Michael Moore was right. The leftist documentary filmmaker said people who were convinced Trump could not win were living in a bubble that came with an adjoining echo chamber. Being from Pittsburgh, and helping oversee Rick Santorum’s campaigns, I knew there were voters who could upend the pollsters’ predictions. So now that the bubble has been burst, what do the votes for Donald Trump say about and to America?
First, there really are two Americas. I’ve had to remind one group of my friends who cheered that the republic was saved that I have another set of friends who are mourning that America was lost. If we aren’t able to truly understand this, we won’t be able to pursue “e duobus unum.” America’s strength comes from the elasticity of the American experiment to accommodate our differences and find paths forward. 2016 is no different than 1960, when Kennedy won the popular vote by 0.1 percent, as did James Garfield in 1880.
Historically, we have been able to navigate our insularity through actual human interaction with people who differ with us. This is one of the great legacies of public education and three national news networks. Sadly, our gated ZIP codes and force-fed Google algorithms have made us even more insular than ever. How do we navigate the gates without burning down the houses?
Here I come back to my trope: culture is upstream of politics. As The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael said in a speech she delivered on Dec. 28, 1972 to the Modern Language Association: “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.”
Sadly, our gated ZIP codes and force-fed Google algorithms have made us even more insular than ever
I’ve mused before that perhaps “story” can save America:
How does a society develop E Pluribus Unum? In part, by walking in another’s shoes. By sharing fences, classrooms and battlefields. By joining the Rotary, the Knights or the Girl Scouts. We learned about our neighbor and the challenges he faced because we knew our neighbor and faced his challenges together. We developed empathy… I believe that the one of the few shared experiences we still have is popular culture. Sure, there are niche genres, and certainly we can have a tribal mentality regarding the music or films we enjoy and promote, but how better can I develop empathy for the challenges of African-Americans than by watching ‘Twelve Years a Slave,’ ‘The Butler’ or Walden Media’s television special, ‘The Watsons go to Birmingham.’
This was not an election about the ideology, but about elites. Tea Party, Anonymous, Bernie Sanders and Occupy Wall Street are all related to the Trump voters in their disdain for political, media, and Wall Street elites, but are unified in their PTSD from the Great Recession. There are distinctives of course, but they have more in common than than not (for a poignant, humorous and occasionally crass analysis, like the election itself, check out www.cracked.com).
Fishtown and Port Clinton rose up with pitchforks. During the 2012 cycle I called Santorum’s blue-collar base “Cracker Barrel Conservatives” (CBCs) in an effort to name a socio-economic strata identified in Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart” as Fishtown, and more recently represented by the voters in Port Clinton, Ohio in Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.” I believe that these voters are not ideological in the way that the Tea Party is, but after being left behind in the Great Recession, they stuck their heads out of their windows and shouted as Howard Beale instructed them to do in “Network”:
I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth; banks are going bust; shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter; punks are running wild in the street, and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it … I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to write to your congressman, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street.
All I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad. You’ve gotta say, “I’m a human being…! My life has value!” So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
The American Dream has felt out of reach for millions of Americans, but reports of its death are greatly exaggerated. This election was not about a rejection of the Dream, but a reach for the lowest rung of the ladder to climb up to it. CBCs may feel that the system is rigged against them, but they still aspire to the Dream, and they believed Trump is best positioned to restore it. Students burdened under school debt may have supported Bernie Sanders, but they may be one of the most entrepreneurial generations in history. Trump and Sanders voters were not necessarily rejecting the American Dream, but reacting against the Washington and Wall Street elites who have been unable to address the socio-economic realities of distressed communities, and the feeling that escaping the station of one’s birth is harder, or at least no better today than it has been in the past.
This election was not about a rejection of the Dream, but a reach for the lowest rung of the ladder to climb up to it
Party and political class elites need to understand that Trump and his CBCs aren’t anti-government, although they may be anti-establishment. If an economic rising tide lifts boats, they want the holes in their still-sunk boats to be fixed. They don’t care who fixes the holes, but they are tired of ideologically produced gridlock keeping them from being fixed. They want the art of the deal to trump the art of politics. They want results, not 168-page plans for jobs and economic growth.
Conservative elites shouldn’t misread the results and think that they have found a new base of small-government, liaise-faire conservatives. This is the same misread I hear when they say: “Hispanics are conservative Republicans, they just don’t know it.”
Republican elites need to know that they did not just grow their base. Trump’s vote included union members, former Bernie Sanders supporters and nonpartisan, non-ideological populists. They sent a message, and for some, Trump was a proxy for “none of the above.”
Progressive elites should realize that they could be as tone deaf and detached as conservative elites. Progressive candidates may win the empathy gap, but the gap between their elites and the “deplorables” (this cycle’s “47 Percent”) is even wider. Can radically rejectionist movements like Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous close the gap, or did these movements widen it? Although CBCs’ socio-economic realities reflect the concerns that Progressives have been raising for years, their approach has not been embraced. CBCs, Millennials and millions of disenfranchised Americans haven’t rejected American fundamentals; they just want the ladder to be lowered so that they can lift themselves out. Thankfully, they still believe there is a ladder to lower.
Progressive candidates may win the empathy gap, but the gap between their elites and the “deplorables” is even wider
Finally, a few comments about white evangelicals, who are one-fifth of all registered voters. It is true that a larger percentage of them voted for Trump than voted for Bush in 2000, but this should not be misread as an enthusiastic embracing of his candidacy. Other than a few pockets of political or “prophetic” evangelicalism, this was a reluctant vote, and it’s apparent unanimity white washes the divide that deepened between old and new. Early evangelical supporters of Trump were actually less church going than the public at large, which is consistent with the profile of the early Trump base, and the decline of church affiliation in Fishtown and Port Clinton. Late supporters were converted by the existential threat posed by a candidate who would further President Obama’s escalation of the culture wars. But this was an election at the crossroads, and Evangelicalism will be taking two different paths going forward. It is unclear where the roads will lead.
Despite what the days-after protests were meant to communicate to Fishtown and Port Clinton, the future is not lost. I believe there is a path forward to “e duobus unum.” The American Dream still animates the polls. The belief that the system itself is fundamentally sound, whether free enterprise or our constitutional republic, gives us guiderails.
Cracker Barrel Conservatives did not necessarily vote for Donald Trump; they voted to lower the ladder and climb out of the economic quicksand into which they have been sinking. As evidenced by his support for a federal paid family leave policy, Trump may actually be the trans-partisan, non-ideological president we have needed to unlock the gridlock.
Similar to Black Lives Matter, I believe Trump voters wanted us know that their lives have value, too. We just have to go the extra mile to discover this truth together.
For sixteen years, Mark Rodgers served on Capitol Hill as Chief of Staff to U.S. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and as the Staff Director of the Senator Republican Conference. His firm is www.claphamgroup.com.