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Thomas Edsall’s breakthrough insight to understanding Trump’s appeal

“Voter anger was directed at two targets — the ‘undeserving rich’ and the ‘undeserving poor.’”

Thomas Edsall’s columns in the New York Times are often so deep and smart it’s hard to lump them into the category of mere “journalism.” He asks big questions and takes ambitious big swings at answers. He relies on scholars, whom he quotes at length even though they don’t do sound bites well. Although he seems like a lefty to me, he is not predictable. He is the kind of critical thinker journalism needs, to get past the obsession with the latest poll results, sound bites or lying ads.

His most recent column — headlined “Why Trump now?” — is not about Donald Trump until the last paragraph. It’s about the middle-class and working-class anger that made the Trump phenomenon possible.

Edsall starts by describing stagnant (or worse) incomes for employed members of the middle class going back impressively for 50 years. (This chart, to which Edsall links, shows that the purchasing power in constant dollars from 1964 to 2015 — that’s 50 years — is a flat line. The rich got richer. The working class did not.)

These median wage workers got clobbered by the 2008 economic meltdown, then they watched as the Wall Street gamblers who crashed the economy got bailed out, with government dollars and government breaks.

Then came President Obama and his biggest first-term accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act. In the perception of those working- and middle-class American workers who basically had decent health care through their jobs, Obamacare made them pay so others, whom they probably felt hadn’t worked as hard as they should, could have health insurance.

I’m not endorsing this description of what Obamacare did, nor is Edsall. He’s describing the source of middle-class anger that eventually gave rise to the Trump phenomenon, which leads to this short, brilliant sentence:

“Voter anger was directed at two targets — the ‘undeserving rich’ and the ‘undeserving poor.’”

For me, that was a bit of a breakthrough.

Angry voters lashed out at the Democrats, via the Tea Party and other means, in 2010 and 2014, but says Edsall:

To many of those who cast their ballots in anger in 2010 and 2014, it appeared that their votes had not changed anything. Obamacare stayed in place, Wall Street and corporate America grew richer, while the average worker was stuck going nowhere.

Already disillusioned with the Democratic Party, these white voters became convinced that the mainstream of the Republican Party had failed them, not only on economic issues, but on cultural matters as well.

A September 2015 Ipsos survey asked voters if they agreed or disagreed with the statement “More and more, I don’t identify with what America has become.” 72 percent of surveyed Republicans concurred, compared to 58 percent of independents and 45 percent of Democrats. Two thirds of Republicans, 62 percent, agreed with the statement “These days I feel like a stranger in my own country,” compared to 53 percent of independents and 37 percent of Democrats. Here is one place where Trump’s scathing dismissal of political correctness found fertile ground.

I don’t share these feelings myself. I’m not angry. Life in America has been good to me, and I’ve been struggling to understand all the anger that fuels the astonishingly large and, so far, even more astonishingly sturdy phenomenon of Trumpism. Reading Edsall’s narrative (and by the way, he embeds within it plenty of smart quotes from scholars and analysts) I felt closer than I had heretofore been able to get to understanding Trump’s appeal. But Edsall is no Trump apologist. Not even slightly. He ends with two short summaries of how this could end up:

If [Trump] is shoved out of the field somehow, his supporters will remain bitter and enraged, convinced that a self-serving and malign elite defeated their leader.

If he prevails, a constituency that could force politicians to confront the problems of the working and middle class will waste its energies on a candidate incompetent to improve the lives of the credulous men and women lining up to support him.

Don’t take my word for it. Read the whole Edsall column.

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Comments (34)

My judgement

is harsh. I believe that Trump sympathizers are angry at what they call "entitlement." But I believe the anger stems from a hypocritical sense of entitlement. That is, they believe that they deserve a world that will behave according to their wants, despite the needs of the society as a whole. I understand their anger and frustration at the system that rewards the undeserving, but for some reason, they believe that the undeserving is always someone else. Sorry, kids, you aren't special and Trump isn't going to make you any more deserving than anyone else. In fact, given the self-puffed personality of Trump, it's unlikely he'll share anything with anyone, deserving or not. Egad, the man was born on third base and claims he hit a home run. Yeah, I meant home run because if you asked Trump why he's only on third base, he'll tell you that he's not. He's not only hit a home run, he's won the game single handedly. There's no room for the deserving in Trump's world.

