Lately, my liberal and leftist friends have been constantly asking, “How in the hell could Donald Trump be so popular?” Without question, adverse reactions to Trump’s presidential bid are reasonable. Yet, when Trump announced his candidacy, to be honest, I wasn’t the least bit appalled or surprised.
Why? Primarily because I’ve grown up and lived around the white working class my entire life. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I understand the ideological roots of Donald’s campaign and the very palatable white anger which supports it.
However, let’s back up and make something very clear: Donald Trump isn’t actually that popular. According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, Trump is supported by 20% of likely GOP voters, but over 30% of Republicans say there’s “no way” they would support him. In the same poll, voters preferred Clinton (48%-36%), Biden (49%-37%) and even Sanders (45%-37%) over Trump.
In 2008, 62% of eligible voters cast a ballot in the US Presidential elections. In 2012, that number dipped to 58%. So, let’s assume around 60% of voters will show up to vote in 2016. Out of that 60%, let’s say virtually half are Republicans and the other half are Democrats. If the numbers are somewhat similar to 2012, that means around 6o million people will vote Republican. Thus, 12 million Americans support Donald Trump, out of a likely voting population of 120 million. Clearly, he’s not that popular.
Nonetheless, 12 million voters identify with Trump’s message. Indeed, some are inherently racist, xenophobic and violent, but many are simply ignorant and pissed off. In fact, a recent Washington Post article pointed out what many of us already knew: the majority of Trump’s support comes from white, uneducated Republicans.
So, beyond racist platitudes and xenophobic rants, what’s Trump’s appeal? To me, it’s obvious: he says whatever he wants. On several occasions, for instance, Trump has, in the same breath, both badmouthed and praised the Clintons and Bushes, calling Hillary “incompetent” and Bill “nice,” while referring to George W. Bush as a “buffoon” and George H.W. Bush as “good hearted.”
Trump’s unscripted tirades leave no establishment political figure or cultural icon untouched. In many ways, he’s channeling decades of white working class anger and disillusionment with the American political-economic system (a system Trump has greatly benefited from, no doubt).
In the teleprompter-age, people rarely witness even a glimpse of authenticity. To be fair, whether Trump is authentic, or genuinely interested in the issues he rants about, is anyone’s guess. Consequently, some commentators argue that Trump’s a Clinton-mole, handpicked for the job in order to destroy the GOP’s chances at winning the White House in 2016. Others argue that he’s in the race for the publicity and potential long-term financial benefits. In the end, who knows?
For the sake of time, let’s assume Trump is genuinely interested in becoming US President and cares deeply about the issues. This dynamic is only part of the equation, for many Americans view electoral politics as a game to be won or lost by the best entertainer, showman or circus clown. On August 6, 2015, when millions of Americans tune-in to the Republican primary debates, a good portion will be watching for strictly entertainment value. Like most spectacles, people are drawn to the absurd, the comedic and the tragic: Trump offers all of the above.
The other day, I was speaking with my father about politics when he informed me that many of his childhood friends support Trump. Most of these guys are current or former union members and absolutely dependent on the benefits they’ve earned via contracts negotiated by organized labor. Yet, they hate unions. And they loathe immigrants, even though they come from immigrant families. In short, they’re ideologically confused.
To be clear, I don’t necessarily consider these people hateful, or dangerous. They’ve lived most of their lives in relative peace. They, like most people, go to work, watch sports, party with friends and raise their children. They’re not bankers, or hedge fund managers, nor are they military big-shots or political lackeys. They’ve never been members of white supremacist organizations or extreme-right political parties. In short, they’re not part of the so-called establishment. But are they potential allies?
Maybe. Maybe not. From the perspective of class, Trump’s supporters should be socialists or at the very least liberals. The white working class, like their Latino and black counterparts, but to a lesser extent, has endured decades of savage neoliberal economic programs. Their jobs have been shipped overseas. And their retirements have been plundered. As a result, their neighborhoods and childhood communities have crumbled and fallen prey to drug addiction and gang violence. They’re frustrated and upset, and for good reason, but at all the wrong people and institutions.
At some point, leftists and liberals living and organizing in the US will be forced to make a decision, if they haven’t already: either attempt to organize the working class and poor white people who make up the largest portion of Trump’s supporters, or dig-in and prepare to deal with a segment of society which is increasingly isolated, but also disproportionately armed and angry.
Without question, history has taught us that ongoing political schisms will eventually become ideological and cultural fault lines if not properly healed. Can leftists hold conversations and meetings with Trump’s supporters? Is that even a remote possibility? Will the Left attempt to organize working-class white people in the US? Or, should leftists continue to shun and alienate those who espouse reactionary political views? Those are questions that are questions organizers and activists must answer.
One-on-one, I can speak with Trump supporters. As mentioned above, I grew up around the same people who now support Trump. However, these people aren’t being approached by organizers and activists with progressive/left politics. I would venture to say that most leftists are scared to speak with Trump supporters, even intimidated by them.
All in all, it’s unclear whether it’s worth the effort to attempt to organize Trump’s base, although it’s apparent the white working class within the US is becoming increasingly polarized, thus more and more alienated and dangerous. Of course, I could argue that it’s only a matter of time before a sort of neofascism engulfs the US, but others have already made that point.
Instead, I would argue that leftists and liberals should organize white working class communities. If leftists and liberals have already come to the conclusion that most white people living in the US are the enemy, then my words will mean little. For those who remain unsure, maybe my reflections will be of aid.
Finally, defeating fascism is an ongoing process. In the short-term, the white working class poses the greatest threat to American society. Organizers and activists can’t ignore this fact. However, the more effectively the Left can chip away at fascist political entities and their base of supporters, the better prepared we will be for future struggles.
In the end, if the Left hopes to win, we’re going to need to organize white working class communities, some of whom will transition from reactionaries to left-wing radicals. While doing so, organizers will undoubtedly hear and encounter many things they will despise, but that’s part of the game. Political organizing is not for the faint of heart.