I’ve been in several conversations about who Trump supporters actually are and why they support him. My liberal friends tend to think they are all or mostly a bunch of deplorables and many of my foreign friends just don’t get it. Some mistakenly overlay the Brexit voters’ agenda directly on Trump supporters, and there is overlap but it isn’t a perfect analog.
The reason the Trump phenomenon is hard to grasp by many people is that attempts to explain it tends to describe his supporters like they are a homogeneous single group of people. This is wrong. It’s just as wrong to do this when talking about the black vote, the women’s vote, the Hispanic or white male vote.
Trump’s supporters can be categorized into multiple buckets, and only one or two are actually significantly made up of "deplorables". I’ll attempt to describe (imperfectly) the three types I’ve come across. This is based solely on my interactions with working class folks in northern new England and Wisconsin, and paying close attention to the comments section on everything from the Washington post and the New York Times to Breitbart, Drudge and across some of the darker sections of the Internet.
Trump fans seem to be made up of 3 broad, overlapping groups:
1) The working class folks who have been on the losing end of globalization. Folks who used to work in the textile and various manufacturing industries, who were deemed too costly to employ by comparison to cheaper labour abroad. These folks have been left behind and mostly ignored by both parties. The Democrats have thrown them a few bones with some worker training programs and welfare support, but these folks don’t want handouts. They were sold the dream that if they worked hard they would make it and they worked hard and were made redundant by global and market forces they don’t understand and their government hasn’t done enough for them. It doesn’t seem fair. They have been angry and frustrated by the economic downturn and wall street making a killing. They hate the Bush bailout, and hate that both parties agreed on it’s necessity. This fueled their anger at the establishment and helped fuel the emergence of the tea party on the right and the occupy wall street movement on the left. (Even this one group could be sub divided into left and right leaning, but they all reject the establishment).
Bernie and Donald both talked of revolution and throwing out the insiders and this appealed to this group. But Bernie lost. And Hilary, though shifting left slightly represents the status quo – gradual improvement, managing the process of globalization while attempting to reduce the pain of those who lose from it through government programs, but not attempting to stop the juggernaut. Not offering any hope of reversing the trend. Donald on the other hand makes promises about bringing back their jobs and making America great again. He may be selling them a pipe dream, but he’s selling a dream that assuages this group’s frustrations and offers hope to folks eager to return to better days for them when they could work hard and be guaranteed a middle class life. They may be the life of a bygone era before the emergence of China and India, it may be false hope, but it’s a hope they don’t feel with Clinton.
2) Financially and politically self interested conservatives: these are the stereotypical top 1%, corporate interests and wealthy conservatives who loathe the redistributive Democrat agenda which they fear will cost them more in taxes and potential regulation. These are folks who like Donald Trump because he’s pro business, low regulation and low taxes. Some are concerned that his erratic temperament could spook investors, but they are convinced he will take economic policy advice from shrewd advisors. They are indifferent to his social agenda and his intolerant rhetoric etc, or the ones who disapprove are more concerned about their own financial interests than the social interests of perceived others. (Some of these folks tend to be in denial about some of the perceived racial injustices, or believe it is a myth; they like to think we are past all that and that we all operate on a level playing field, and anything to right the balance is really just charity at their expense).
In addition to the financially self interested wealthy and conservative Trump fans you also have partisans who will vote for the Republican nominee regardless of his personality, temperament or policy initiatives. They want their side to win. And that’s that.
3) People who vote for Trump because of his no frills, un-PC, rough around the edges, tell it like it is persona. These folks want a strong dominant leader to punch the lights out of any opponents. It’s not about the policy or the substance. It’s about the perception of strong leadership. They want a strong man who won’t put up with bullshit from anyone. This group are the most vocal and angry Trump supporters and they are the ones liberals envoy videotaping and poking fun at.
In their number include many different types of people. There are racist bigots and KKK sympathizers or supporters; there are folks who believe in the clash of civilisations, a zero sum game where you either eat someone else’s lunch or your lunch gets eaten; there are the Macchiavellians who want America to dominate the world, not based on competitive advantage necessarily, but based on whatever it takes: fair or foul means, with principles only espouses to gain advantage where possible; there are those who feel their American cultural identity (often code for white dominance) has been diluted with all this inclusion and diversity and who want their country back; there are the fierce nationalists who see anything foreign as a threat and who see a refugee as a terrorist in disguise; and there are people who cross between all these lines who are afraid of various threats that talk radio and breitbart have convinced them lurk behind every foreign actor and hidden in the motives of every "other" and want a leader to protect them from these threats by putting their interests over and above any "other" even if that means trampling on a few human rights (aka not being PC, aka "bomb the f**k out of above who crosses us, torture their families, so whatever it takes").
As i said earlier, these three rough buckets aren’t entirely mutually exclusive. There’s is overlap and within each group there are distinctions. There are decent and honest, as well as self interested, scared and angry people in the Trump camp. There are educated and uneducated, bigoted and ignorant, decent and well informed alike.
Some of whom we can empathize with and understand why their economic and social conditions make them find hope and solace in Trump’s bluster. Others who really do seem to be filled with anger and hate.
And if they have typically voted republican in the past, they’ve had years of Republican animosity against Bill and Hilary Clinton, going back to Gingrich’s hyper partisan demonizing of his opponents and decades of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck insisting that the Democrats and the Clintons hate America and are going destroy it by turning it into a socialist country and/or give it over to the communists/Arabs/black nationalists/terrorists/or other bogeyman of the day. So it doesn’t take much to fear and hate Hilary Clinton.
Given such a mix of people with many varied motivations for voting for Trump, we have to be careful not to alienate the moderates by lumping them in with the crazies. The first group (at least those with no overlap with the angry portion of the 3rd group) could be reasoned with and won over, but that hope disappears once we call them deplorables and lump them in with the hateful and angry members of the 3rd group.