Abstract: The 2016 presidential election hinged on the return of overlooked or marginalized middle-class and working-class Democrats and independents—many of whom had earlier supported Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan—to reinvigorate traditional patriotism and help form a new “populist-conservative fusion in rural and industrial areas” within the Republican party. Donald Trump’s political fortunes rest to a considerable degree on his ability to secure broad public support while maintaining the loyalty of his original coalition of the disdained.
This is the original American text—with the addition of a new section, “The Stakes”— published as “Revolt of the Disdained: America’s 2016 Presidential Election,” The Western Australian Jurist, 9 (2018).
Most Americans live in “flyover country.” This is not a pejorative phrase—though usually meant ironically—but it expresses several things at once: the country’s vast interior landscape, its unfamiliarity to many who reside on the coasts, its own residents’ remoteness from the major centers of commerce and politics, and perhaps a sense of resignation at being overlooked, ignored, or taken for granted.
Places in the upper Midwest manufacturing belt, such as Detroit, Gary, and Youngstown, were once hives of industrial activity—automobile assembly, aircraft parts, steel production—that were pressed into additional service in the lead-up to and during the Second World War as essential parts of Franklin Roosevelt’s “arsenal of democracy.” Yet by the 1960s these cities and many other industrial towns were falling on hard times and by the early the 1980s the term “Rust Belt” entered the vernacular as these places descended into precipitous demographic decline and industrial decay.
THE GREAT DISRUPTION
In The Great Disruption (1999), Francis Fukuyama summarized what had by then become an international problem:
People associate the information age with the advent of the Internet in the 1990s, but the shift away from the Industrial era started more than a generation earlier with the deindustrialization of the Rust Belt in the United States and comparable moves away from manufacturing in other industrialized countries.
This period “from roughly the mid-1960s to the early 1990s” was marked by “seriously deteriorating social conditions,” which included rising crime and social disorder, “the decline of kinship as a social institution,” a drop in fertility, and soaring rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing.
Finally, trust and confidence in institutions went into a deep, forty-year decline. A majority of people in the United States and Europe expressed confidence in their governments and fellow citizens during the late 1950s; only a small minority did so by the early 1990s. The nature of people’s involvement with one another has changed. Although there is no evidence that people associated with each other less, their mutual ties tended to be less permanent, less engaged, and with smaller groups of people.
These conditions continued to deteriorate in many places. Detroit’s population, for example, was 1,849,568 in 1950 when it was the hub of the American automotive industry. By the year 2000 it had declined to 951,270 and then to 672,955 in 2016. Although a political culture of corruption contributed to these woes, the human costs of urban decay were not confined to the industrial heartland. Many other factors have also been at work, including the interdependent decisions made by industrialists and labor unions, a growing web of national entitlement programs, and shifting political priorities.
In 2012 Charles Murray published a study, Coming Apart, that pictured the country splitting not so much along racial and ethnic lines but even more along lines of economic and social class:
The American project [...] consists of the continuing effort, begun with the founding, to demonstrate that human beings can be left free as individuals and families to live their lives as they see fit, coming together voluntarily to solve their joint problems. The polity based on that idea led to a civic culture that was seen as exceptional by all the world. That culture was so widely shared among Americans that it amounted to a civil religion. To be an American was to be different from other nationalities, in ways that Americans treasured. That culture is unraveling.
This “unraveling” has become a widespread perception. Yet, somehow, conditions may have been ripe in 2016 to inspire greater resistance and perhaps a rededication to the American project through Donald Trump’s appeal to “Make America Great Again.” Whatever may account for the results of the presidential election of 2016, it must be measured in terms of largely unforeseen political shifts which, along with strategic miscalculations, led to the greatest electoral upset in living memory.
THE GREAT REVOLT
The unexpected outcome of the 2016 presidential election initially sent journalists, pollsters, and political strategists—many in shock—to fall back on stock answers rather than take a hard look at the data. “The postmortems from the 2016 campaign painted a simple picture of the coalition that elected Donald Trump—it was economically distressed, uneducated, and angry.” Yet this conclusion diminishes the range of Trump’s appeal, shortchanges his ability to communicate with traditional Democratic audiences, and depreciates the media savvy of both the messenger and his audience. In his announcement speech, according to Salena Zito and Bradley Todd:
Trump homed in on themes that would animate his seventeen-month campaign: infrastructure spending, immigration reform and a wall on the southern border, protection of Medicare and Social Security benefits, a proactive and ruthless approach to the Islamic State terrorists, an unyielding support for the Second Amendment gun rights, and a pledge to use the White House’s bull pulpit to shame American corporations into on-shoring future manufacturing jobs.
