Those who write off Donald Trump's supporters as dimwitted fools are oversimplifying. Trump addresses an anger that has long been building up among the people.
A few months ago, Donald Trump was still just a political clown who would disappear at summer's end just like ice cream and cookouts. That's how the New York billionaire's presidential ambitions were written off by self-appointed opinion makers in their newspaper columns both in the U.S. and abroad. On Twitter and at get-togethers, it's considered de riguer for enlightened Americans embarrassed by “Trumpism” to distance themselves from their compatriots who are not.
And even now, as the populist with his hate tirades pulls ever closer to actually being elected, the sophisticated elites appear unwilling to deal with the reasons for Trump's spectacular success. After Sarah Palin — Trump's predecessor and female equivalent — publicly backed Trump's candidacy, parodist Andy Borowitz wrote in the intellectual New Yorker, “Palin Endorsement Widens Trump’s Lead Among Idiots.”
But writing off Trump supporters as idiots isn't just oversimplification. It's also dangerous. Like Sarah Palin before him, Trump is riding a wave of anger that has been building up for a long time. He speaks to those who live in a post-financial crisis America now in recession and who feel disconnected and forgotten. That explains why the real estate mogul and reality TV star is revered in places like West Virginia, where king coal reigns, and the coal mines have employed families for generations.
But the U.S. is turning its back on coal. Power companies are converting to natural gas, now cheaper since new production methods like fracking enable tapping into shale gas. The government backs this trend; the change from coal as a fuel is part of President Obama's environmental policy. Forty percent of America's 523 coal-fired plants have been earmarked for closure, and new restrictions make coal-fired plants unattractive. In August 2015, Alpha Resources, at that time America's second largest coal producer, filed for bankruptcy. Peabody Energy — the largest producer — is struggling with losses. That has repercussions, of course, in coal mining areas: High-paying jobs are drying up. Those affected have already determined who's to blame: Placards saying “Obama has declared war on us” can be seen on practically every lawn.
Formerly Democratic, Now for Trump
Trump's supporters come largely from the working class. At first, they voted Democratic, but today, they identify with the Republicans, according to analysis done by the election research firm Civis Analytics for The New York Times. They feel alienated by liberal immigration and free trade policies, both of which are favored by Democrats. It's no coincidence that top executives like Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Eric Schmidt of Alphabet (the Google-established holding company) are among Hillary Clinton's supporters. Silicon Valley is dependent on programmers from abroad. Immigration and free trade have contributed to the growth of the U.S. economy, but the fruits of this growth haven't been particularly apparent in states like West Virginia, in the poor South, or in the former northern industrial belt. For the lower middle class in those places, conditions have worsened, and no relief is in sight. A study done by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington confirms that remuneration for average workers has clearly lagged behind productivity growth since the 1970s. The big winners in the U.S. have been those already at the top of the earnings pyramid.
Success in Structurally Weak Regions
Civis Analytics shows Trump to be particularly strong in upstate New York, far from his pompous Trump Tower on New York City's posh 5th Avenue — in places like Fleischmanns, a village of some 351 residents about three hours' drive north of the city and in the Catskill Mountains. In the 19th century, these foothills were home to numerous tanneries. Then came the farmers and finally well-to-do families from New York City, the start of a tourism boom. Fleischmanns is named for yeast and whiskey magnate Charles Louis Fleischmann, who maintained a summer colony there. When he arrived at the train station in town with his family, it was to the accompaniment of the family's private band. The houses along Main Street are done in quirky Victorian style with turrets and terraces. But many buildings stand empty, just like the parking lot at the town's only supermarket. Inside, one finds a couple of bananas beginning to turn black and some sprouting onions, the only items on the display shelves. On the otherwise empty meat counter, there’s a lone salami and some pinkish-gray bologna. On the other hand, however, the store is well-stocked with beer and liquor. Although well-heeled visitors from the city still visit, they load up their trunks with California wines and vegetables from the natural foods supermarket before the trip.
“The government, the economy, they've all forgotten us,” an area farmer complains. His last hope for his children's future was the fracking boom. Beneath the Catskills lies one of America's largest reserves of shale gas. Up to a year ago, many land owners here saw themselves as millionaires in waiting. But New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has banned fracking until further notice. He did so after a great deal of hesitation and repeated calls for further studies, announcing in 2014 that the risks couldn't be calculated. The Democrat, who himself has presidential aspirations, certainly considered input not only from the environmental community, but was also mindful of the 8 million New York City residents whose drinking water comes from the Catskills. To that end, the city has been buying up land for years. Communities have to make way for reservoirs, overseen by the municipal environmental protection agency, the Department of Environmental Protection. The strict water protection rules also apply to adjacent areas and are a constant source of tension with local residents.
There are many Fleischmanns in the U.S., and many regions like the Catskills — states that coastal dwellers like to call “fly-over” states, little more than land masses that have to be overcome to get from New York to San Francisco. About the residents of this forgotten piece of America, in an unguarded moment, Obama once said, "They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” It would be difficult to express contempt for someone more clearly than that. These people feel not only economically abandoned. They also get the feeling they're being subjected to unpopular demands from far-away urban elites. Such as the demands for tougher gun laws.
The Republicans have long exploited people's fear of being left behind by cultural and demographic change when it suited their purposes. Thus, they organized majorities favoring tax cuts and deregulation of things that benefited their well-to-do donors. Trump takes that one step further and resorts to blatant racism. The Republicans have sown the seeds of the storm that Trump now harvests, said Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf, as he warned that losers have voting rights as well, and that the elites had to quickly find an intelligent answer to the Donald Trump phenomenon.
It May Already Be Too Late
Trump recently bragged that he could stand on New York's 5th Avenue and shoot people dead at random and never lose a single vote. The media loves that kind of talk, and Washington's political class finds it delightfully chilling. But it's also true that Trump's followers love it as well. Trump breaks all the establishment taboos at will and is admired for it. They want to be winners again, one Trump sympathizer explained at a meeting of Wall Street Journal reporters. And that's exactly what Trump — the self-declared eternal winner — promises his fans.