With voters about to have their say in the Republican nominating contest, it is still possible to imagine Donald Trump fading, especially if Iowa's evangelical army comes to the polls, as they usually do. It's also still possible that Donald Trump doesn't want to be president, not really, and his stepping away from a debate is the first sign of him turning tail.
If either happens, there will be an overwhelming temptation to write off Donald Trump's candidacy as a fluke and to try and return the Republican Party to normal. Many will also want to write off the bulk of his supporters, the ones who wait in line and get turned away from overcrowded sports arenas. This temptation ought to be resisted. Not just for the Republican Party's sake, but for the country's.
Some commentators don't have much sympathy for Trump voters. The joke is that when Trump supporters are asked about what motivates them, they rarely speak in polite academese about their economic insecurity; instead they rail against immigrants and political correctness, in the way that would get the average journalist fired and blacklisted.
But who are Trump's voters? Many are voters who identify as evangelicals to pollsters, but have very weak attachments — if any — to church communities. They are less pro-life than traditional social conservatives or establishment-oriented Republicans. They are less likely to have a college degree than either of those other sets of voters too. They hate political correctness. Why? For some because it is an impediment to their expressions of bigotry, sure. For others, because it is a bewildering and exclusionary set of virtue signals, ones that they have neither the time or skill to acquire. They are people who don't participate in electoral politics often.
They are the real-life versions of your fictive, Obama-loathing, Thanksgiving uncle. They are the citizens of what Charles Murray dubbed "Fishtown" in his book Coming Apart.
Nick Confessore summarized Murray's findings this way:
Women in Fishtown now routinely have children outside of marriage. Less than a third of its children grow up in households that include both biological parents. The men claim physical disability at astounding rates and are less likely to hold down jobs than in the past. Churchgoing among the white working class has declined, eroding the social capital that organized religion once provided.
Illegitimacy, crime, joblessness — these are not merely the much debated pathologies of a black underclass, Murray finds. They are white people problems too. [The New York Times]
The economic and social stress for this part of America is real. The fact that these people have had their livelihoods and social status reduced because of the process of globalization is real. And yes, their animus toward foreign competition and immigrants is real too. Their problems should still be addressed, not because the elite views them as virtuous and thus deserving of the help of the state and its political class, but by virtue of our common citizenship. Many of the policy entrepreneurs and political grifters in D.C., when they go back home for a holiday, have members of their families who are also sliding down from the middle class into Fishtown.
Even the left could find a way to justify this to themselves. For some thoroughgoing socialists, the social sins of racism, patriarchy, and classism can be seen as the epiphenomena of capitalism. The capitalist world has to justify the unequal distribution of goods, opportunity, and dignity, and so it generates these ideologies of domination and exclusion. It's no surprise, comrades, that this false consciousness would penetrate even the proletariat itself. In fact, it may be inaccurate to even classify them as the working class. For many it is more accurate to say that they are a wage-when-possible, disability-otherwise class.
But for the political right, the incentive is obvious. Working-class whites are increasingly atomized and disconnected from their communities, larger networks of family, the political process, and the nation. They identify as religious, even if they are backslidden. They support the traditional family, even if they come from and create broken homes. In other words, they are people who aspire to be more like social conservatives, though they lack the material and spiritual resources to become like them.
Donald Trump's campaign has re-exposed them, their unique problems, and their perspective to the political class. It's been a rude experience for many in the political class. The Trump campaign has also proven, so far at least, that this class of voter will turn out for a rally for someone who truly solicits their attention. When his carnival show leaves town, there's still plenty of work to do to rebuild this class and their communities.