Charles Murray’s recent article for the Wall Street Journal on “Trump’s America” offers an interesting explanation of an initially inexplicable phenomenon. I think Murray’s right to see support for Trump as an act of protest that’s both understandable and even, on its own terms, rational.
The piece discusses economic pressures and cultural strains across the United States. The economic factor is familiar, but the salience of class and culture, which Murray emphasizes, is too little appreciated.
Even putting race to one side, America was never the classless society it has imagined itself to be. But tribute is still paid to the idea, and this has obscured the role of class in this strange election. Murray writes about a new merit-based upper class, comprising talented people, educated and socialized at college, and doing pretty well. They have a good opinion of themselves.
Another characteristic of the new upper class — and something new under the American sun — is their easy acceptance of being members of an upper class and their condescension toward ordinary Americans. Try using “redneck” in a conversation with your highly educated friends and see if it triggers any of the nervousness that accompanies other ethnic slurs. Refer to “flyover country” and consider the implications when no one asks, “What does that mean?” Or I can send you to chat with a friend in Washington, D.C., who bought a weekend place in West Virginia. He will tell you about the contempt for his new neighbors that he has encountered in the elite precincts of the nation’s capital.
That friend would be me. Allow me to elaborate.
I’m a British immigrant, and grew up in a northern English working-class town. Taking my regional accent to Oxford University and then the British civil service, I learned a certain amount about my own class consciousness and other people’s snobbery. But in London or Oxford from the 1970s onwards I never witnessed the naked disdain for the working class that much of America’s metropolitan elite finds permissible in 2016.
When my wife and I bought some land in West Virginia and built a house there, many friends in Washington asked why we would ever do that. Jokes about guns, banjo music, in-breeding, people without teeth and so forth often followed. These Washington friends, in case you were wondering, are good people. They’d be offended by crass, cruel jokes about any other group. They deplore prejudice and keep an eye out for unconscious bias. More than a few object to the term, “illegal immigrant.” Yet somehow they feel the white working class has it coming.
My neighbors in West Virginia are good people too. Hard to believe, since some work outside and not all have degrees, but trust me on this. They’re aware of how they’re seen by the upper orders. They understand the prevailing view that they’re bigots, too stupid to know what’s good for them, and they see that this contempt is reserved especially for them. The ones I know don’t seem all that angry or bitter — they find it funny more than infuriating — but they sure don’t like being looked down on.
Many of them are Trump supporters.
Granting the appeal of the straight-talking outsider, one still must ask, why Trump? I mean, he doesn’t actually talk straight: In his own inimitable way, he panders like a pro. Shouldn’t it matter to someone who usually votes Republican that Trump isn’t a conservative — that, in policy terms, he isn’t really anything? He’s a liar and proud of it, transparently cynical and will say whatever comes into his head. How could anybody trust this man?
Yet, contrary to reports, the Trump supporters I’m talking about aren’t fools. They aren’t racists either. They don’t think much would change one way or the other if Trump were elected. The political system has failed them so badly that they think it can’t be repaired and little’s at stake. The election therefore reduces to an opportunity to express disgust. And that’s where Trump’s defects come in: They’re what make him such an effective messenger.