Among those that chose to reexamine and challenge the prevailing electoral models, Zito and Todd, who wrote The Great Revolt (2018), took the further step of developing the Great Revolt Survey, which was then conducted by an opinion research firm “among a group of 2,000 self-reporting 2016 Trump voters, with 400 each coming from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin.” These five states, along with Florida, had cast their electoral votes for Obama in 2008 and 2012 but switched from Democrat to Republican in 2016. Only the first three states are regarded as part of the Rust Belt—the others are part of the rural Midwestern farm belt—but all had been suffering economic stagnation and dwindling opportunity.
The Great Revolt Survey, which was conducted in August 2017, asked voters from ten counties in the five states that were surveyed to rank-order four campaign promises made by Donald Trump from the most to the least important. Their priorities were to bring back manufacturing jobs to America (34%), protect Medicare and Social Security (30%), put conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court (28%), and build a wall on the border of Mexico (7%). Other findings are also noteworthy: 87% of all those surveyed were optimistic about the future, 85% expressed a preference that the United States make its own decisions on major issues rather than challenge other nations to follow its example, and 86% believed that Trump stands up for the working people against powerful corporate interests.
In addition, the authors identified seven categories or “archetypes” of voters that are part of the new Trump coalition and profiled three representatives of each through longer interviews. More than two-thirds of the text is devoted to these profiles.
As a result, the book offers a richer, more complex picture than that conveyed through the media, reflecting more sorrow than anger over such changes as “the twin forces of automation and importation,” but also resonating a sense of empowerment gained by supporting a bold political maverick. As a Republican campaign operative put it: “The guy has been around construction sites all his life, and he has respected the work those guys did. [...] The blunt way he talks connected with them.” Said a resident of a township north of Detroit:
“We are tired of these disturbances marginalizing American workers that have scraped out of their hometowns and either scattered away from families or left trying to re-create something that is gone. No one has guided us through this ruthless transition. Trump identified what we already knew.”
If one grievance stands out among these voters in these working-class strongholds it is the loss of voice and a perceived lack of respect for their ways of life. It is an age-old complaint—one that has accompanied earlier outbreaks of populist fervor dating back to the late nineteenth century—but it may have been sufficient to turn the election.
A careful scrutiny of the last three general elections—2008, 2012, and 2016—supports Murray’s observations about a growing social and economic class divide. As Zito and Dodd note: “Murray’s thesis from 2012, that the American economy and education system has become a great sorting engine that drives the cultural divide, virtually anticipated the 2016 election returns four years later.” Yet the unexpected electoral outcome should put us on guard against unwarranted conclusions, especially since the most recent three elections were more personality-driven than is the norm.
This idea of the economy and education as a sorting engine, whether a matter of national priorities or personal lifestyle choices, contributes to a growing sense of political polarization. The geographer Joel Kotkin underscores the power of this idea by describing the role of Silicon Valley in producing a new-style oligarchy that has not only reshaped California politics but is also doing so in the country at large. In The New Class Conflict (2014), Kotkin describes a feudal symbiosis between an Oligarchy of high-tech billionaires and a New Clerisy based in the media, academia, and government which, together, are pursuing a fundamental transformation of America that has left no tradition or institution unscathed. But is this impetus sustainable?
Setting to one side the growing influence of a radical social and cultural agenda, Kotkin singles out as the most critical factor an ideology of sustainable sources of energy that squeezes out economic growth. “To ‘save the planet,’” Kotkin claims, “the Clerisy and most of their tech Oligarch allies seek to limit consumption by eliminating cheaper energy sources in favor of expensive, highly subsidized renewables, or the chance to profit from various mitigation matters. This strategy works well for all partners of the new ruling synergy, although not for the majority,” which includes that he calls the “yeomanry” and the “new serfs.”
The rise of Oligarchic politics in both major parties threatens the very viability of the democratic system. It allows specific interests—developers, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, renewable or fossil fuel producers—enormous range to make or break candidates. As the powerful battle, the middle classes increasingly become spectators.
In a section entitled “The Culture War Worth Having,” Kotkin contends: “The real issue revolves around the future of the American family. The family has long been marked for extinction among political radicals, and its demise is also now widely celebrated by both progressive pundits and some business interests.” Broken families are a leading cause of downward economic mobility. Church affiliation is also trending downward, especially among the working classes. Yet “the current fashions in urbanism not only disdain religiosity but often give short shrift to issues involving families.”