Why Donald Trump happened

Connor Wood

On Election Tuesday last week, I flew from Boston to Norfolk, Virginia, for a work conference. The day was beautiful and sunny, and people were friendly. My colleagues and I got an incredible view of Manhattan taking off from our layover in LaGuardia, its numberless spires catching the light like crystals. I was optimistic about the future and hopeful for the election. That evening, as the world realized that Donald Trump would win, that hopeful optimism was replaced with horror. Since then, my friends, most of whom are solidly on the left, have been in absolute consternation. My Facebook wall is a solid dirge, with the occasional recriminations and unfriendings as people discover who voted for the bad guy. However, unlike many of my contacts, I won’t be unfriending anyone. I actually have a pretty good idea of why this happened. 

That’s not to say I’m not horrified. Andrew Sullivan could well be right to characterize this election as “an extinction-level event” for my country. Democratic republics are – contrary to what was recently popular belief – very fragile things. They don’t constitute a stable attractor in the space of possible societies, nor were they ever somehow destined to the “the end of history,” as political philosopher Francis Fukuyama once (I hope to his endless chagrin) argued. Democracies are hard to create and hard to maintain. And the election of a man who is, literally, almost totally ignorant about world affairs, unlettered in government, unread in history, and committed to flouting the procedural norms of our republic could truly savage the American experiment. If you think I’m being hyperbolic, check back in with me after the first four months of Trump’s presidency.

Meanwhile, read the recent posts on this blog in which I warned that this might be coming. And a slightly older piece in which I warned that major, major shakeups to the American political scene were imminent – particularly along the traditionalist-progressive divisions that, last Wednesday morning, were exposed as serious faultlines within both major parties. I’m not bragging, but pointing out the demonstrable fact that the literati class to which I sort of belong has consistently been blind, over the past decade, to a number of trends and worrisome patterns that, for whatever reason, I had some accurate hunches about.

Let’s talk about why. This most important reason may be that I’m a rural American by background. The smallest town my family lived in when I was growing up, in rural Wyoming (which is redundant) had about 350 residents. The Wisconsin town where I graduated from high school had fewer than 2,000. While many of my peers in academia were attending well-equipped high schools near major urban centers, learning the social mores and signals of the literati, I was sitting in classrooms next to camouflage-wearing hunters and future mechanics, going on afternoon joyrides in my rusty Grand Am past endless acres of corn and alfalfa. As a skinny, nerdy kid who read books compulsively and had little interest in fishing or hunting, I was often a bit of an outsider. But at the same time, I didn’t totally hate my rural upbringing. In fact, I loved a lot of it. In Wyoming, we had enormous mountains right outside our window. In Wisconsin, we had a gorgeous river flowing through our town, flanked by healthy forests of maple, ash, and oak. Home life was difficult, so walks in the woods and the dazzling beauty of a starry night sky were psychic medicine I could take anytime I wanted.

At the interpersonal level, I learned to temper my intellectual’s innate disdain for the less-nerdy and the non-book-smart. Lots of classmates had parents who worked in factories and didn’t have college degrees, so cultural or intellectual snobbery would have left me friendless. But the tolerance wasn’t just pragmatic. I developed real respect for the people who knew how to make and build things. When my car broke down, the guy who fixed it was liable to be highly mechanically competent, but uninterested that I’d read Voltaire. So I could (a) look down my nose at him because he wasn’t into French philosophy, or (b) I could be grateful that he knew how to fix my car. Somehow, the latter seemed like the better option.

In short, my experience of a rural upbringing in middle America inoculated me against the benign chauvinism and impatient disdain that I have found many of my educated peers feel toward the sort of people who, statistically, voted Trump. With that inoculation in mind, it has been painful to watch the increasing incomprehension with which my educated peers view the lives and values of these blocs of Americans. When friends mimic “southern” accents as a stand-in for represented stupidity, or when Samantha Bee gives the camera that wry, knowing half-smile that indicates to viewers that they’re all in on a big Smart Person Club together, I cringe. Those of us who work with symbols – journalists, academics, members of the “creative class” – may be the darlings of the New Economy, but we still need people to deal with the raw, physical world for us, or we’re toast. For a long time, we’ve been acting – both in public and in private – as if the people who do that work are social embarrassments. And now we’re paying for it. Hard.*

