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

The New York Times columnist sorts out the voter anger behind Donald Trump’s support.

“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.)

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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.

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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.