Long-term, is there anything progressives can do to cool them off or win them back?
The most fascinating character of the 2016 election cycle isn’t Donald Trump, it’s the voter who has identified with Trump and stuck with him in defiance of all previous conventional wisdom. Again and again during the Republican primary campaign, Trump said and did things that in any other cycle would have been career-destroying gaffes. And whenever his opponents waited for the resulting wave of voter anger and shame to wash him away, his popularity grew.
That tactic has been less successful in the general-election campaign: Trump’s Judge Curiel and Captain Khan attacks both hurt him, and while the double-digit lead Hillary Clinton built after the conventions has receded, she still seems to be ahead. But even this outcome, if it holds, leaves many progressive bewildered: How can 40-45% of the electorate imagine turning the country over to an inexperienced, unstable, hateful, and — let’s be blunt about it — ignorant man? What can they possibly be thinking?
So the most interesting question of 2016 is not what to do about Trump, because the answer is obvious: beat him. If he loses, he will probably be too old and too disgraced to trouble us again in 2020 or beyond. But the voters he has awakened and given a political identity will still be here. Particularly if they buy into Trump’s ego-saving excuses about skewed polls and voter fraud, or if he starts an alt-right Trump News to continue pandering to their worst fears, they may come out of a 2016 defeat more alienated, more angry, and perhaps more violent than before. (If the country is so far gone that voting no longer works, what’s left but guns?)
Obviously, not everybody in that 40-45% sees themselves as part of a Trump movement. Many are simply Paul Ryan Republicans who can’t face another four years of Democratic rule, with all that would mean for the Supreme Court, taxes, regulations, and other long-term issues. Many voters of all stripes are disgusted with their general-election choices, and will happily line up behind someone completely different in the next cycle.
But what if 10-20% are enthusiastic Trump supporters and will be looking for another Trump-like candidate in 2020? (After all, somebody is showing up at his rallies and cheering wildly. Crowd size and enthusiasm may not be reliable predictors of victory — just ask Bernie Sanders — but they do mean something.) If they are sufficiently alienated and angry, and if they include (and make excuses for) an even smaller violent element, 10% is more than enough to destabilize a democracy.
So who are they? What do they want? Do they have legitimate grievances the rest of us can or should respond to? And if we do respond, is there any hope of soothing their anger and welcoming them back into more orthodox political channels?
Who are they? Non-college whites. A lot of good work has been done on this question, painting their portrait in both statistics and narratives.
In the primaries, the core of Trump’s support came from whites without college degrees. Look at the exit polls from the Ohio Republican Primary, the only one won by John Kasich. Overall, Kasich beat Trump and Ted Cruz 47%-36%-13%. Those results were virtually the same across both genders and all age groups. The Republican electorate was overwhelmingly white (94%), but although Trump did worse among non-whites (28% rather than 36%), the finishing order was still Kasich-Trump-Cruz.
Hidden in that apparent homogeneity, though, were two very different Republican Parties having two very different primaries. Among those who never attended college, Trump beat Kasich 47%-34%. They tied 41%-41% among Republicans who had taken some college courses but not graduated. Those with bachelor’s degrees went for Kasich 52%-31%, and among those with postgraduate degrees it was no contest at all: Kasich beat Trump 60%-25%.
That educational divide preceded Trump, and was already apparent in a Pew Research survey conducted over a year ago. On many issues, college Republicans were split, while non-college Republicans were united. For example: asked whether immigrants strengthen or burden the country, college Republicans narrowly said strengthen, 44%-42; non-college Republicans decisively said burden 62%-26%. Other questions created night-and-day differences. Was South Carolina right to remove the Confederate flag from its statehouse grounds? College Republicans said yes 56%-37%; non-college Republicans said no 57%-36%. College Republicans liked elected officials who make compromises, 52%-46%; non-college Republicans preferred those who stick to their positions, 64%-33%.
If Trump does lose to Clinton, it will probably be because of his inability to hold college-educated whites, who Mitt Romney won by 6% in 2012.
Who are they? Not who you think. The Washington Post published a lengthy summary of an even longer report from Gallup, based on 87,000 interviews. The gist was that common stereotypes of Trump voters are false: They’re not poor whites who have lost their jobs to Mexican immigrants or Chinese competition.
