Understanding Trump Supporters

vanceJedidiah Purdy‘s piece at The New Republic, “Red-State Blues,” is one of the best things I have read on the world view of Donald Trump supporters.  The piece focuses on two important books on Trump country: Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (a National Book Award long-lister for non-fiction) and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

Here is a taste:

In Blue America, from Berkeley and Brooklyn to Durham and Austin, talking about Trump supporters has become an addiction that, like checking your phone, asserts itself in moments of weakness or inattention. Meals begin with promises that this time we will talk about something else. Then, faithful as a bad habit, conversation turns back to troubling questions: Who are these people? What are they thinking?

There’s plenty of cause for worry. Trump claimed the Republican presidential nomination on an identity politics of white, nominally Christian nativism that has not been so explicit in American politics for many decades. Even if his blustering, scattershot campaign flames out in November, as many have expected or hoped, it will be survived by the millions who supported him, many enthusiastically. If they continue to embrace some version of Trump’s nationalism, what will that mean for the shape of the political landscape? For the rest of us, accepting the right’s white identity politics as part of normal life, year in and year out, is a bleak prospect. So is treating perhaps a third of your fellow citizens as beyond the pale of normal politics. Anyone who is not a Trump enthusiast should hope that there is some other way to address his supporters, and for them to understand themselves.

Yet when liberals talk about Trump voters, they are often driven to conjecture and make-believe. The question, “Do you know anybody who is for Trump?” is answered by some variation on: “A few people I know on Facebook, some from high school; maybe my husband’s uncle, but we don’t really talk about it.” And then it’s back to, “Who are these people?” The conversations themselves are symptoms of a country whose political segregation runs through our neighborhoods, workplaces, and social media.

Arlie Russell Hochschild, an eminent left-liberal sociologist, and J.D. Vance, a Republican ex-marine and recent Yale Law School graduate with Appalachian roots, have thrown two rather different bridges over this divide. Hochschild, who lives in Berkeley, must have heard dozens of these tail-chasing conversations. Maybe it was their hermetic quality that inspired her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, a combination of travelogue and sociological analysis that distills several years of visits to rural and small-town Louisiana. There, Hochschild gets to know Tea Party supporters, most of whom become Trump supporters by the end of her research, and works to understand the world view that organizes their politics.

Read the entire piece here.

2 thoughts on “Understanding Trump Supporters

  1. Professor Fea – as a historian you rightly emphasize “evidence.” But Purdy’s piece seems mostly anecdotal. Not everyone likes or agrees with Nate Silver’s analyses, but he uses verifiable data as
    evidence. In this case, just substitute “hillbillies” for “working class” when Silver writes: “But the definition of “working class” and similar terms is fuzzy, and narratives like these risk obscuring an important and perhaps counterintuitive fact about Trump’s voters: As compared with most Americans, Trump’s voters are better off. The median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data. That’s lower than the $91,000 median for Kasich voters. But it’s well above the national median household income of about $56,000. It’s also higher than the median income for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, which is around $61,000 for both.”


  2. Re the Purdy piece: That the right–Trump supporters in particular–are best represented by hillbillies is as ignorant [racist?] as assuming all blacks and Democrats are inner-city ghetto dwellers. The obtuseness of the Pauline Kael left continues to amuse.

    But if any of this pap is to be given currency, it behooves one to become familiar with Thomas Sowell’s “Black rednecks” thesis, which argues that both black and white dysfunctional undercultures have the same root–slavery-era Scots/Irish, who themselves were of the dysfunctional lower strata of Anglo-American society. That they take different political forms today is a separate issue. [FTR, the Democrats haven’t won the white vote since 1964. If Trump is the product of caucasian dysfunction, the Democratic Party is impossible without its mirror image of the black.]

    The establishment conservative view, sounded by figures like Andrew Sullivan, Jonathan Rauch, and Leon Wieseltier

    Conservative? Only in Pauline Kael world.

    ‘I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.’”


    That there may be compelling reasons to reject what Sowell calls the “Vision of the Anointed” seems to escape the elites of both parties, but even Trumpkins can read the internet, take one look at Europe, and say, “no thanks, we prefer our problems to yours.”


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