Michael G. Roskin: Revenge of the Resentful
Thursday, November 10, 2016 1:33 PM
The polls erred again, underestimating the heavy turnout of people who resented being left behind by a changing America. Trump won voters who did not tell the polls their true intentions. The upset was as startling as “Dewey Beats Truman” in 1948 or Brexit earlier this year.
In 2020, marginalized white voters, heavily non-college, will again respond to Trump, but results will depend on Trump delivering jobs. The economic consequences of a Trump presidency may include market collapses, hesitation in investment and consumption, and foreign withdrawal of funds. He will likely back down on most of his promises, even his Mexico wall.
In 2020, most Trump voters will still resent inequality and job insecurity and bailouts of banks and corporations while their incomes stagnate and their status declines. Many will still see help for minorities, women or gays as unfair and an affront to their socially conservative values. And they will still blame Washington, even with Trump in the White House.
What Nixon called the “silent majority” has long been present in the electorate but, lacking a candidate to voice their frustrations, either weakly supported conventional Republicans or did not vote. Their anger came out in favor of third-party candidacies, George Wallace in 1968 and Ross Perot in 1992, who drew previous non-voters. Donald Trump did not invent this anger, but he was its lightning rod. This showed in the increased Republican turnout in the 2016 primaries and general election.
The sad thing is that half of the electorate utterly miscomprehends the other: How could they support someone so obviously wrong? What in 2016 brought out this latent anger? Some of it flared with the two terms of a black president—and his ambitious Obamacare—but got worse with a woman candidate, a double blow to people who never much liked strict equality for minorities and women. Explanations for the Trump win are in the confluence of several factors:
1. Rural and small-town values despise the sophistication and cosmopolitanism of big cities with their foreign-born populations. Trump voters feel like strangers in their own country and mean to take it back. They fear foreign trade, influence and immigration, and Trump cleverly mobilized this fear. Rural turnout in 2016 surprised most pollsters.
2. Education level overlaps with the urban-rural split but was not as big a factor as foreseen. The college-educated shifted only partially to the Democrats, but many of the non-college resented what they perceived as elite indifference to their plight.
3. The religious-secular split overlaps with the above two. Religion weakened in big cities but stayed strong in the countryside. Evangelicals deplored Trump’s profligate lifestyle but valued his Supreme Court appointments to abolish abortion.
4. Job instability grows out of education level. A college education generally yields better jobs with higher income and employment stability. Those with a high-school diploma or less are often at the mercy of construction booms and busts, factory closings and demand for mineral and forestry products. This sharpens their resentment of those with secure jobs, something Bernie, with his working-class emphasis, understood.
Factory jobs and union membership used to predict Democratic voting, but that eroded with the drying up of manufacturing, partly from foreign competition and offshoring but more so from automation. Cars, for example, are produced with a third of the labor of yesteryear, now often in the South. The trend to robotics will not reverse, and the Rust Belt will stay rusty.
5. Culture wars have heightened resentments since the 1960s, the time of increased black voting, Vietnam protests and the emergence of a youth counterculture. LBJ’s 1965 Voting Rights Act boosted black turnout and gave Nixon his 1968 Southern strategy to make the solid South solidly Republican. Faster social change produced many Archie Bunkers. Few could imagine ten years ago the attitudes on sexual orientation that now extend to same-sex marriage and transgender questions. We didn’t even have the vocabulary to talk about it.
6. The generation gap turned old against young. Young people tended to Hillary (and earlier, Bernie), older people to Trump, an outgrowth of the culture wars. For youngsters, the rapid pace of change is as normal as smartphones. For oldsters, rapid change is confusing.
7. Hillary was not the Democrats’ best choice. Alas, women are still discriminated against, and she was not as charismatic as Bernie. Even better would have been Joe Biden, had he decided to run. (Will he run in 2020? How about Sen. Elizabeth Warren?)
We are on the brink of the strangest presidency ever. A man with absolutely no government experience will now have to handle the economy, terrorism and foreign lands. Republican control of both houses of Congress could end in the 2018 midterm elections, which usually go against the president’s party. Trump has little time to deliver on his promises; if he doesn’t, he may not win reelection in 2020. And if he makes America great again, he will deserve to win again.