According to this new analysis, those who view Trump favorably have not been disproportionately affected by foreign trade or immigration, compared with people with unfavorable views of the Republican presidential nominee. The results suggest that his supporters, on average, do not have lower incomes than other Americans, nor are they more likely to be unemployed.
Yet while Trump’s supporters might be comparatively well off themselves, they come from places where their neighbors endure other forms of hardship. In their communities, white residents are dying younger, and it is harder for young people who grow up poor to get ahead.
They also don’t live in neighborhoods that are being overrun by immigrants.
Although Trump voters tend to be the most skeptical about immigration, they are also the least likely to actually encounter an immigrant in their neighborhood. …
[Jonathan] Rothwell [the Gallup economist in charge of the survey] finds that people who live in places with many Hispanic residents or places close to the Mexican border, tend not to favor Trump — relative to otherwise similar Americans and to otherwise similar white Republicans.
Among those who are similar in terms of income, education and other factors, those who view Trump favorably are more likely to be found in white enclaves — racially isolated Zip codes where the amount of diversity is lower than in surrounding areas.
In other words, when they cheer his attacks on immigrants and foreigners, Trump’s supporters are reacting not so much to their own experiences as to the experiences they imagine people like them are having. They are not poor, but worry that their children will be. They are susceptible to absurdly negative stereotypes of immigrants because they don’t know any actual immigrants. They live in communities disproportionately afflicted with health problems related to despair: depression, substance abuse, and suicide — even if they are not depressed, addicted, or suicidal themselves.
Their “deep story”. In the current issue of Mother Jones, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild reports on her five-year study of Tea Party supporters in Louisiana. (The article gives us a taste of her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land.)
When I asked people what politics meant to them, they often answered by telling me what they believed (“I believe in freedom”) or who they’d vote for (“I was for Ted Cruz, but now I’m voting Trump”). But running beneath such beliefs like an underwater spring was what I’ve come to think of as a deep story. The deep story was a feels-as-if-it’s-true story, stripped of facts and judgments, that reflected the feelings underpinning opinions and votes. It was a story of unfairness and anxiety, stagnation and slippage—a story in which shame was the companion to need.
To Hochschild, this underlying narrative explains the attraction of otherwise baseless conspiracy theories like Obama’s Muslim faith, government plots to confiscate guns, and so on. People believe such things not because the objective evidence is compelling, but because they are looking for stories that externalize their inner experience. 
What the people I interviewed were drawn to was not necessarily the particulars of these theories. It was the deep story underlying them — an account of life as it feels to them. Some such account underlies all beliefs, right or left, I think. The deep story of the right goes like this:
You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black — beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard?  As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.
I checked this distillation with those I interviewed to see if this version of the deep story rang true. Some altered it a bit (“the line-waiters form a new line”) or emphasized a particular point (those in back are paying for the line-cutters). But all of them agreed it was their story. One man said, “I live your analogy.” Another said, “You read my mind.”
Political correctness. To college-educated liberals, one of the most mysterious aspects of right-wing discourse is the rage against political correctness, as if it were a problem on the scale of illegal drugs or the lack of good jobs. To liberals, PC is just a way of talking that shows respect for people and groups that have traditionally been disrespected. So if adult females in the workplace want to be called women rather than girls, or if I have to learn how to use words like cisgender and transgender, it doesn’t seem like that big a sacrifice. I grew up saying that hard bargainers jew people down, but decades ago I learned that Jews don’t like that expression, so I dropped it. It just didn’t seem like that much to ask of me.
So how does this attempt at courtesy become an issue of such portent that it is “ruining our country” (as Ben Carson put it)? Why do white working-class men need a Trump to defend them from this terrible scourge?
Melinda Selmys of the blog Catholic Authenticity proposes an answer.
My tentative hypothesis, which I think is probably true in at least some cases, is that the objection to political correctness is not actually so much a knee-jerk defense of racist or sexist attitudes as it is an inarticulate objection to classism.
Classism is problematic, in that every intelligent person on the left knows that it is bad, bad, very bad – but none the less, leftist discourse is constantly, profoundly classist. Discussions of how to end oppression, including the oppression of poor, marginalized, and less educated people, are routinely carried on in language that can’t even [be] parsed by someone with a high-school reading level. As a theoretical category of social problem, the poor and underprivileged are given great respect. But when an actual person who can’t spell very well, speaks in a regional dialect from a lower-class area, and can’t express himself very articulately tries to argue that he also needs protection from oppression, he’s often dismissed as an “entitled” white man who doesn’t understand the systemic barriers endured by marginalized groups.
