Like so many of you, I was stunned by the recent election! Crushed I said, destroyed were my daughter’s feelings, and my son was in disbelief. I was an ardent Hillary Clinton supporter and eager for a woman president. What happened? All the polls indicated a comfortable Clinton lead, a majority of the experts in media and academe spoke of a foreordained Clinton victory. But the reality is, Clinton lost the election according to the Electoral College, and we now have a President-Elect Donald Trump.
My first indication of possible trouble was when I heard from my cousin living in my former childhood home of Rockford, Illinois that her two sisters were voting for Donald Trump. I was perplexed. They had always been committed Democrats, part of the large swath of blue-collar working class in the Midwest that has been hit so hard by economic globalization. Why were they switching to this untested candidate?
What can I add to the millions of words already written and uttered by the punditry on this election? I am struck by the fierce divisions in this country, as I had with my Trump-supporting cousins. I find that one of the most intense divisions today is a cultural divide between rural and urban, college and non-college-educated, and white/people of color citizenry. Trump was able to speak to the white, rural and non-college educated voter in ways the college-educated, elite media were unable to understand. Instead, they wrote it off as ignorant, racist, misogynist, homophobic, and other judgmental attacks that feed into more divisiveness.
The progressive Democratic left boils down the divides into economic issues. “It’s the economy stupid,” is a common refrain. Jobs are the answer to all divisions. I don’t dispute the fact that economic dislocation is a huge factor in swinging the rust belt to Trump, but I also think that cultural factors are at work in the disconnect between the college/non-college, rural/urban, people of color/white divide. Until we are able to more effectively communicate and understand each other, the distrust, hatred, and further divisions will continue and intensify.
Effective communication and understanding is essential if you are a progressive Democrat or Trump supporter and wish to broaden the base beyond those who have similar cultural values and worldviews. For many years, I have done work in promoting cross-cultural understanding of different cultural, ethnic, and national groups of people around the world. However, I now feel that these cross-cultural skills are desperately needed in the United States to better understand our fellow citizens and heal divisions.
Since this topic will involve generalizations about large groups of people, I would like to describe in this blog the cultural outlook of non-college-educated, white working class people in the Midwest. How could they identify and vote for Trump? By looking through the prism of my experiences growing up in a working class extended family, I can hopefully shed some light on these cultural differences. Let’s start with a story.
My extended family in Rockford, Illinois was typical of the movement of people to large industrial cities in the Midwest after World War II. Almost all of my family moved from the bogs of central Wisconsin around Tomah to Rockford to work in the mass assembly factories that desperately needed unskilled workers. My father was among them.
After the war my father worked in the road construction business. Latched to a rope dangling from Mississippi River cliffs with sticks of dynamite in hand, he blasted away rock for new roads to weave through rural, southwestern Wisconsin. A dangerous occupation by all stretch of the imagination, but he caught the eye of the company’s pretty bookkeeper, who happened to be the boss’ daughter. After repeated marriage proposals, my father’s persistence prevailed and they were married in 1947. It was an odd pairing, my mother, a sophisticated,well-dressed, educated (she knew French) member of the middle class and my father, the oldest boy of a family of eight whose father died young and his mother was disabled in a car accident, he was anything but middle class. In fact, when my father first introduced his new wife to his mother and my cadre of aunts, uncles, and cousins, my mother was purposely ignored. She was an outsider. Although the family finally accepted and loved her, it took awhile.
I grew up in a world of the working class, my father and extended family held working class cultural values. But my mother never shed her middle class demeanor, and gradually I accepted more of her values and worldview than my father’s. But my working class roots are still with me at a deep level.
Our family’s cultural values were a mix of tribal affiliations, reliance on one’s own intuition, and a fierce pride. “Book learnin” as my father described it, wasn’t all that useful, “your gut” would tell you the best way to make decisions and it was best to follow it. Trump repeatedly said he followed his gut; he didn’t rely on experts or data to drive his decisions. Clinton on the other hand had a squad of experts and data crunchers. Trump’s gut instincts seemed to win him the admiration of the working class who felt the same way.
An article by Atlantic magazine reporter resonated with me when she stated: “The people who were against Mr.Trump took him literally but not seriously. His supporters took him seriously but not literally.” My family communicated with each other through story, hyperbole, and humor. Still, when I get together with them, we tell long stories, often repeated, with vivid descriptions of long ago events or relatives living and departed. Trump’s exaggerations and vivid symbols, such as building the wall, would resonate with my family. My family stories were always laced with exaggerations, even outright lies, but we didn’t take these literally. I remember once I corrected my father, who was the master of clever tales, that a particular part of his story was not true. I was told that “you just read too many books.” My life as a future academic was obviously not nurtured in my extended family.
My friends, colleagues and I were appalled at Trump’s scandals and treatment of women. But in my family, scandal was part of the colorful stories we told. Since so many of us made mistakes and exhibited scandalous or inappropriate behavior at one time or another, it was largely considered part of life. We didn’t judge these behaviors as reason for rejection of the accused family member from the extended family, since few (if any) of us escaped unscathed by poor behavior. I was not surprised that Trump’s scandals were condemned by voters but they also determined that it did not preclude their voting for him.
Our extended family had many characteristics of a tribe. We stuck together, helped each other, and were leery of outsiders. My grandmother had few friends outside of her family. As a youngster, my friends were cousins and I didn’t venture outside that cocoon until high school. Trump was able to create a visual family with his bright red baseball caps and assorted paraphernalia, which proclaimed allegiance to his tribe and membership in the Trump family.
Many pundits were perplexed about why Trump, who was a New York billionaire, resonated with white working class people. My family admired the family members who made lots of money but still “was one of them.” One of my cousins is a multi-millionaire but still comes to funerals and family reunions. This act was always greeted with a word of appreciation, and comments that “see, he still is family.” Trump wore a baseball cap along with his expensive suits but still fit in. His language and demeanor didn’t have an air of superiority or elitism about it that resonated with his supporters. It was a validation that they were part of his community: wealth, glamour, prestige, and accomplishment. They were part of “Trumpland.”
I find these few cultural differences fascinating and a key to better understanding the shocking phenomenon that so many working class people disregarded the “hard, factual data” showing that Trump’s policies would not help them and actually make them economically worse off, and yet voted for him. If we are to connect with people outside our inner circle of identity politics, we need to be able to reach out and understand “the other.”
For years, the college-educated, myself included, have wanted mainstream white America to understand “the other,” those from other cultures and minorities. Perhaps it is now time, to reverse the roles and for the college-educated, the media, and other “elites” to be the student and learn that white America is not monolithic and does not uniformly share cultural norms and values. Their culture is different, varied and worth learning more about. If we are to get past throwing disparaging judgments of racist and misogynist and more deeply understand who they are, then we have a better chance of advancing an agenda of greater economic justice, peace, sustainability, and inclusiveness that translates into a greater political base.
Questions to Consider