***

There are tens of millions of people in this country who are not symbol-manipulators for a living. They work with tangible things: gears, spark plugs, two-by-fours, PVC pipes. They can’t just talk their ways out of mistakes and errors in judgment, the way finance professionals or academic prognosticators can. If you screw up cutting drywall, there is no hiding it. The physical world bites back. My blue-collar classmates in high school were already living in a world that taught them that. But the highly educated Democratic leadership class, personified in Hillary Clinton, largely inhabits a world where tangible things don’t bite back, at least not as immediately. In their world, you can nearly always finesse your outcomes with rhetoric. And the cultural creatives who constitute a large portion of the Democratic voting bloc are quite literally often in the business of inventing reality through marketing, white papers, or design products.

Of course, no complex society could function without professional symbol-manipulators. They’re – we’re – invaluable for imagining new possibilities, and looking out for big-picture issues like climate change. It’s just that, in a democratic society like ours, the symbol-manipulators need to have personal respect for the people who work with their hands, or those workers will use their vote to revolt against the status quo. As a product of rural, blue-collar America, I have a finely-tuned radar for this personal respect. And as long as I’ve been an adult, the educated class has refused to show it. The people who write trendy software and craft policy, who conduct research and trade futures, simply do not seem to care about or even comprehend the people who build things, fix cars, or drive trucks for a living. In fact, the literati often seem to be embarrassed to have to share the country with those people. Why else would they be increasingly retreating en masse into their crystalline cities, insulated by stratospheric real estate prices against the ugly prospect of blue-collar neighbors?

Admittedly, many pundits, particularly on the left, challenge the idea that Trump’s support is blue-collar, pointing out that Trump supporters earn slightly more on average than Clinton voters. What they’re missing is that lack of a college education was a much better predictor of Trump support than income. Much of the Trump bloc, then, likely comprises non-college-educated people who work in well-paid fields like plumbing. And the final vote tally from rural and post-industrial counties in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin should put to rest any serious doubt about the blue-collar hypothesis. Make no mistake: this election, like Brexit before it, was a plebiscite condemnation of the neoliberal consensus by working-class people, regardless of income.

Hence, no matter how much we blame Trump’s election on racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, or similar – very real – evils, the sheer fact of the matter is that a massive cultural chasm has opened up between (a) symbol-manipulators, and (b) people who work with tangible things, and the people who work with tangible things have had enough. Many of the counties that tipped the election to Trump in the Great Lakes region voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, or were very closely divided. That’s not a sign of latent racism. It’s a sign of an artificially forced choice between social and economic justice. If, as a country, we’d moved left on social issues like gender and racial equality while maintaining actual interpersonal contact with and respect for the people who make and build and fix stuff – instead of using them as the vilified out-group whose existence defines our enlightened in-group – that ugly choice wouldn’t have been forced.

I don’t mean lay the sole blame for this political catastrophe on members of the educated class. I’m just trying to balance out the cries among liberal friends and commentators that Trump’s election must be due to pure racism, authoritarianism, sexism, homophobia, or jingoism. Don’t mistake me – all of those things are most definitely playing a role in what’s happened, as commentator Van Jones made heartbreakingly clear last Tuesday night. Trump’s treatment of women is a horrific standard to set, and it is already having bad effects. The gleeful enthusiasm with which white nationalists glommed onto the Trump campaign is a baleful sign indeed. These problems are egregious, and real.**

But unfortunately, there are probably even bigger problems looming, if that’s possible.

***

In the final analysis, the social-justice implications of the Trump presidency are only one aspect of the larger problem. In fact, the Trump presidency is not probably going to be a straightforwardly nativist, neo-fascist regime. Fascism is an ideology, and Trump has no ideology. I think he is in this thing for himself, and he will use the presidency to advance his business interests and stoke his personal ego. Yes, alt-right hate-mongers and others will take Trump’s rhetoric as an excuse to do horrible things, and we should fight against that. But I doubt we’re actually about to get state-sponsored terrorism against minorities. Instead, what we’re probably going to get is an increase in informal assaults on minorities…along with epoch-defining international destabilization, a ludicrous plundering of the American economy by Trump and his friends, and war. A lot of it.