Let me illustrate with an analogy: Imagine you’ve recently moved to a foreign country, and no matter how hard you try, you just can’t get the language right. Your accent is awful, your nouns have the wrong genders (inanimate objects have genders?), your verbs the wrong tenses, and whenever you try to use an idiom, you end up saying something ridiculous.  The natives might respond to your mistakes in a variety of ways.
- They can ignore your screw-up and respond as if you had correctly expressed what you obviously mean.
- They can correct you politely, and then respond to what you mean.
- They can correct you sharply, as if you are an idiot child, and refuse to acknowledge your meaning until you can manage to express it properly.
- They can ridicule you for saying something so stupid.
- They can put the worst possible construction on what you say, and use that interpretation to reinforce their negative stereotype of visiting Americans, i.e., that we’re all assholes who constantly insult them and then try to wriggle out of the situation by lying about our command of their language.
If you experience a lot of 1 and 2, you’re likely to see the natives as patient and kind. If 3 and 4, you’ll be wary of them and inclined to shut up even when you have something worth saying. (Later, you’ll resent feeling muzzled. You’re every bit as smart as these people, and you’d run rings around them if they had to speak English.) If 5, you’ll probably conclude that they are the assholes; they know perfectly well what you mean, but they’re misconstruing you for their own hostile purposes.
Most working-class white Americans are — let’s be clear about this — native speakers of American English, so the analogy isn’t perfect. But serious political discussion in this country is dominated by professional-class people who use language in a college-educated way. The talking heads on TV, the columnists in newspapers, and almost all our politicians are college-educated people who sound like college-educated people.  Even the ones who don’t — James Carville comes to mind — often seem to be doing a man-of-the-people shtick rather than just talking.
So when a working-class person talks politics, professional-class people tacitly assume the discussion should happen in their language and be judged by their standards.  And the worker’s “mistakes” are often slapped down hard: Either he is an idiot who should shut up and let smarter people talk, or his ignorance of the currently approved vocabulary shows that he is some kind of reprehensible person: a racist, a sexist, a homophobe.
So it should be no surprise that a lot of working-class whites (or even professional-class whites whose degree is in a technical field rather than a liberal art) cheer when Donald Trump bullies and insults the people they feel have bullied and insulted them.
What can we do with this? Understanding someone doesn’t mean you have to give in to them, and often you just can’t. For example, politically correct language was invented for a good reason: Traditional ways of speaking can institutionalize traditional injustices. (Who would you rather have running your department: a man or a girl?)
Also, the way the world feels to a group of people, as compelling as it may seem to them, is not necessarily how the world is. Your deep story might embed assumptions that are unfair or untrue. Hochschild’s line-cutting metaphor, for example, contains an assumption of entitlement: I was in line first. And (as Hochschild explains), a lot of the “advantage” of the line-cutters comes from the self-imposed restrictions of the line-standers: They find it dishonorable to take government hand-outs like food stamps or welfare, even when they qualify. So they face a choice between dishonor and falling behind people who don’t share their scruples. That sucks for them, but it’s really not the fault of blacks or refugees or career-driven women.
If we can’t just agree with Trump voters, we still can do somethings with these insights:
- Look for legitimate grievances where we can make common cause with them.
- Frame our proposals and arguments so as not to alienate them unnecessarily.
- Disrupt right-wing attempts to manipulate them.
So, for example, working-class whites who live in dead-end communities (like factory or mining towns after the factories and mines close) have a real problem we should be able to sympathize with. But since climate change and cheap natural gas are real, we can’t just bring back the coal industry and the mining jobs that it used to provide. And if “making America great again” means recreating the manufacturing economy of the 1950s, we can’t do that either. But we need to recognize that our current low-growth, low-opportunity economy is creating a real sense of hopelessness — and not just for inner-city non-whites.
