Why is it that a person’s support for Donald Trump is easily predicted by the health of their civil society, with socioeconomic status and educational attainment?
By now, of course, we’ve answered these questions: deaths of despair, “American carnage,” Flight 93, and so on and so forth. The professional political class still refuses to acknowledge that Trump supporters and voters (the two are often different) are rational actors, because that would require them to acknowledge the depths of people’s desperation — culturally, economically, and often both.
It’s difficult to acknowledge the depths of this desperation when you live in a “superzip” — rich with social capital — and are primed by our system to see people with less money and less education as less rational. When those “superzips” house almost all of America’s most powerful people, those outside the corridors of power become subjects of leaders who seek to undercut average people’s role in the democratic process. We see this in the media, in the intelligence community, in the military, in corporate culture, in Hollywood, in the administrative state, and more.
None of this has changed since Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016. That’s partially his own fault, by the way, having spent his political capital primarily on a tax cut bill with both chambers of Congress under Republican control. Indeed, with the dust settling from Covid, these patterns have only gotten worse.
Now, the right’s class of political professionals is understandably boosting Ron DeSantis as Trump launches a third presidential bid in the aftermath of disappointing midterm elections. Personally I hope the DeSantis of 2022 is the future of the conservative movement. But I live in Washington D.C. and work on an iPad.
To be clear, most Republicans voted against Donald Trump in the 2016 primary, a race that essentially pitted him against everyone else. He lost the popular vote twice, but convinced enough independents to win the Electoral College in 2016, no small feat for a man that attracted more contemptuous treatment from Washington and Hollywood than anyone ever has.
Trump animates a sizable chunk of the Republican electorate. He still packs people into Rust Belt rallies like no Republican or politician can. But the political math seems increasingly dubious. Being loved by part of the base doesn’t work when many independents and moderate Republicans are so turned off they either stay home or vote for Democrats.
Yet Trump, with a hefty assist from horrible progressive governance, brought more minority voters into the GOP, a trend that appears to have some durability. So how can Republicans make that math work without him? Can they keep running on Boomer fumes until the dam breaks and Democrats push enough voters into their waiting arms? Or until the culture shifts dramatically and Gen Z is led by faithful foot soldiers in Jordan Peterson’s revolution?
Given the class divide, it’s obviously tough to design policies and messages that appeal to rural Americans without alienating suburban and urban Americans and vice versa. But it’s not impossible. This is where DeSantis, on paper, seems like an excellent alternative. Much ink has been spilled by my fellow conservative writers explaining why, so I won’t flesh out my perspective on that here. (Though Sohrab Ahmari and Matthew Schmitz have an excellent counter-argument from September up in Compact.) What I will say, however, is that it’s not our job as political professionals to coronate leaders from the top down, and if we didn’t learn that in 2016, we never will.
Any other candidate will be asking Trump voters to trust a traditional politician funded by the donor class. That candidate might be more electable. He might be a better leader. He might say all the right things. But if people who’ve been screwed and lied to by politicians for years would still rather take their chances with Trump, it’s easy to see why.
Winning these voters’ trust needn’t require a swing to Bernie Sanders’s left, but it will involve harnessing the power of small-dollar donors, eschewing corporate support, disempowering Washington, committing to a different foreign policy, taking on the corrupt media, retooling the economy to benefit American workers and families above all else, attacking academia, and boldly proclaiming tough cultural truths in words and action. While certain choices may seem obvious to the commentariat, they’re much less obvious outside the Beltway, in rural areas and struggling communities. Acting otherwise will only inflame tensions.
People are eating corporate garbage, watching corporate garbage, and working on corporate garbage. It may feel like the state of nature to Americans who’ve always lived with McDonald’s, MTV, and air travel, but this is a strange moment in human history. That affects everyone and Republicans should act like it.