Can you name any group of voters — ever — to whom as much attention has been paid as white working-class Trump voters? Their beliefs were explored, their opinions were plumbed, their lives were detailed, their vote choices were analyzed down to the molecular level. And now that the election is over, Democrats are being told — as they are whenever they don't win — that they absolutely must reach out to that white working class and stop caring so much about racial minorities and those urban-dwelling latte-sippers.
To those of us who have been around a while, this is all sounding very familiar. That's because it's exactly what we heard 10 or 15 years ago. Forget about your support for a higher minimum wage or stronger unions or universal health coverage, critics told Democrats — why aren't you "connecting" more with forgotten whites? So Democrats dutifully tried to connect, showing up to NASCAR races and going hunting, for which they were ridiculed mercilessly by reporters for their shameless pandering, lest anyone fail to realize how phony and insincere it all was.
Republicans, on the other hand, are lauded for having the right performance of sympathy with the white working class, even if their policies are positively vicious to those very people. The question of what Donald Trump in particular and Republicans in general are actually offering the white working class substantively is so absurd nobody even asks it. Liberal and conservative analysts alike know it's just another con, one so familiar it barely needs to be discussed. Of course Republicans want to take people's health insurance away, gut the social safety net, make people's working lives even more capricious and cruel as they shower tax cuts on the wealthy. In exchange, though, they offer heartfelt symbolism — waving flags, guns held aloft, promises to banish the words "Happy Holidays," and plenty else to stir the heart.
And this year, their nominee offered something else: not just a campaign of explicit white nationalism (more on that in a moment), but a narrative that offered a diagnosis of what ailed them and a solution in the form of a single strongman, himself. The system is screwing you, he said, but elect me and everything will change. We'll turn back the clock to the way things used to be and prosperity will rain from the sky. How will he do this? Don't ask, he said. It'll be great, believe me. Only elitists like Hillary Clinton worry about things like "plans" and "policies."
But who's the elitist, the candidate who tells people in coal country the truth — that mining jobs are not going to return — but promises to spend $30 billion to give their communities some hope for a prosperous future, or the candidate who tells them he'll force China to give us all our mining jobs back and everything will be just like it was 40 years ago, a lie so preposterous that it's a wonder he didn't bust out laughing while saying it? Who's the one treating them with contempt?
Here's the cold truth: If you actually believe that Donald Trump is going to pick up the phone and say, "Hey China, give us back our jobs!" and in short order the mines will be humming and the industrial Midwest will once again become a thriving hub of high-wage, labor-intensive manufacturing, then you're a fool. That's true no matter how real your suffering and no matter how generous your heart.
But many Trump voters didn't actually believe it. They didn't take his proposals seriously; ask them whether he's actually going to build a wall on the southern border and they chuckle and say it doesn't really matter. What matters is that he was listening to them, that he seemed to understand what they're mad about, and that he vowed to fix it, no matter how ludicrous the promises actually were.
And of course, they cite again and again the way Trump isn't "politically correct" and the way he says out loud what they're thinking — no matter how ugly it might be. He gets how they feel they've lost something, and how it makes them want to lash out. Trump's victory is in no small part the manifestation of a pointed new racial identity for white people, who feel they're no longer the American default but an interest group like many others, one with its own highly cultivated sense of racial grievance. And they will have representation; as the historian Nell Irvin Painter argued, "This time the white men in charge will not simply happen to be white; they will be governing as white, as taking America back, back to before multiculturalism."
Democrats may offer these voters an entire menu of policies to improve their lives, from a higher minimum wage to paid family leave to stronger protections on the job to help paying for college to affordable health coverage. When it comes to substance, Republicans offer them nothing. But they do enact a better performance of affinity than Democrats, sending up cultural flares to show they understand these white working-class voters, they relate, they're down with them and their heartland spirit.
But the truth is, the symbolic stew the GOP offers is not nothing. It may not put a roof over your head and money in your pocket, it may not educate your kids, it may not give your family health coverage, it may not revive your community, but it will help you make sense of the world. It will tell you who to hate and who to fear, it will tell you who's to blame, and it will make you feel like you've been listened to.
That's how Donald Trump has made them feel. But what happens when they realize he isn't actually going to make everything great again? My friend the political scientist Tom Schaller suggests that maybe now that the election is over, they'll decide they've already won. They've given those elitists a giant middle finger and felt the thrill of victory, let out a primal scream that no one could ignore.
Right now, that has them feeling good. But Trump isn't going to revitalize their communities, or give them so much winning they'll get tired of winning. At some point, they may realize they got taken for a ride.