By Chauncey DeVega / Daily Kos
Tuesday’s Nevada caucuses were but one more battlefield on which Trumpmania easily vanquished its foes. Donald Trump, the American Il Duce and Mad Max’s Immortan Joe come to life in the form of a reality TV show host and real estate gangster capitalist, won 45.9 percent of the Republican vote. This was more support than his two nearest rivals combined.
Donald Trump stuck to a tried-and-true routine during his victory speech. The “Trumpeteers” are an easy crowd to move when in the presence of their demigod. Trump knows how to manipulate their anxieties, fears, worries, and hopes. Trump plays to the cheap seats—the lowest common denominator—as he brays about “making America great again,” killing “terrorists,” and building a wall on the Mexican border.
His public lives vicariously through Trump’s proto-fascist strongman routine. They are desperate to absorb his supposed vitality.
As part of his professional wrestling-inspired carnie flimflam artist hustle, Trump runs down a list of the groups who voted for him. Trump tells the crowd how he won with “the young,” “the highly educated,” “the old,” and “the Hispanics.”
The crowd responds with cheap applause and the most banal of empty chants, the ubiquitous “USA, USA,” the last redoubt for a people who cannot readily explain their country’s greatness when confronted by its deeply problematic past and present. His loquacious momentum apparently carries him too far forward, and he speaks of what many Americans view as the impolitic and the embarrassing. In that moment, Donald Trump says: “We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.”
That utterance has been an opportunity for liberals, progressives, and “establishment conservatives” to enjoy a moment of schadenfreude. To their eyes, Trump had a Freudian slip. He called the country rubes out for their stupidity. In all, if Trump’s supporters were anything but dummies, they would have been insulted by their champion’s insinuation that they are just political lemmings.
Alas, to the surprise and disappointment to the chattering classes and “serious people,” this moment in Nevada would not resemble the conclusion to the classic 1957 movie A Face in The Crowd where a country musician turned populist huckster and Glenn Beck-like media sensation accidentally let slip the truth on a “hot mic”—that his supporters were idiots who would believe anything he told them.
Instead of summoning deafening boos, Trump’s supporters cheered. They basked in Trumpmania. These people, the Trumpeteers, will carry Donald Trump to victory on Super Tuesday and beyond.
But politics, like most things, are much more complicated than they appear at first glance.
Trump’s support is much broader than that of the “poorly educated.” In reality, Trumpmania is not the fault of the poorly educated, even though many in the media and among the professional political classes would like to assign them the blame.
Anecdotes are not the same as rigorous, empirically grounded social science. However, anecdotes (and storytelling) can help to illuminate broader socio-political trends and realities.
I am a proud member of the African-American working class. My father was a janitor. My mother worked as a private duty nurse and personal assistant. My grandmother, who lived to be in her late 90s (but may have been older), had at best a fifth-grade education. She worked as a “wash woman” and maid. I love her very much. She passed away several years ago. I still hear her wisdom in my ears and her hand on my shoulder when I am in trouble.
Hailing from the Jim Crow South, my grandmother helped to raise men and women who would become doctors, attorneys, engineers, teachers, and other members of the black professional classes.
My mother and father, and most certainly my grandmother, are what social demographers would count as “uneducated.” But I know them to be among some of the smartest and most astute observers of politics and life that I have ever known.
I include those “uneducated” or “poorly educated” men and women in the black barbershops, and other working-class spaces such as bowling alleys, pool halls, video game arcades, and bars that I frequented as a child and young adult in that same group.
Many of those folks may not have been formally degreed. Nonetheless, they had wisdom and intelligence which far surpassed that of those who were privileged enough to graduate college and perhaps beyond.
When I hear Donald Trump count “the poorly educated” as his supporters, or listen to the chattering classes all too often lament the political calculations made by that group, I find my eyebrow raised with curiosity and a level of instinctive umbrage.
