New York Times (Opinion)
By Thomas Edsall
March 30, 2016
Conservatives who once derided upscale liberals as latte-sipping losers now burst with contempt for the lower-income followers of Donald J. Trump.
These blue-collar white Republicans, a mainstay of the conservative coalition for decades, are now vilified by their former right-wing allies as a “non-Christian” force “in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture,” corrupted by the same “sense of entitlement” that Democratic minorities were formerly accused of.
Kevin Williamson, a columnist for National Review, initiated the most recent escalation of this particular Republican-against-Republican power struggle. In a March 13 essay, “The Father-Führer,” Williamson portrays Trump’s struggling white supporters as relying on their imaginary victimhood when, in fact, he contends:
They failed themselves. If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog— you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be.
Less well-off white voters have only themselves to blame, Williamson continues:
It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that. Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America.
Not satisfied to stop there, Williamson adds:
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs.
Finally, determined to blow a hole in the Trump hot air balloon, the columnist hits hard:
The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.
Williamson’s bitterness over the refusal of Trump’s supporters to get in line behind a more acceptable candidate is echoed across the right.
David French, also of the National Review, writes:
I grew up in Kentucky, live in a rural county in Tennessee, and have seen the challenges of the white working-class first-hand. Simply put, 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. Obama isn’t walking them into the lawyer’s office to force them to file a bogus disability claim.
In a March 25 post on RedState, Caleb Howe, another frequent conservative commentator, welcomes the prospect of the departure of Trump supporters from the Republican Party: “GOOD NEWS! Buchanan Says If Ted Cruz Wins, An ‘Awful Lot’ of Trump Supporters Will ‘Just Go Home”
The “new Trump voters,” Howe writes, aren’t motivated by what makes the Republican Party the Republican Party. They aren’t in this to limit the size and scope of government. They aren’t coming out to Trump rallies because he’s talking about reducing the debt.
If Trump is not nominated and his supporters stay home on Election Day, Howe believes that “there’s really only one response: Bye.”
Glenn Beck joined the chorus of anti-Trump conservatives on March 24, when he told listeners to his radio show that such Republicans were not real Christians:
We’re not living our Christian faith because no Christian, no real Christian — I don’t mean a judgmental Christian, I mean somebody who’s living their faith — no Christian says, “I want that guy, that guy is the guy for me.”
This repudiation of a whole class of voters has become a source of bitter debate on the right.
In a prescient January 14 essay, “To Attract Disillusioned Voters, the GOP Must Understand Their Concerns,” Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank, wrote:
America’s self-appointed best and brightest uniformly view the passions unleashed by Trump as the modern-day equivalent of a medieval peasants’ revolt. And, like their medieval forebears, they mean to crush it. That effort is both a fool’s errand for the country and a poisoned chalice for conservatives and Republicans.
In Olsen’s view, disparaging Trump’s lower-income white supporters “will simply intensify the masses’ rage and ensure that their political spokesmen become more intransigent and radical.”
Even worse, keeping blue-collar white Americans out of political power will result in exactly what Washington elites have wanted for years: a series of grand bargains that keep the status quo largely intact and the Democratic party in power.
Only now are major party leaders and contributors beginning to recognize the full depth of this intraparty conflict.
On March 28, my colleague Nick Confessore documented in crushing detail how Republican leaders, donors and strategists disregarded the mounting discontent of white working class Republicans, thus setting the stage for the Trump campaign.
The history, Confessore wrote, is one of a party elite that abandoned its most faithful voters, blue-collar white Americans, who faced economic pain and uncertainty over the past decade as the party’s donors, lawmakers and lobbyists prospered. From mobile home parks in Florida and factory towns in Michigan, to Virginia’s coal country, where as many as one in five adults live on Social Security disability payments, disenchanted Republican voters lost faith in the agenda of their party’s leaders.
While white voters with a high school degree or less have steadily declined as a share of the electorate — from 82 percent of adults 25 and older in 1940 to 29 percent in 2007 — they have repeatedly played a crucial role in determining the outcome of elections.