My confusion

I think Edsall is exactly right. The Middle Class has seen the Rich grow obscenely richer. And it's seen an underclass that believes it's entitled to be supported by others without every having to look in the mirror. But while I get the anger, I'm baffled by the response. Once you've thrown your political temper tantrum, what do you do when you're stuck with President Trump?

I'm baffled

"while I get the anger, I'm baffled by the response."

Exactly. Hillary Clinton is running as Obama's third term. Black unemployment is higher under Obama than before he took office. There are more people on food stamps and working minimum wage jobs than before he took office. Yet the democrat's candidate promises more of the same!

Why does she have any support? Baffled is right.

Well...

If one can, with a fair and balanced eye, judge the period from 2000 to 2008 and compare it to the period from 2008 to present and see 2000-2008 as "the good old days"; get your eyesight checked.

And now consider the period 1992 to 2000. Clearly the "the good old days" of the 3 terms of office. Maybe she is running as Bill's third term.

The right's heart felt concern for black unemployment is also touching...

Because some people

have a better grasp (and maybe a better source) of the facts than you do.
If by "before he took office" you mean 2007 (a high point) rather than 2008 or 2009 when the economy was still running on Bush's rules, then you might make a case. On the other hand, if you look at one of the FRED graph's for wages or employment over the past ten or fifteen years, you'll see a pattern of improvement over most of Obama's term.
Yes, wages have been flat, but that trend goes back well into the Reagan Regime.

Did you read it?

The article was about Trump.

about that unemployment rate for African Americans

According to data i found, the African American unemployment rate in December 2008 was 10.2%

http://www.bls.gov/cps/race_ethnicity_2008_unemployment.htm

As of December 2015, the African American unemployment rate was 8.3%

http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t02.htm

So the African American unemployment rate has improved during Barack Obama's presidency, not gotten worse as Mr. Tester stated.

Trump's appeal is the

Trump's appeal is the politics of the "other". All of our problems are due to the presence of the "other". Time to drive them out, lock them out.

Not so oddly, he doesn't address the root cause of much of the economic decline of middle America: the offshoring of jobs; the mechanization/automation/computerization of many of the jobs leading to a real decrease in the number of workers; and a real break in the short-lived alliance between labor and capital that started with Henry Ford having the realization that higher labor income made the class of workers that could participate in the economy.

Not so oddly, he declines to address the idea that much of the developed world is having the same issues, where there are even more people who are struggling economically and have higher unemployment problems.

Rather. it is the "other" who is taking your jobs, lessening you income, taking all the stuff that you deserve, ruining your neighborhood, ruining your schools and ruining your country.

Like most demagogues, his plans and numbers don't add up. His tax plans increase the deficit, increases the debt and gives the biggest tax relief to the the top-most tier of the economy. He pushes for tax cuts for corporations who are among the least taxed in the world.

What will really be interesting is that he soon will begin to perform the same pirouette to the left that every Republican politician running for President will have to do.

How many will believe the Trump then? "Telling it like it is".

and Hillary

will pirouette to the center/right like every Dem has to do? Or will she actually reveal she really believes in something most of the time?

Our corporations are some of the least taxed in the world? Not so, actually some of the highest, even after deductions. Why do they move overseas if we are such a great deal? Why don't we treat corporate taxes like Germany and Japan do?

Germany and Japan

German corporate income taxes are in fact lower. However, the maximum marginal individual tax rate is 45%, levied on that portion of an individual's income over 250,731 euros (a tad under $275,000). There is also a value added tax of 19%, as well as diverse local taxes.

The current corporate tax rate in Japan is 33%, vs. 39% in the US. The maximum individual tax rate is 45%, and that kicks in at 40 million yen (about $352,000). There is an 8% national consumption tax, and various local taxes.

Do you suppose the Republicans would go along with either of these plans?

Actually, most corporations

don't pay corporate income taxes.
They are structured as 'pass-through' entities, so most taxes are paid in the form of personal income tax.

most by...