Yes, the aggregate polling does suggest that Donald Trump enjoys a great deal of support among the “uneducated.” The news website Inquisitr explains this in the following way:
Donald Trump supporters did not have a very flattering picture painted of them by a new CNN/ORC poll.
Take it for what it’s worth, but respondents in the poll of Republican voters were found to be largely less college-educated.
Yahoo broke down the results further, finding that Donald Trump “runs significantly stronger among less-educated, less-affluent voters, and performs particularly well among voters in the 50-64 age range.”
The poll also found that the billionaire former reality television star of The Apprentice currently leads the Republican presidential primary race with 36 percent support, or “20 percentage points higher than his closest challenger.”
Donald Trump supporters also rated him higher on a number of hot-button issues, such as the economy, foreign policy, immigration, and ISIS, “in some cases by 30- and 40-percentage point margins,” Yahoo added.
“Trump’s support is heavily concentrated among non-college educated Republicans and those who only lean Republican and thus are less inclined to show up and vote in primaries and caucuses,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics in an email to the news site.
But as Matt Taibbi points out in his great new article in Rolling Stone, Donald Trump is not just popular among so-called (white) “poorly educated” voters:
Trump has a chokehold on somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of the Republican vote, scoring in one poll across every category: young and old, educated and less so, hardcore conservatives and registered Democrats, with men and with women, Megyn Kelly’s “wherever” notwithstanding. Trump the Builder of Anti-Rapist Walls even earns an estimated 25 percent of the GOP Latino vote.
Moreover, there’s evidence that human polling undercounts Trump’s votes, as people support him in larger numbers when they don’t have to admit their leanings to a live human being. Like autoerotic asphyxiation, supporting Donald Trump is an activity many people prefer to enjoy in a private setting, like in a shower or a voting booth.
Trumpmania is metastasizing across the Republican (and perhaps even American) body politic.
The notion that Trump’s support is wholly or almost entirely driven by angry, “poorly educated” (white) voters is a comforting narrative, one that we will certainly gather more data about as the primary season and election approach. As an alternative, I would suggest that the 2016 Republican post-mortem will reveal that the white working-class rage and authoritarianism of Trump’s voters are an outgrowth of a Republican Party where conservatism and racism are now fully one and the same thing.
Donald Trump is ultimately the id of today’s Republican Party—an organization that is, for all intents and purposes, the United States’ largest white identity organization.
Because of that fact, Trumpmania is simply one more iteration—and perhaps maturation—of George Wallace’s and Barry Goldwater’s white political thuggery and revanchism. His supporters are bigoted Reagan Democrats and the hell spawn of the Southern Strategy, Tea Party acolytes, and a core of white voters who are racially resentful. They’re feeling obsolete in a neoliberal globalized age where capital has been outsourced, and angry at black and brown people who they believe have taken over their “real America.”
In the long term, the claim that Trumpmania is largely a force of “uneducated” voters will join other widely-believed myths about American politics.
For example, contrary to the thesis advanced by Thomas Frank’s popular book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Princeton University political scientist Larry Bartels has compellingly demonstrated that poor white people do not skew overwhelmingly toward the Republican Party. As one moves down the income scale, those voters tend to support the Democratic Party. By comparison, richer and more affluent white voters tend to support the Republican Party.
After some thought Bartels went with income, defining “working class” as people in the bottom third of the country’s income distribution. In 2004 that meant everyone earning less than $35,000 a year. Despite its shortcomings, this definition seems as fair as any for the folks in Frank’s book–his very first paragraph contains the disconcerting factoid that the poorest county in the U.S. gave Bush more than 80 percent of its votes in 2000. Bartels also focused on white voters because Frank did–after all, he was writing largely about Kansas and the apparent defection of whites from the old New Deal coalition.
Using this definition and the American National Election Studies, Bartels found the Great Backlash to be more story than substance. “Working-class whites,” he writes, “have not become more Republican in their presidential voting behavior.” Between 1976 and 2004 “whites in the bottom third of the income distribution cast 51% of their votes for Democrats, as compared with 44% of middle-income whites and 37% of upper-income whites.” As for trends, “Al Gore and John Kerry did better among low-income whites in the close elections of 2000 and 2004 than John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey did in the close elections of 1960 and 1968.”