Why war? With Trump at the helm of the most powerful country in world history, precisely at the moment when that country is beginning what looks like a decline, the international order is potentially in a biblical amount of trouble. Judging from his campaign, Trump apparently cannot stand losing, and – as his campaign made clear – does not like losers. It’s possible he will do anything to avoid being seen as weak or submissive on the world stage. Moreover, thanks to his ignorance of and disinterest in policy, history, or world affairs, he will be hard-pressed to make informed decisions. Hence, although Trump has promised to be militarily isolationist, he could easily make chaotic or capricious decisions regarding the use of American force, with catastrophic results.

Moreover, he’s pledged to abandon or neglect key treaties and strategic alliances with partners like NATO and the Iraqi government. If he follows through on these promises (admittedly never a sure thing), this will leave massive power vacuums in his wake around the globe. And if there’s anything we learned from the Iraq War, it’s that political and military power vacuums have consequences. Big ones. As chaos begins to ensue, nations and blocs may quickly begin withdrawing consent from an international order whose walls are rotting. If that happens, regional rivalries and tensions will quickly flare into conflicts, and full-scale international warfare – something experts blithely thought was nearly extinct – may come raging back into the world. The relative cooperation and coordination between countries that has characterized the past three generations may be over.

This, then, is why Trump (and Brexit) are so frightening, as I see it: they probably mean the beginning of the breakup of the international liberal order. Without the implicit guarantee of American support, it’s not clear that the European program of open, liberal societies will continue. And with Trump at the helm of the U.S., world trade is likely to drop off a cliff, not only because protectionist tariffs will go up around the world, but because the U.S. Navy plays an outsized role in protecting sea lanes and making cheap shipping possible. If the international situation deteriorates to the extent that I think is likely, the cost of shipping is going to skyrocket, and trade will plummet apace.

I hope I’m wrong. But even if I’m missing the details, the fact is that Trump is going to have a Loki effect on the world order. In four years’ time (if he makes it that long), everyday life is likely to look very different for a large swathe of the world’s populace, including in America.

In short, we are probably in for dark times. I believe that the best way to prepare is to survey the wreckage now – while there’s a lull in the storm – and identify places where you can do good. If you’re a Trump voter (and somehow are still reading), you should take a very serious look at your conscience, particularly if you have children. You may very well have just boosted the likelihood of global war by manyfold. And, for God’s sake, be patient with outraged liberals. To you, liberals may seem to get outraged over nearly everything, but in this case they are probably right to be very upset (even though the extreme ones aren’t right to destroy property and question the legitimacy of the U.S. Constitution).

If you’re an erstwhile Clinton supporter – particularly a college-educated one – take what I’ve said here seriously. Have you contributed, even slightly, to the cavernous divide between the symbol-manipulators and the people who work with tangible things? If so, great. Where there’s fault, there’s responsibility. And where there’s responsibility, there’s agency. You can change things. Take it from a terminally nerdy rural-cum-urban guy who feels a lot of strong affinity for both Red and Blue America – we need to start stitching this place together, now. Wait until the shock and grief starts to subside (next week? Next month?) and then start the work. The world can’t wait long.

____

* But the people who voted for Trump will be paying for it, too. In one of my many instances of awakening in a jolt from unquiet dreams last Tuesday night, I realized that the very people who voted Trump into office are likely to get uniquely targeted by their savior. Why? Because, as far as the past 30 years go, they’re losers. They’ve been losing economically and culturally on almost every front. And if this campaign taught us anything, it’s that Trump hates losers. He is reflexively unable to resist exercising dominance over the weak and the defeated. Once in the Oval Office, Trump won’t be the champion of the blue-collar silent majority. He’ll be their arch-nemesis. He only identified their weakness and then manipulated it. They mistook this canniness for sympathy, but when his plundering starts, he’ll be coming for them first. Poetic justice? No. Just more suffering.

** Of course, black Americans are almost certainly going to bear the brunt of the social and economic whiplash that will come with the Trump administration. So, as always – as in nearly every damned cultural pivot point since the 1600s – African-Americans are going to pay for the cultural elite’s sins. Again. I swear, every time we mess up as a country, it’s our black countrymen who pay the full deductible. It makes me furious. The mostly white, highly educated movers and shakers who are filling up the absurdly expensive inner districts of Boston, San Francisco, and New York are the ones who I think bear much of the responsibility for this disaster. They were driving, after all. Now the car is in the ditch. But again, as always, it’s the black passengers – some of whom were just finally starting to think that maybe this country was going to start treating them fairly and with honor – who are likely going to be most injured. Insert your favorite curse word here.

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