This question has been plaguing a lot of us for more than four years. And I’ve spent four years trying to find answers to the question. I found a number of answers which, when compiled, satisfied me fairly well.
In today’s New York Times, Thomas Edsall does a thorough compilation of his own in, “Why Trump Still Has Millions of Americans in His Grip.”
It’s the best I’ve seen. (The only item not cited is my favorite amygdala study but I’ll give him a pass on that one. At least until the end of this post.)
He summarized his points in the first three paragraphs:
Beginning in the mid-1960s, the priorities of the Democratic Party began to shift away from white working- and middle-class voters — many of them socially conservative, Christian and religiously observant — to a set of emerging constituencies seeking rights and privileges previously reserved for white men: African-Americans; women’s rights activists; proponents of ethnic diversity, sexual freedom and self-expressive individualism.
By the 1970s, many white Americans — who had taken their own centrality for granted — felt that they were being shouldered aside, left to face alone the brunt of the long process of deindustrialization: a cluster of adverse economic trends including the decline in manufacturing employment, the erosion of wages by foreign competition and the implosion of trade unionism.
These voters became the shock troops of the Reagan Revolution; they now dominate Trump’s Republican Party.
I want to emphasize one line in his first paragraph. The “[e]merging constituencies” Edsall cites, you’ll notice, are groups which historically had not had the “rights and privileges” of the dominant, white, conservative, Christian male class. Nobody was handing these groups — several of which I belong to — those “rights and privileges;” groups that had been suppressed sort of forever had to demand equal rights. They still must because they don’t have them yet.
Edsall continues, quoting some erudite researchers:
In “The Bitter Heartland,” an essay in American Purpose, William Galston, a veteran of the Clinton White House and a senior fellow at Brookings, captures the forces at work in the lives of many of Trump’s most loyal backers:
Resentment is one of the most powerful forces in human life…
Edsall continues, referring to Galston:
They — “social conservatives and white Christians” — have what Galston calls a “bill of particulars” against political and cultural liberalism. I am going to quote from it at length because Galston’s rendering of this bill of particulars is on target.
“They have a sense of displacement in a country they once dominated. Immigrants, minorities, non-Christians, even atheists have taken center stage, forcing them to the margins of American life.”
“They believe we have a powerful desire for moral coercion. We tell them how to behave — and, worse, how to think. When they complain, we accuse them of racism and xenophobia. How, they ask, did standing up for the traditional family become racism? When did transgender bathrooms become a civil right?”
“They believe we hold them in contempt.”
“Finally, they think we are hypocrites. We claim to support free speech — until someone says something we don’t like. We claim to oppose violence — unless it serves a cause we approve of. We claim to defend the Constitution — except for the Second Amendment. We support tolerance, inclusion, and social justice — except for people like them.
Edsall goes on to discuss automation and A.I., which is when I started skimming, until this:
Heartland states like Indiana and Kentucky, with heavy manufacturing histories and low educational attainment, contain not only the nation’s highest employment-weighted automation risks, but also registered some of the widest Trump victory margins. By contrast, all but one of the states with the least exposure to automation, and possessing the highest levels of educational attainment, voted for Hillary Clinton.
OK, that’s interesting; it names regions particularly infected with the politics of resentment.
It strikes me that Galston’s resentment “bill of particulars,” an interpretation of what the resentment class perceives, is pretty warped. That is not Galston’s fault; its the resentful perception of this class. Their accusations can each be read as projections of their own moral wrongs and failings on us. Except that “They believe we hold them in contempt.” They’re right about that.
( If they want to feel better, they can brag that their amygdalas are bigger than our amygdalas.)