22 November 2016

Looking for America, and not finding it anywhere

In March, the Washington Post reported that Trump voters were both more economically hard-pressed and more racially biased than supporters of other Republican candidates. But in September a Gallup-poll economist, Jonathan T. Rothwell, released survey results that complicated the picture. Those voters with favorable views of Trump are not, by and large, the poorest Americans; nor are they personally affected by trade deals or cross-border immigration. But they tend to be less educated, in poorer health, and less confident in their children’s prospects—and they’re often residents of nearly all-white neighborhoods. They’re more deficient in social capital than in economic capital. The Gallup poll doesn’t indicate how many Trump supporters are racists. Of course, there’s no way to disentangle economic and cultural motives, to draw a clear map of the stresses and resentments that animate the psyches of tens of millions of people. Some Americans have shown themselves to be implacably bigoted, but bias is not a fixed quality in most of us; it’s subject to manipulation, and it can wax and wane with circumstances. A sense of isolation and siege is unlikely to make anyone more tolerant.

In one way, these calculations don’t matter. Anyone who votes for Trump—including the Dartmouth-educated moderate Republican financial adviser who wouldn’t dream of using racial code words but just can’t stand Hillary Clinton—will have tried to put a dangerous and despicable man in charge of the country. Trump is a national threat like no one else who has come close to the Presidency. Win or lose, he has already defined politics so far down that a shocking degree of hatred, ignorance, and lies is becoming normal.

At the same time, it isn’t possible to wait around for demography to turn millions of disenchanted Americans into relics and expect to live in a decent country. This election has told us that many Americans feel their way of life is disappearing. Perhaps their lament is futile—the world is inexorably becoming Thomas Friedman’s. Perhaps their nostalgia is misguided—multicultural America is more free and equal than the republic of Hamilton and Jefferson. Perhaps their feeling is immoral, implying ugly biases. But it shouldn’t be dismissed. If nearly half of your compatriots feel deeply at odds with the drift of things, it’s a matter of self-interest to try to understand why.

- George Packer, 'Hillary Clinton and the Populist Revolt', New Yorker, 31 October 2016
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