Trump’s performance surprised pundits this election: 47 percent of the country voted for him, even with a pandemic and recession.
This unprecedented support has led a number of op-ed writers to pontificate about Trump supporters: One contributor to the New York Times proclaimed, “We cannot help people who refuse to help themselves. … He is their destructive drug of choice.” We should be asking why these people are seeking this drug at all and what we can do to help them. Since when do we expect drug addicts to kick their addiction all on their own?
As a Biden voter, I believe that we shouldn’t just give up on Trump supporters as lost causes. Their fervent support for Trump reveals a problem much deeper than commonplace racism.
As journalist Tim Carney writes in his book “Alienated America,” members of Trump’s base — those who supported him in the Republican primaries — come from communities, largely in the Midwest, with pervasive unemployment, low college and church attendance, crumbling institutions, disintegrating families, welfare dependency and increasing deaths due to suicide, opioid overdose and alcoholism. These white working-class communities are losing the ability to guide their members towards purpose in life and are losing their loved ones as a result.
But elites have not paid much attention to these depressing places and actively avoid interacting with the working class. Social scientist Charles Murray has documented the tendencies of the “cognitive elite” to cluster into metropolitan areas of concentrated wealth and educational status in his book “Coming Apart.” In these bastions of privilege, we have narrowed our definition of meaningful flourishing to getting ahead by securing spots in universities, consulting and law firms, health care, finance and tech.
In “Dignity,” photojournalist Chris Arnade documents the hardship and humanity of “back-row” America. Beginning his project to study poverty and addiction, Arnade found that people find meaning and community in the most unlikely places. The local McDonald’s, for example, provides an affordable gathering place for workers, the homeless, Bible groups, immigrant youth soccer teams and old friends.
Arnade photographed a homeless man who lives outside an Ohio McDonald’s with his two toddlers in a shopping cart. “That man was living by dignity,” Arnade said, “Dignity to him was giving the kids the best he could.” Arnade met a young woman who has resorted to finding purpose by having kids when she cannot afford to. He found that evangelism in particular has made purpose accessible to many through God.
People’s attempts to find meaning should be instructive. They need community, place, family and faith to find dignity, to feel needed by others and to live on their own terms. Though these institutions can be oppressive at times, they can also be egalitarian and inclusive. Anyone can raise a family, make friends at the pub or make Jesus Christ their personal savior.
I called Arnade over Thanksgiving break. He described the elite’s “intellectual colonialism,” which erodes the traditional sources of meaning that make life worth living. Through social stigma and expanding the unforgiving socioeconomic treadmill, we’ve increased the costs of living where we grew up, staying close to family and community, keeping faith and looking out for others before ourselves.
As elites, we are disgusted by drug addicts and denigrate McDonald’s. We mock Evangelicals as Bible-thumping idiots. We blame people for not moving to find work or attend college, calling them lazy and stupid. We justify imposing our careerist way of life as civilizing those who do not realize its superiority. Rather than preserving the other sources of meaning which are democratic, our meritocracy increasingly constrains life choices to joining the elite.
Having sapped traditional sources of meaning, we make policy that is supposed to paradoxically democratize the elite. But we fail to see that promoting “free college” just reinforces the treadmill of gaining educational and professional accolades that only makes room for a successful few at the top. Instead, we should be listening to the experience of those suffering and take into account what they want. In Arnade’s words, “We try to force equal outcomes for those who aren’t equal, as opposed to acknowledging inequality and lessening the punishment for being different.”
Elites have separated ourselves from the rest of the country and shirked our responsibility to the working class. We have produced and protected a political economy that makes it impossible for all but a small few to live meaningful lives. And we should question even that. We certainly would benefit from an other-regarding mindset that values family, community and faith over mindless careerism.
We ask how it is possible for so many people to maintain their support of an apparently virulent, racist president. Perhaps it is because we have a divergence in values: Some of us find meaning in the inclusive institutions of family and faith; others find it through self-interested exclusivity. A shared political discourse is impossible if we can’t agree on what is most important in life. Without this basic agreement, we won’t be able to make our democracy work for all its citizens.
The only way out of this mess is rebuilding a shared lifeworld. As Chris Arnade does, we should educate ourselves by learning directly through experience, not books, about what it is like to be working class and why working-class people value what they do. Not only is this necessary to ward off populist revolt, but it will also help redirect our activities towards a more morally rewarding purpose in life.
So how do we begin? We should try to get to know the good people of the city we are spending four years of our lives in — while New Haven is far from a Trump bastion, it’s certainly different from our elite University bubble.
We need to dispense with our assumptions about people different from us: that they are less intelligent, that they are dangerous, and that they have little to offer. They possess knowledge of life we can’t get in our fancy books and classes. Perhaps by sharing an understanding of the world, we can actually make things better at the local level. This is a basic step, but I have faith that if we had more knowledge of the working class, democracy would function again. And we wouldn’t see much more of Trump either.
ETHAN DODD is a junior in Jonathan Edwards college. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.