Trump won. People were shocked. Analyses followed. I have had conversations, heard talks, looked at websites, read newspapers and magazine articles that seek to explain how we got our President. I have also read books that shed varying degrees of light on 2016, including Eliza Griswold, Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America; Jennifer Haigh, Heat and Light; Salena Zito and Brad Todd, The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics: Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land; Amy Goldstein, Janesville: An American Story: and J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy.
All these books have merit. They indicate that there was not one, simple answer as to how it happened, but all point to a white working-class economic insecurity that was a major force. For some, this got tied up with a racial resentment that included hostility to legal and illegal immigrants. Some felt that “Washington” had intruded too much into their lives and had made the country worse.
One author suggests that strong roots of the surprise victory go back to the Vietnam War. The contention is that many from the Rust Belt and Appalachia who believed in America and its leaders went off to war forty years ago. They were not welcomed back as heroes, but, instead, were shunned by the country that had sent them off. They left with expectations of lives of increasing prosperity, which the factories and mines had given previous generations, but returned to an industrial economy in decline. The coastal elites and Washington did not seem to care about them or their increasing economic plight until Trump came along. I thought there might be merit in this analysis, and if so, perhaps it should be extended to our more recent Mideast wars. How can you not feel disillusionment if you suffered the privations and horrors of Afghanistan and Iraq and returned to parts of America in decline with the powerful indifferent to those declines?
Zito and Todd’s book presents a different insight. The authors interviewed voters in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Iowa who voted for Obama in 2012 and for Trump four years later. One of those interviewees referred to the Trump converts as “this interesting group of people who placed him in the White House because a variety of different people wanted to be part of something larger than themselves. It means it makes me more important, it makes the individual more important, believing that they are contributing directly or indirectly to whatever they are doing.” And when I look at the audiences at a Trump rally, including the ones after he was elected, the audience gives the impression of not being merely a collection of individuals, but as being a component of a movement that transcends the individuals.
I was reminded of a book I read decades ago, The Romance of American Communism by Vivian Gornick. She interviewed Americans who had subscribed to communism in the 1930s and stayed with the Party until 1956. I was struck by what seemed to be a religious-like fervor in many who must have been atheists. They did not expect that communism’s promises would be fulfilled in their lifetime but still enthusiastically supported the cause because they were part of movement bigger than themselves and hoping to bring about a better world after they were gone. One of them said, “It was life, the only life I ever knew, and it was alive. Intense, absorbing, filled with a kind of comradeship I never again expect to know. . . . We literally felt we were making history.”
Or as George Orwell wrote in 1984: “Alone—free—the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal.”
People want to feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves. They feel power being part of a movement. They feel important being in the vanguard of a new history. People have felt that from Trump; they feel that they are transforming America. Reagan gave that transformative feeling, and so did Obama to many. Hillary Clinton may have given a comparable feeling to some, but that movement feeling was smaller than it was for Trump and for Obama. By allying yourself with Trump, you hoped to become part of something more important than yourself.