Most by number or most by total $? These are important distinctions.

Well...

Frankly, I'm not seeing anything in Edsall's writing that hasn't been expressed in comments on the subject here on Minnpost.

We know why these people are angry, we're just frustrated because that anger flows out of political and economic ignorance. Any notion that more tax cuts of any kind can raise much less restore middle class income has long since been revealed as magical thinking. Doubling down on magic is just... not smart.

On most metrics with the exception of actual health care costs, Obamacare has succeeded in providing more affordable health care to most Americans, compared with how they would have fared without it. Many of these Trump people live in states that refused to expand Medicare and they're blaming Obama instead of their own governors. Whatever. The solution is to finish the project and expand medicare to everyone, not repeal Obamacare.

Why now? Well this was inevitable given the fact that republicans have been cultivating fact impervious, misinformed, anti-rational, anti-intellectual, ego-centric, voters for decades. Trump and his supporters are simply the physical manifestation of the Ayan Randian dystopia that republicans have been selling for decades. The real question is why didn't it happen sooner?

Of course its not sustainable but expecting republicans and conservatives would realize that, anticipate this catastrophe, and deal with it intelligently is rather like putting a bunch of dogs into a room full of musical instruments and waiting for them to form an orchestra. Instead we hear republican leaders saying: "Well, Trump gets some things right" Stick a fork in em, they're done. They've drunk too much of their own cool-aid and jumped into the abyss without a parachute. Buh-bye.

Trump's appeal

Those who have benefitied from government programs most often go on to want to deny those same benefits to those who follow because they "do not deserve" them.
People tend to vote against their own economic self-interest and instead focus on social issues such as abortion (then they wonder why they are economically disadvantaged).
And don't forget that it is business which keeps the wage structure down, not government, yet we want to blame government for every ill.
The over-arching emphasis in politics has been to pit the average voter against the government rather than to admit that the real bane is big business.
(My only real complaint about government is that it did not prosecute bankers for ruining the economy.)
In the end, blaming the "other" for our woes is a familiar refrain.
In the extreme, it brings us Hitler. Now it brings us Trump. How are they different? Do we need to find out?

When anger

results in republican votes or someone to lean republican, they are ignorant and just plain bad people (remember all those discourse lectures weeks ago?). They get the ABM style nuclear trashing. Maybe that is part of the problem? Angry dems are coddled, revered and enabled.

The ACA is a perfect example, a whole lot of middle class folks, not upper middle either, are dealing with higher premiums, smaller networks and higher out of pocket limits.They are struggling to make ends meet. Then they look at the person next to them who gets their plan subsidized to the point they pay little or nothing. If people play by the rules and pay their fair share year after year, you can't blame them for being a little miffed.

Republicans are not free of blame I know, but how many times do you hear professional politicians year after year say they are for the middle class and nothing gets better. Like Pavlov's dogs the extremes in both parties immediately fix blame on this or that group. I am not a Trump supporter, but can understand some folks have had enough of it all and want to try something different. Someone who has not spent their life climbing the political social ladder and tells most everyone what they want to hear. Enough is enough.

You can't blame them for being miffed

Sure, absolutely. But it can be pointed out that their anger is directed at the wrong entity. I'm one of those play it he the rules, middle class sort, my family receives no subsidy for our health insurance, it's employer provided, the vast majority is. Pre ACA our premiums were skyrocketing every year, coverage was going down, the networks were changed routinely. Who caused that? You act as if folks have a memory that only spans six years or so. Our premiums have leveled off, our network has remained constant for about 4 years now, our coverage has remained constant for the same. Why should I be enraged that others now have access to what I do? Why should I care if they're subsidized or not? The problem with your line of reasoning is that it presumes shared experience for all, and likewise shared worldview. I am offended that Trump, (or any of the others cons for that matter) seeks to rescind the good fortune my family has experienced on the healthcare front to placate those who desire a tax cut, or those who think sticking it to the poor is some desirous objective. As Ms Kahler opined, why in the world do some folks think they're entitled to that?

the point is,,,

Nowhere did I say it was everyone's experience.I was not accounting for every person on the planet and their insurance experience, the point is that there have been, and will be, winners and losers under the ACA, the losers (yes, there are many) are the ones that are upset. In a free country they have a right to be and to express themselves. No one said they favor tax cuts or anything else. stick to the point and not the straw arguments please. Many are asking themselves, why work so hard?