In the presidential elections of 1960 and 1964 – both Democratic victories – John Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson each won 55 percent of the votes cast by whites without college degrees, according to the widely-cited 2008 Brookings paper, “The Decline of the White Working Class and the Rise of a Mass Upper Middle Class.”
In the next two elections, 1968 and 1972, in the wake of the civil rights movement, urban riots and a sharp increase in violent crime, white working class support for the Democratic nominees fell by 20 percentage points, to 35 percent, according to the paper’s two authors, Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz. “The Democrats,” they wrote, “were the party of the white working class no longer.”
These two elections marked the establishment of a conservative majority that produced Republican presidential victories in 1980, 1984 and 1988 — the only exception being 1976 when Watergate briefly stalled the ascendance of the right.
White working class voters were crucial later in the 1994 Republican takeover of the House engineered by Newt Gingrich, now a leading Trump supporter. While non-college whites supported Republican presidential candidates beginning in 1968, many remained loyal to the Democratic Party in Congressional races until the Contract With America was on offer. In 1992, 57 percent of white men without college degrees voted Democratic congressional elections. In 1994, the percentage shrank by 20 points. Republicans captured the House that year and maintained control in 8 of the next 10 elections.
The challenges facing the white working class are indeed severe.
According to Teixeira and Abramowitz:
Between 1979 and 2005, the average real hourly wage for those with a college degree went up 22 percent and for those with advanced degrees, 28 percent. In contrast, average wages for those with only some college went up a mere 3 percent, actually fell 2 percent for those with a high school diploma, and for high school dropouts, declined a stunning 18 percent.
These setbacks have provided fertile recruiting opportunities for Republicans. David Wasserman, writing at fivethirtyeight.com in December 2015, found that of five voting groups (whites with college degrees, whites without college degrees, African-Americans, Latinos and Asians/others), whites without college degrees are “Republicans’ best group by far.” In 2008, John McCain carried these voters by 14 points, and in 2012 Mitt Romney won them by “a whopping 26 points.”
The virulent attacks on less affluent Republican voters by Williamson et al raise the question: As a matter of practical politics, how can a party that is losing ground in virtually every growing constituency — Hispanics, Asians, single women and the young — even consider jettisoning a single voter, much less the struggling white working class?
The Republican Party has seen its core — married white Christians — decline from 62 percent of the population of the United States to 28 percent in 2015, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.
Trump has won his biggest primary margins among less financially secure, less educated voters, turning the traditional winning coalition in Republican primaries upside down. Mitt Romney consistently did best among the most educated and most affluent Republican primary voters. So did John McCain in 2008.
The accompanying chart, based on an analysis by the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies, illustrates aggregated exit poll data from the Republican primaries held through March 21. It shows the demographic groups that have provided Trump with relatively high and relatively low levels of support.
The comparatively low levels of support for Trump among college-educated Republicans, women, young voters and those with incomes above $100,000 suggest that these voters are most likely to sit out the election or to vote Democratic if Trump is the nominee. Conversely, groups that gave him higher than average support in the primaries — the less well educated, those with incomes below the median, men and rural voters — are likely to deliver his best margins in the general election.
If there are two key themes in the election so far, one is Trump’s ability to enrage; the other is his ability to exceed expectations. The disregard of liberal and conservative elites for working and middle class voters has manifested itself in a consistent underestimation of the anger, resentment and pessimism of these voters — and hence of their electoral power.
A November 2015 WSJ/NBC survey found that 69 percent of respondents described themselves as “angry because our political system seems to only be working for the insiders with money and power;” 54 percent said that both the economic and political systems were “stacked” against them.
The primaries have demonstrated the importance of the primary process in making unheard voices audible.
On March 14, 1968, less than a month before he was assassinated, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech, “The Other America,” in which he contrasted white America with black America.
In the former, millions of people have the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality flowing before them. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and human dignity for their spirits.
The latter, the “other America,” has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this other America, thousands and thousands of people, men in particular walk the streets in search for jobs that do not exist.
It is an irony of history, then, that King’s language perfectly describes the conflict today between the privileged establishment and the hard pressed rank and file of the overwhelmingly white Republican Party — a conflict between haves and have-nots that is taking the Republican Party to a place it has never been.
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com