Why did the white working class support Donald Trump? For many liberals, they were racists who wanted to take back the country. This view was articulated by CNN commentator, Van Jones who labeled it “Whitelash.” It was the view of Aaron Sorkin who wrote a letter to his daughters lamenting, “The Klan won last night. White nationalists. Sexists, racists and buffoons. Angry young white men who think rap music and Cinco de Mayo are a threat to their way of life … have been given cause to celebrate.” It was reflected in Hillary Clinton’s offhanded comment that half of Trump’s supporters were “deplorables.” And it finds its intellectual voice in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ widely embraced book, Between the World and Me, which posits that the US is a white supremacist country.
This view, of course, doesn’t explain why a greater share of the Latino vote went to Trump than to Romney or why a significant share of Trump’s vote came from those who had previously voted for President Obama. When Trump supporters were asked whether “most illegal immigrants” should be deported or “offered a chance to apply for legal status,” 53 percent chose legal status. Moreover, 53 percent of white women voted for Trump and he received 31 percent of the vote of those who were not born as US citizens. Slate reporter William Saletan noted, “These figures complicate the theory that racism and sexism carried Trump to victory.”
If one wants to gain a more accurate understanding of Trump’s white working class supporters, go see the movie, “Hacksaw Ridge.” The film centers on the life of Desmond Doss. Though working in a defense plant, his patriotism compelled Doss to join the military during WWII, despite his religious beliefs that would not allow him to carry a weapon. When he faced administrative and social obstacles in becoming a medic, Doss’s perseverance enabled his to succeed. Thus, this movie highlights the three core values that underpin the behavior of many within the white working class: patriotism, religion, and individual perseverance.
For many older liberals, patriotism had been associated with US imperialism abroad and Jim Crow at home. Many continue to believe that racial injustices at home and Islamic actions in the Middle East are fundamentally the result of these past policies. As a result, there is often a visceral negative reaction to the openly patriotic views expressed by many white working class families; a belief that their patriotism reflects racist-driven notions of American superiority. Thus, many liberal professionals have little respect for white working displays of patriotism or for their sons’ (and daughters’) continued willingness to join the military.
In the movie, we see how religious beliefs efforts to help others. Indeed, the vast majority of deeply religious individuals are focused on how to conduct their lives in the service of family and community. It is primarily when government requires them to behave against their religious beliefs – bake cakes for gay wedding – that they mobilize politically. Yes, there are those religious leaders that have campaigned against gay marriage and abortions, but these political efforts are not part of the agenda of the vast majority of the deeply religious. And yet the liberal professional class has distain for these traditional white religious values. It was expressed by President Obama when, in a derogatory manner, he claimed that when these individuals are confronted with adversity, “They cling to their guns and bible.” By contrast, these liberals have nothing negative to say about those who attend black churches or mosques.
The film also highlights individual perseverance: how the hero did not get defeatist when confronted by obstacles and relied on his own initiative rather than becoming a victim relying on outside intervention. This attitude explains why the white working class rejects the liberal professional class’ approach: Providing entitlements that stifle individual initiative and excusing dysfunctional and anti-social behavior of the poor –drug addiction, absent fathers, inadequate parenting, and violent criminal behavior — because they fear “blaming the victims.” This is why the Maine white working class elected Paul LePage governor in order to curtail what they saw as abuses of safety net programs by their neighbors and relatives.
For the Sanders camp winning over the white working class is simple: Stress economic policies that would benefit them. This is why many Sanders’ supporters cling to the belief that if he had been the Democratic Party candidate, Trump would have been defeated. There are many problems with this position but I will point to one: It mistakenly views this white working class as economic automatons. Sure, it wants more for themselves, their families, and their communities but the three core values are more valuable to them. Few would vote for a candidate who was so antagonistic to traditional patriotism, traditional religious values, or reliance on individual perseverance.
The progressive movement can wish for white share of the population to decline or the lessening of these core values in subsequent generations. If, instead, they hope to win back white workers, progressives must find a way to demonstrate respect for traditional patriotism, traditional white religious values, and the importance of individual perseverance (and responsibility). Without this respect, the white working class will continue to seek alternatives to the Democratic Party.