If they think packing it in is the answer...

Then why don't they? It's the constant refrain from the right on every entitlement, those "other" folks have it way too easy. Yet when push comes to shove, they decide THEY could never subsist at that level. It's simple envy, strangely ironic from from folks who believe any criticism of the wealthy amounts to the same, but envy nonetheless.

How far will Trump go if...

he is the man who could be our next President/king whomwever:

Will words like cleansing; ethnic/racist cleansing be part of the new vocabulary?

If Donald should achieve royal residence in the big white house on Pennsilvania Avenue... will we be citizens or subjects or what will we be labeled, in the name of countrymen?

What happens to dissent with a man like Trump?

It's not a funny scenario rising out of this election...too strong reaction maybe but, yet do wonder how a funny, outrageous man becomes center stage; political celeb status...embraced by adulation by some;.anger and frustration by others...embedded in the common psyche''getting-mine over them'... not a pretty sight to watch as we caucus with hope...or, or is it really fear and hate that moves us; blinds us?

I don't know but may the poets stand in the shadow still, waiting for a cold November?

Then again, who knows

My 2¢

Mr. Edsall’s income chart encompasses my working life, from summer jobs in college through 30 years of teaching to several years in the private sector after retiring from public education, and at least for me, it’s dead-on-target. “Stagnation” or worse is what characterized my income throughout my working life. For good or ill, I spent the bulk of my career in a field where my income depended entirely on the mood of local taxpayers, who were not usually more charitable than corporate CEOs. I absolutely understand where that “Trump supporter rage” is coming from. By age (71), demographic (divorced white male,) and income (less than median in every community I’ve ever lived in) data, I, too, should look upon Mr. Trump with favor.

I do not.

Like demagogues throughout history, and there have been many, Mr. Trump promises what he cannot, and perhaps does not actually want to, deliver. It’s also worth considering what it means, and for whom, America must be made great “again.” There are plenty of groups inside the country – some of them here from the country’s very beginning – for which America has, in everyday terms, never been “great.” Aside from xenophobic appeals, Mr. Trump offers virtually nothing in terms of specifics about how such a return to “greatness” would take place, or what it would involve. His only appeal to me is that he is not reliably Republican – if the Republican establishment finds him persona non grata, my automatic reaction is that he can’t be all bad.

I do think Mr. Edsall is pretty accurate in describing the source of anger for Trump supporters. I’ve seen that viewpoint expressed elsewhere (e.g., in “Deer Hunting With Jesus,” by Joe Bageant, which is now several years old), but Edsall’s is a concise statement. I also think Edsall is pretty much on-target in those final two paragraphs quoted in Eric’s column. The GOP appears to be on the horns of a dilemma it created itself. In the context he raises, my automatic “He can’t be all bad” reaction to GOP discomfort with Trump as presidential nominee has to be tempered by the realization that he’s no longer operating in a policy and consequence-free environment. What he says and does as a presidential candidate, whether he or I like it or not, will have repercussions domestically and abroad that, as a citizen, I worry about.

Democrats have not helped themselves. Beginning with Bill Clinton, and continuing with Hillary, the national party has moved toward what is now called the “center,” though a generation ago it would have – correctly – been labeled “right-of-center.” That is, Democrats have embraced corporate and oligarchic money just as enthusiastically as their purported opponents. In that sense, for the ordinary citizen, there really *isn’t* a lot of difference between Democrat and Republican. Both have served moneyed interests over the interests of working-class citizens in recent years. The decimation of the middle class is one consequence of that.

