On Three ways of Looking at a Political Phenomenon

One of my favorite poems by Wallace Stevens is his “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”[i] One way to read the following stanza from the poem is to argue that it suggests one person’s relation to life and the landscape in which she is immersed:

The river is moving. The blackbird must be flying. It was evening all afternoon. It was snowing And it was going to snow. The blackbird sat In the cedar limbs.

I have found myself thinking of Stevens’ poem as I have considered the various ways in which analysts are seeking to make sense of why those who vote for Donald Trump in GOP primaries and caucuses are doing so this election season. Perhaps in quiet homage to Stevens, I seek here only to understand ways of viewing this phenomenon, without pretending that any may be definitive. In fact, they stand in relation to one another as the protagonist in the poem relates to her landscape and way of knowing it.

This said, one may describe at least three primary ways observers have explained why so many GOP primary voters have been willing to support so manifestly unqualified an individual as their preferred nominee for this year’s presidential contest. I have previously argued, with others, that Trump’s voters are often in decidedly difficult economic straits. Indeed, many are from areas experiencing economic decline, arising in part at least, from the globalization of trade that has occurred in recent decades and the decline in manufacturing in the United States. Many of these voters have watched as their communities have continued to deteriorate and their own earnings have stagnated or worse as those processes have unfolded. It is easy to imagine how living in such conditions could breed unease, anxiety and anger.

And many of these voters exhibit exactly such tendencies. They want explanations for why they are apparently locked in situations of deepening disquietude, and they worry that their Party’s leaders’ devotion to the tenets of neoliberalism will both continue to worsen their economic situations and also undermine the social programs on which many in this group depend. Trump has provided simple bromides for their apprehensions: he has told them he will replace “stupid” leaders, send “job-leaching” immigrants home and more generally deal with a vaguely impugned “other” that has “taken” the way of life of these individuals from them. Beyond these steps, he has reassured them that he will not seek to undo government-provided social insurance or health or disability support, a stance his principal competitor has actively impugned as not genuinely “conservative.”

In this view, too, these voters’ angst has only deepened as a result of the pace of social change. Many of Trump’s supporters reside in rural areas and small communities and are threatened by the rapid shift they see occurring in norms and values in the majority population around them. These disproportionately older and less well-educated white men see their social status eroding as the country’s Hispanic/Latino population grows and African Americans have achieved unprecedented and highly salient successes in business, politics, entertainment and sport. In short, this argument suggests these voters have become ever more apprehensive as they have witnessed changing mores challenge their long-held understandings, and not simply elsewhere, but in their own towns and neighborhoods. In this view, the twin forces of neoliberal policies coupled with globalization (which proponents of neoliberalism have strongly supported) and their combined enduring impacts on wages as well as the swift pace of social change have created a cadre of uneasy GOP voters. These citizens intensely resent their personal situations and continue to hold social values often publicly embraced by their Party’s elites, but these individuals no longer believe that those leaders are making any effort to help them or to secure those values. Trump has promised them better treatment while giving them easy targets to blame for their woes.

This explanation for why these voters have embraced a jingoistic nativist as their preferred Party leader has the singular advantage, in my view at least, of dignifying those whose behavior it seeks to explain. That is not the case for a share of GOP opinion leaders in the neoconservative wing of the Party, who have chosen to heap disdain on Trump’s white working class supporters. Their views have appeared in the conservative biweekly, The National Review, and they reflect the long-dominant view of the working class and poor among many Party principals that such individuals are most often the architects of their own misery and deserving of little but contempt.

Here are two examples of reporting in the magazine in recent weeks in which authors have visited the communities populated by Trump supporters and provided their assessments. The first piece, by Kevin Williamson, “The Father Führer,” concluded the following about the residents of what he termed the broken family, welfare dependent and drug- and alcohol-addicted “downscale communities” he visited:

Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or an occupation. …The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets.   Morally, they are indefensible. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.[ii]

A short while later, The Review published an article with a similar argument by David French,

Simply put, [white working class] Americans are killing themselves and destroying their families at an alarming rate. No one is making them do it. The   economy isn’t putting a bottle in their hand. Immigrants aren’t making them cheat on their wives or snort OxyContin.[iii]

In short, in this view, Trump’s voters are discontented and fearful because they are contemptible individuals who are ruining their lives and families rather than moving to another location where they could begin anew in a place where real opportunity exists. This trope is hardly new in the GOP; President Ronald Reagan’s first budget director, David Stockman, was fond of offering an identical argument in 1981-1982 in response to complaints from those living in localities hurt by that administration’s sweeping budget cuts in many social programs. Moreover, it is surely direct in its explanation of why Trump voters find themselves in the difficulties they do: according to those who voice this view, these citizens are good-for-nothings and their communities now serve no worthwhile economic or social role. They should move from those “dark holes of misery,” and soon, if they wish to demonstrate to themselves and to the world they are not simply ne’er-do-wells. The fact that this perspective continues to animate many Party elites provides one explanation for why those voting for Trump would evidence the peevishness they do with GOP candidates espousing such views.

A third viewpoint on why Trump has gained the support he has attained has come from a share of this nation’s political scientists striving to understand the businessman’s allure. These analysts have pointed to the rather shocking growth among these voters of a willingness to support authoritarianism, a propensity to desire order and to fear outsiders. A Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts, Matthew MacWilliams, has polled a large sample of voters and found that Trump’s supporters correlate closely with views that align with authoritarianism.[iv] Likewise, Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler have argued in a thoughtful book based on national survey data that the ongoing polarization in American politics is fueled by a large electoral group comprised of Americans with authoritarian tendencies, and those individuals have disproportionately supported the Republican Party.[v] These studies’ disquieting findings suggest that many Americans cannot address personal and social changes without falling prey to exaggerated fears, and that those feelings have made them pine for a strong leader who can assuage their concerns, whatever their source, with force. The implication of this trend for self-governance is obvious and alarming.

All three of these explanations point to two salient factors that merit further exploration. First, America’s leaders, Republican and Democratic alike, have long supported free trade on the view that more citizens would benefit than lose by such a stance in the long run. But in the short-term, many Americans and their communities have lost in the globalization sweepstakes, and one political Party, the GOP, has adopted strategies that have worked doggedly to require that those populations cope with their changed circumstances virtually alone, and also declared them lazy dissolutes who could “fix” their woes themselves if they would but try. The irony in this situation would make O. Henry proud.  Second, the trend among so many Americans toward a long-term flirtation with authoritarianism should give leaders in both of our major political parties pause. The current combination of unalloyed fears in a restive body politic coupled with many citizens open to “one who can set matters right” with force should prompt these leaders to re-examine their priorities. Steps to enact policies to ensure self-governance rather than realize abstract ideological claims ought soon to guide this period of overdue introspection.

[i] Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Vintage Books, 1982, 92-95 at 94-95.

[ii] Kevin Williamson, “The Father-Fuhrer,” The National Review, March 28, 2016, https://www.nationalreview.com/nrd/articles/432569/father-f-hrer Accessed, April 6, 2016.

[iii] David French, “Working Class Whites have Moral Responsibilities—In Defense of Kevin Williamson,” The National Review (on-line), March 14, 2016, http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/433060/white-working-class-debate-facts-can-be-nasty Accessed April 6, 2016.

[iv] Matthew MacWilliams, “The Best Predictor of Trump’s Support isn’t income, education or age. It’s authoritarianism.” Vox, February 23, 2016. http://www.vox.com/2016/2/23/11099644/trump-support-authoritarianism Accessed April 6, 2016.

[v] Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.