Bartels found that fewer people in the bottom third identify themselves as Democrats now than 50 years ago, but middle- and upper-income whites have been leaving the party faster. In any case, since the low-income people leaving have been almost all southern whites defecting from the party of civil rights, the phenomenon signals just that the south is now more like the rest of the country rather than solidly Democratic.
Moreover, it is not that “working class,” “poor,” or “lower middle-class” white people do not comprehend their real interests. They may simply be voting on other issues—right-wing Christianity, so-called family values, or some other issue that they identify as more salient than pocketbook voting.
Complicating matters further, poor and less educated voters are both less likely to vote, and are also victims of a concerted effort by Republicans and neoliberal elites to suppress their ability to participate in formal politics (this is especially true of non-whites, college students, young people more generally, and older voters).
Education is commonly viewed as a curative for racism, prejudice, xenophobia, and bias. However, research has shown that college-educated white students are just better at learning the norms of social desirability. Those white college-educated students now perform their bigotry online, in other private spaces, and what sociologist Edward Bonilla-Silva describes as “the backstage.” In addition, young white people are not significantly less racist in their attitudes toward black people than are their parents and grandparents.
Education is also supposed to help equip individuals with the tools to be active, critical, and engaged citizens in a democratic polity. In an era of broken schools, the neoliberal corporate university, and the rise of STEM fields to the detriment of the humanities, philosophy, and social sciences, a college education is not a guarantee that a person will have the requisite skills to be a good citizen.
To wit: 50 percent of college graduates cannot read and comprehend the meaning of a newspaper editorial. Recent experiments have shown that college graduates could not answer basic questions about American government. According to Gallup, 74 percent of college-educated Republicans do not believe in empirically demonstrable facts such as global warming. More troubling, a college education may make a person better equipped to defend their erroneous beliefs via confirmation bias, and to reject new and accurate information through a process known as “information backfire.” For a right-wing public that is systematically propagandized in a closed news media universe, college educated conservatives may in fact be among the most difficult people to persuade about the true nature of social and political reality.
The “uneducated” or “poorly educated” are not the group most responsible for the rise of Donald Trump.
A Republican Party that sold itself to Fox News and the right-wing news entertainment complex is much more responsible than the uneducated or poorly educated American.
A 24/7 news cycle driven by a faux “liberal” corporate news media brought us Donald Trump, because he brings ratings and ad revenue.
Neoliberal plutocrats who destroyed American democracy gave us Donald Trump, because of the pain they inflicted on the working, poor, and middle classes—which drove the latter to embrace his brand of faux populism.
A Republican Party that decided to make the government so weak that they could drown it in the metaphorical bathtub—like a baby—birthed Trumpmania.
An American people who have no real power over the country’s elites, and instead look to reality TV show culture as an outlet for participation in “democracy” via voting in shows like American Idol and The Voice allowed Donald Trump to lead the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential field.
Linguists have shown how Donald Trump’s speeches are written at a fourth- or fifth-grade reading comprehension level.
There are people without a college degree who can readily and clearly identity Donald Trump’s con job and lies.
There are people who are college educated, and who supposedly “know better,” that have been seduced by Trump. These college-educated Donald Trump supporters are complicit with his toxic politics. They are the true believers and most dangerous zealots.
The majority of Americans consist of those people who either do not have a college degree or possess a high school education or lower. It is up to them to save us all from Trumpmania.
I have faith in people like my grandmother, dad, and mom.
It is up to those “uneducated” and “poorly educated” people—especially black and brown folks—to once again protect American democracy from the hell spawn that an angry faction has forced upon us all. Those good people can bring down the Trump monster. But they are going to need help.
The question then becomes: Will they receive it from enough people?