket of struggling “back row kids.” Indeed, exit poll data by income shows the vote was tied at 47% with the one third of voters making $100K or more. That’s a lot of folks who are probably not these folks Chris profiles. Yet we know from any electoral map that these folks almost have to be spread throughout the large rural areas of the country.
In essence, this group is a large pool of lifelong mainstream Republicans. Overall this is an older, more Caucasian, more religious, and most importantly rural population. Thirty-plus years of steadfast identification as Conservative and Republican ultimately trumped any concerns over the man they elected.
And these folks aren’t struggling, certainly not compared to the average nor in any objective sense. Indeed, most own a home, and many are able to afford memberships to country clubs or other luxuries. And, to be quite clear, there is not anything wrong with that. In fact, their overall diligence is virtuous in most cases.
Their reasons for voting for Trump, and based on recent polls their continued support, are not quite as simple as loyalty to the party. They have valid and very strong concerns over expansions of government handouts (see The Bare Essentialist), and see a need for real checks on attempts by the Left to expand that.
I know this population and can speak with relative authority about them because I know them well. In fact, I grew up with them. I spent many hours at the Country Club pictured above, where the membership has been steadily anti-Clinton, pro-Bush, anti-Obama, and is now pro-Trump. Going for long runs around Central Pennsylvania this November I saw 20-30 Trump yard signs for each Hillary sign I could find. These signs weren’t in front of hovels either; they fronted nice homes in nice areas with two or three car garages.
It may seem surprising that these folks see Trump in a positive light. But Trump is actually a savvy politician. His actions all along have walked a fine line of bringing the populist rhetoric that appeals to the Back Row Kids into an alliance with the mainstream Republican politicians that the Rural Elite identify with. He’s spoken to these folks through the stated goals of removing regulations from the economy, repealing ObamaCare (which most of these folks see as the cause of their increased insurance rates), and tax reform that will likely benefit folks making over $100K per year. In parallel, they weight other areas less heavily: immigration and international policy as less critical to what happens in the rural bubbles that they live in. Indeed, they are more likely to see the suffering of Back Row Kids given their proximity and have the same urgency that Urban Elites see with inner city and immigrant communities.
As I’ve covered many times, I am about as far from a Trump supporter as one can be. I believe both these groups made at best an incredibly dangerous risk, and at worst a fatal error in electing Donald Trump. He is empirically a man who has used his lifetime to run businesses into bankruptcy, refuse to pay contractors in order to line his own pocket, display narcissism that permeates every interaction, sexually assault women, and display bigotry at every turn. And believe me I could go on toward the harm that Trump is already inflicting in many areas: political discourse, immigration, and international policy most notably.
To these groups, these issues are not as much of a concern. Back Row Kids feel that they need something to happen now, they need someone to listen to them and work for them. Rural Elites believe the mainstream Republican approach to be better than the Left for a variety of reasons – some alluded to above, others too complicated to address here. But there is a human face behind both these groups, and one that still wants the country to succeed, no matter how misguided their vote may have been.
Also published on Medium.