Trump capitalizes on that white hopelessness by offering scapegoats: Immigrants and foreigners and the other line-cutters have taken all the opportunities, and that’s why you (and your children) don’t have any. Liberals have our own story to tell here, and we need to tell it loudly, putting aside our fear of offending rich donors: You have so few opportunities because wealth has gotten over-concentrated at the top. America has had decent (if unspectacular) economic growth for seven years now, but it all flows up the pyramid, not down to people who get paid by the hour. When working people have money, they spend it and create jobs for other working people. But past a certain point, money at the top just stays at the top. The 1% may want you to identify with them, and to think of their taxes as your taxes, but you really have more in common with black and immigrant workers than with the Kochs and Waltons.
The problem isn’t that late-comers are cutting the line, it’s that the people already seated have shut the doors.
When we design government programs, whenever possible those programs should change the landscape, rather than require people to form new relationships with government and ask it for help. When I went to a state university in the 1970s, for example, I benefited tremendously from subsidies that were invisible to me. My parents paid the price the university charged, not noticing or caring that it was artificially low. That’s how we should make college affordable again, rather than by asking “needy” students to prove that they qualify for government help. I freely and guiltlessly use public parks and libraries and highways because they belong to all of us; it would feel completely different if I had to apply for government aid to defray the cost of membership in private systems.
We can focus our attacks on the demagogues and propagandists who create right-wing conspiracy theories, rather than the low-information voters who believe them. The believers need our instruction, not our ridicule.
And finally, we can listen to the Trump voter’s concerns with more forbearance, even the ones we see as misstated, self-serving, or based on misconceptions. To the extent that our verbal or analytic abilities are superior, we could help them refine what is legitimate in their complaint and express it accurately, rather than humiliate or stereotype them.
I realize this forbearance can turn into what is called tone policing — making oppressed groups tiptoe around the too-easily-offended sensibilities of their oppressors, sometimes to the point that they have to apologize for noticing their own oppression.  But I suspect that what most annoys a Trump voter isn’t the black or woman or immigrant who asks for better treatment; it’s the fellow white or man or native speaker of English who is holier-than-thou because of his newly discovered PC superiority to the unwashed masses who still use the bigoted old words.
So I close with this modest suggestion: If you are confronting non-PC talk as an ally of traditionally oppressed groups rather than as a victim of oppression, dial down your outrage. Correct the speaker lightly, and give a generous construction to what he probably meant. Explain rather than reprimand. Remember: Even if whiteness or masculinity give them other advantages, people who sound like hicks, have limited vocabularies, and never got the benefit of a liberal education are also a despised class. They need allies too.
 If you’ve ever known someone with full-blown paranoia or depression, or experienced it yourself, you’ve seen how outward-projection-of-inner-reality works.
The fundamental fact of a paranoid’s inner life is a feeling of danger. Fleshing out the details of the plot against him is actually a soothing experience, because if the danger is out there somewhere, then it might be managed somehow. So he can’t accept your argument that his delusion is baseless and he is actually safe. Even if you convinced him, he would need to uncover a different threat, because he is in danger. That’s the one sure thing he knows.
Depression follows a similar pattern: The depressed person knows that he sucks and his life is hopeless, and so he constantly generates narratives that elaborate on that knowledge. If you argue down one story, he’ll just have to find another.
Same thing with politics: You mean Obama isn’t a Muslim? Well, he must be a Communist then.
 Probably the same way J. D. Vance (the similarly father-abandoned white-working-class author of Hillbilly Elegy) paid for Yale. In his book, Vance discusses how surprised he was to discover that if you can get accepted and qualify for financial aid, a rich school like Yale will probably cost you less than a run-of-the-mill university. One disadvantage of growing up surrounded by non-college-educated people is that quite possibly no one will tell you this, so you won’t bother to apply.
 One of my friends tells the story of a Russian, who at the end of a big meal proudly showed off his command of English by announcing that he was “completely fed up”.
 Going to college at Michigan State didn’t just teach me things, it changed my accent. The Midwest, where I grew up, has two white accents: an educated one that is the model for TV announcers, and a rural/working-class one that resembles lower-class Southern or Appalachian accents, and shows up in a lot of country-western songs. I suspect that Trent Lott, who grew up as a sharecropper’s son but speaks in the educated Southern accent now, had a similar undergraduate experience at the University of Mississippi.
 That’s what classism is: the assumption that the manners and habits of your class define what is right and proper.
 The Daria theme song either expresses or satirizes such tip-toeing:
Excuse me. Excuse me.
I’ve got to be direct.
If I’m wrong, please correct.
You’re standing on my neck.
You’re standing on my neck.