Still, I don’t want to overlook, in the midst of several well-thought-out comments from the usual suspects (Kahler, Udstrand, Rovick) the insight John Clouse provided with “…don't forget that it is business which keeps the wage structure down, not government, yet we want to blame government for every ill…” It’s convenient – and easy for ideologues on the right – to blame Obama, or Clinton before him, for economic woes, even in the face of a pile of evidence that says otherwise, but presidents don’t set pay scales. HR departments in the private sector and their government equivalent in the public sector are the agencies that do that, and because taxpayer dollars are involved, government pay scales typically *follow* rather than lead private-sector salaries.

And, as someone who lived without health insurance at all for a dozen years before I finally got old enough to qualify for Medicare (subsidized by the poor as well as the middle-class, by the way), I think Mr. Smith conveniently forgets, in his 11:59 AM comment, that the middle-class family that’s struggling to make ends meet via higher health care premiums and out-of-pocket limits is responding – to the degree that they’re responding as Mr. Smith describes it – purely selfishly. Understandable, of course, but not especially admirable. Those people being subsidized under the ACA are people just like me – who could not afford health insurance *at all* before the ACA was passed. They’re the people waiting in long lines at hospital ERs because they can’t afford insurance, a doctor, or anything like extended treatment.

That, my friends, is the result of a health care system based on profit rather than service to the public. Not the fault of the providers, necessarily, but linking health care and profit as we do in this society has major drawbacks for all but the profit-takers.

It’s going to be an interesting, and perhaps anxiety-producing, election season.

if your definition of selfish is...

work hard, pay your bills, one day you can afford something then the law changed and now you can't and it makes you angry to some degree, then yes, your fellow citizens are ignorant selfish. and if you read above, ignorant too.

What law changed?

The economy certainly did, but that's a function of economic law, not political.
The value of labor dropped because of supply and demand....
automation reduced the number of worker hours necessary to produce a product, and globalization broadened the supply of labour to include countries like China that pay lower wages.
These are corporate management decisions, not ones of civil law.

Do You Know Even A SINGLE Individual

for whom Obamacare has worked out that way?

And let's not forget that in every single case were the GOP trotted out an individual or family who made such claims,...

the truth of their situation turned out to be VERY different from the narrative being sold,...

so much so, in fact, that the GOP finally stopped attempting to find people who fit the narrative you so obediently parrot.

In 30 seconds

I could have a dozen, real world, factual examples. Thanks for asking.

That Wasn't the Questsion

Do you, personally, know anyone who has been negatively impacted by the ACA?

Let's not drag out the same old anecdotes that appear every time this discussion happens. I'm sure you can go to liberalsstink.net, or whatever online archive conservatives use to find their shopworn examples (I think that's where the "Bush=Hitler" picture is stored). Let's talk about real experiences of people whom you know about personally.

Overall, the impact of the ACA has been positive. "Overall," not uniformly. There is never going to be any endeavor, public or private, that produces a universally good outcome for everyone. Expecting or pretending that anyone expected that to happen is missing the point.

Selfishness

No disrespect intended. We're all selfish to some degree, and I *do* understand where the anger comes from. Our tendency in the U.S. has been to blame "the other," as in other ethnic or occupational or religious or racial groups. Instead, what we have is a rigged system. "The Other" we ought to be angry at are the 1% who have purchased undue influence at state and federal levels, including control of the media.

I said nothing about the people straining to pay their bills being "ignorant," though in the dictionary sense, many of them probably are. Ignorant simply means "not knowing," that is, their understanding of health care policy is even more limited than my own. I, too, am one of those people who played by the rules, and sometimes gets more than annoyed when someone else is able to flout or ignore the same rules I was told I should live by. As any good "conservative" would tell you, "Life isn't fair." What I'm acutely aware of, as someone who had no health insurance at all for an extended period, is that the ACA has provided, the last time I saw a figure, health insurance to more than *8 million* people who previously had none.

I've never owned a share of stock, never enjoyed a "median" income, have a relatively fixed income, and don't qualify as well-to-do except by 3rd-world standards, but I don't mind paying a bit more in taxes so that most, if not all, of my fellow-citizens can at least get minimal health care. I'm being subsidized through Medicare by lots of people younger than I am, and I see nothing wrong with using some of my own tax dollars to subsidize the health care of people worse off than I am.

Thank You Ray

Very eloquent, and spot on. Pleasure to read your comments!

