Varieties of Trumpism and the Class Divide

Dan McLaughlin at the National Review has this piece breaking down the varieties of Trumpism and what they mean for the future of the Republican party. It’s a helpful typology, indicating both where Trumpism has a future, even one that is politically salutary, and where it does not. I found his discussion of “common-man Trumpism” especially illuminating. He writes: ‘The divide in class attitudes is much starker than in the social-egalitarian world described by Alexis de Tocqueville in his travels across 1830s America, and many educated, professional Americans don’t even see it.” This is the aspect of Trumpism that isn’t easily overcome. Trump wasn’t the cause of this class divide; he revealed it that much more clearly. His was the classic class-betrayal trope. The rich man who has, literally, come down the elevator to help the common man. The rhetoric and behavior of Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz tries to have some of the same themes. They understand what they need to do in order to win over these Trump voters. I’m not sure, however, that they can conjure up the other aspect of Trump’s common-man appeal:” a guy with a giant chip on his shoulder about being looked down upon for his crudeness, his ignorance, and his low-class taste. The man was in the pro-wrestling business, how could he look down on anyone?” By contrast, Cruz and Hawley will always seem like Ivy-educated men with sophisticated tastes. And it’s precisely in those sophisticated tastes and level of education that the class divide can be found. Those living in “Blue America” enjoy a level of prosperity that permits them to live a life that consists of a vast diversity in things like food, film, and even people. As such, it wouldn’t make sense for them to fly American flags and care whether football players stand during the National Anthem. They live their lives either in a city or in transit to other cities. They may land in “fly-over” country sometimes but only to go to college towns. Their flights often include international transit. They are, in a way, citizens of the world rather than of a particular place. As citizens of the world, they think of most of America as nothing more than “fly-over country.” “Fly-over” country consists, they think, mostly of MAGA-hat-wearing white trash who either couldn’t or shouldn’t participate in polite society–even more so now after the Trump fiasco. I’ve now de-friended more than a few Facebook friends ruminating about seceding from a national union with what they called on Facebook, in public, “knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers.” (I’m sure they’re not worried about being “cancelled” for these words.)

Most of America knows this is how they feel and hate them for it. Compound that hatred with the fact that these same sophisticates are making decisions about who can post on Twitter, what the media will and won’t say, what these so-called “mouth-breathers” can and can’t say, and whether trade deals will make their food more or less expensive, or make jobs more or less hard to find. The hatred of mask-wearing arises from precisely this same place. They don’t want to be told by sophisticates in distant capitol cities what they have to wear on their faces all the time. It’s bad enough that so much else is already out of their control. A least they can control what they put on their faces.

Donald Trump isn’t a sophisticate. He likes pro wrestling, makes tasteless jokes sometimes, and likes to flaunt his money. To understand the class divide, we have to move beyond income. These same red America Trump supporters would love either to make more money or already have lots of money. The elite sophisticates only “accidentally” flaunt their money: Whole Foods meat is much more expensive…”but they only buy it because it’s so much healthier.” Trump can be one of the “knuckle-draggers” despite or even more because of his love of money. He’s even more one of them because he hates and mocks the elite sophisticates. They hate the elite sophisticates not for their money but for their participation in a culture fundamentally different than theirs. But even those difference don’t get at the root of the hatred. A culture fundamentally different than theirs controls all of the gears of power. It’s essentially dis-empowering to know that the very same people who despise your way of life also control so much of your lives. For instance, if you value guns because they’re a part of your culture. Your grandfather taught your Dad who taught you how to shoot. And then elite sophisticates who know nothing about your culture and/or despise it want to take away those guns, you’re going to get angry. That’s why Obama’s “god and guns” comment left such a bitter taste in their mouths. That’s why Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” comment left a similar taste. These people who look down on you also control you! To express that anger you elect a man that you know they hate!

In some ways, this is just one more manifestation of the age-old divide first between the anti-Federalists and Federalists, then between the Jacksonians and the Whigs, then the Populists and the urban establishment. This divide is worse, however, because the government now is so much bigger and controls more of the “out” class’s lives. The anti-Federalists could go on living their lives merely resenting the Federalist establishment. But now the establishment is telling you where and when you can pray, what you can and can’t say in your school prayers, whether you can have guns, whose weddings you must permit, whether you can close your community to illegal immigrants, etc. So this class that despises you also controls fundamental parts of your lives. Donald Trump represented the punch that they wanted to throw at these people. January 6th represented the punch itself. Although men like Cruz and Hawley can try to replicate the Trump phenomenon, they can never achieve it. For everything they might try to say, politicians like them are too aligned with the elite world. They’re at most light jabs, rather than crushing upper-cuts.

4 thoughts on “Varieties of Trumpism and the Class Divide

  1. Ben, I wonder if this overstates the case and paints far too much in black and white. When you write, for instance, “Most of America knows this is how they feel and hate them for it,” we should note that most Americans does not feel this way. We far too often treat a segment of the population–here middle American and rural America–as if it is a majority. But it’s not. That doesn’t make the dismissive attitudes okay. But there is an awfully lot of dismissing going on the other way as well.

    I think Frum’s essay on democracy is particularly important in this light.

    1. I actually thought about including this disclaimer but couldn’t figure out a way to work it in to the post. Yes, I actually think most of America doesn’t care either way. Most people just have their jobs and then go home and watch some TV and hang out with their families. They’re not burning with political animosity of one sort of another. Fiorina’s book The Great Disconnect is really good on this point. I guess I would still say that the problem arises insofar as people in leadership positions of one sort or another in blue America share these prejudices against the “mouth-breathers.” And, conversely, people in leadership positions in red America know how to rile people up about their “elite overlords.”

    1. You’re right. The escalator was so much better rhetorically than an elevator. We got to watch him descend

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