“FOLKS, THIS IS NOT who we are.”
This was an oft-repeated line by president-elect Joe Biden during the presidential campaign. He would say it after citing some of the more disturbing words or actions by Donald Trump.
It was a good line, but the president-elect was only half-right. As far as 73+ million Americans are concerned, Donald Trump is — or should be — exactly who we are. Pleased as I am with the outcome of this election, I also feel a deep sadness with how the vote played out.
Crushed as I was by the 2016 presidential election, I considered it an anomaly. Trump was largely an unknown entity, and Hilary Clinton — unfairly I feel — was not all that well liked. But now we’ve had four years to see the President who was elected in 2016: Who he is, how he acts, the things he says, and how he has demeaned and cheapened the Oval Office. And yet, over 73 million Americans voted for his re-election.
Is Donald Trump, then, really not who we are? If the current president has done us at least one back-handed favor he has exposed the painful reality that what the U.S. Constitution calls “We the People…” is far from being a unified “We.” We’re the United States of American in name only.
What I’ll offer here does not explain all of those 73 million Trump votes, but perhaps it will shed some light on some of them.
While I’ve lived much of my life in the “blue” Northeast, I grew up in the reddest state in America. My home state of West Virginia gave a higher percentage of votes cast for Donald Trump than did any other state in the union.
I largely attribute this to the fundamental, universal human need for identity. When our survival needs of food, clothing, and shelter are met, identity is the next most important thing.
In forming an identity in the cultural setting in which I was raised, it’s easy to get the sense that somewhere “out there” are people who are smarter than you, better-off than you, who have happier lives than you do, etc. Once I got “out there” myself I saw that such wasn’t really the case, but I had to get there to learn that.
My journey from Appalachia is similar to what J.D. Vance describes in his “Hillbilly Elegy.” My own hillbilly elegy has a different take than Vance’s, but it comes from the same soil.
It’s a sense of estrangement from all that’s “out there” that provides fertile ground for demagogues. Huey Long and George Wallace knew that. Donald Trump knows that. It astounds me that someone who comes from wealth and privilege, as Trump does, can cultivate the same ground as do the Huey Longs and the George Wallaces of this world, but there it is.
Now, consider these words by Lyndon Johnson back in 1964: “If you can convince the lowest White man that he’s better than the best colored man he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
LBJ’s observation both encompasses and goes beyond its racial context. The demagogue’s game is to appeal to the identity needs of those who feel they are on the outside. One way to do that, as LBJ wisely noted, is to give them somebody to look down on, or someone to blame for their diminished identity. Johnson was referring to a certain stratum of White men. Trump takes same principle, and extends the politics of resentment and blame wider than solely racism.
The largest single demographic bloc of Trump voters are White males with — at most — a high school education. That is a perfectly fine station in life. My late father was a house painter with an eighth-grade education and he was a good man.
Were my father alive I don’t know if he would be a Trump supporter, but he did see the world through the same lens as did, and do, many other West Virginians. Would my dad have been susceptible to Trump’s telling him that his struggling station in life was because of (take your pick) elitist liberals, “bad hombre” immigrants, BLM supporters, purveyors of “political correctness,” and whoever else gets on Trump’s hit list? I’ll never know for sure.
What I do know is that this gambit works. I grew up with many of those on whom it works well.
One of the challenges before president-elect Biden is to somehow give these folks a sense that they, too, are a valued piece of “We the People.” I can only wish him the best.