Whut

he said!!

Not just ignorant but impervious to facts

If your looking at stagnant wages for the last 20 years and your blaming taxes or government spending, you just don't get it. Both the republicans AND the democrats have been deploying trickle-down-small government policies and those policies have done exactly what they always have done, concentrate wealth in the top decile or higher. It was Bill Clinton who declared that the era of "small government" was over back in the 90s. It's just math and some of us are getting tired of point this out... If 90% of all the new revenue goes to the top 5%, as it has done so in the last 20 years, that means 90% of the population is sharing 10% of all the new revenue, hence stagnant wages and income. Now maybe you think that YOU'RE the one who's gonna break through into the top 10%, perhaps by buying Suze Orman's book or something; I hate to tell this but the US has one of if the lowest income mobility rates in the developed world. When you have wealth disparity like this, thems that has keeps and thems that don't have don't get.

We keep point these facts out but some people are just impervious to facts. They keep thinking if the government just lets them keep another $500 of their own money they'll "break-through" into the next income bracket. And so it goes.

Let Me Posit a Different Cause

When the people who raised you responded to your developing desire to be independent of them,...

and make your own decisions,...

and run your own life,...

in ways extremely painful and punishing to your body and/or your psyche,...

in order to teach you NEVER to attempt to do that again,...

the aspect of your personality that is capable of being strong and independent, of RULING your own life was likely driven into internal exile.

Thereafter, many situations; situations where you have to make important choices and set the direction for your own life become difficult for you to deal with.

You feel weak, uncomfortable and angry when life asks this of you,...

which happens, of course, all the time.

If, however, you are close to someone ELSE who seems to have those pieces intact,...

you feel so much stronger, so much more comfortable, so much less angry when you're around them.

In fact, you feel as if you are whole, healthy, and functional again.

"Conservative" leaders, whether political or religious, have been playing off this need for people raised in "conservative" circumstances,...

(circumstances wherein each generation is programmed by their parents to inflict the same dysfunction on their own children)...

to ALWAYS be in the presence of strong decision makers and leaders in order to feel whole and healthy,...

for a very long time.

The problems arise, of course, when those who are making decisions you cannot bring yourself to make for yourself,...

don't make the decisions you want them to make, or take the actions you want them to take,...

(decisions they PROMISED they would make and actions they PROMISED they would take).

GOP politicians have spent decades, now, posing as strong leaders in order to meet the needs of their "conservative" base for such leaders,...

but they have NEVER done what they promised the base they would,...

(often because it was impossible).

In Donald Trump, "conservatives" see an EVEN STRONGER leader, who, unlike those who came before, will not only meet their need to be connected to such a leader,...

but will also do what he's promising.

It doesn't hurt, of course, that he voices their sense of anger and betrayal at all those previous strong leaders who didn't do what they promised.

In this election cycle, the "conservative" base will stay solidly behind Trump,...

unless and until someone even stronger comes along to fill in for the strength that's always been locked away inside each of them,...

strength which they could, with the right kind of help and healing, regain,...

and thereby regain control over their own lives.

Yes....

Damaged personalities do play a significant role in this phenomena.

Democracy?

I found this commentary interesting, and perhaps Eric will too, in light of many of the articles he's written in the past:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cody-cain/trump-rattles-our-foundat_b_9368...

Not so Worried...

To me, Trump does not threaten, much less crack our foundation.

As a developer, he is more likely in process of remodeling the structure built upon it, admittedly a bit rickety in places. Many seem to believe Trump's plan is a tear down/build up project. Don't believe so. If anything, he probably just hopes to improve the property and sell it for profit a few years from now.

I do not advocate for Trump, certainly, but do note that our house of add-ons and regular re-painting does need some coherent remodeling at minimum.

Remodeling?

Based on Trump's record as a developer, his "remodeling" would consist of an elaborate, gaudy facade that incorporated a reminder of who was responsible for the whole mess. Only the wealthy would be able to enjoy the full benefits of the remodel, and the poor and middle class would be pushed aside until they were needed for some unpleasant task.

Remodeling is not a bad idea, but let's look at the proposals everyone is making.