According to most seasoned political operatives, running a successful presidential campaign requires following certain rules and best practices. Do secure large sums of money from big donors to fuel ad campaigns in saturated media markets. Do build up robust organizational capacity on the ground in key swing states to get the vote out where you need it most. Don’t be overtly racist or sexist, particularly on camera. Don’t plagiarize your speech from the beloved First Lady.
The Trump campaign has broken more than a few rules, and Trump’s groundswell of support has rocked more than just the GOP establishment. Media outlets began covering his unpredictable campaign stops for the outlandish headlines they gave (as well as for the clicks and ad revenue that would follow). But as Trump gained momentum, the “lamestream” media began circulating essays and editorials attempting to diagnose just what had corroded within American politics to bring his cult of personality so close to the White House.
Trump’s appeal reflects more than just a popular rejection of the old and already-ailing GOP political establishment. Most obviously, his anti-immigrant and racially coded rhetoric has mined a resurgent White nationalism that has swept up the college educated and blue collar alike. Yet even Trump’s campaign slogan—“Make America Great Again”—taps into White anxiety over demographic shifts and social policies that threaten to loosen the tight grip that Whites have held over power, wealth and opportunity in the United States for centuries.
Less remarked upon is the fact that Trump’s sales pitch so far has found the most traction in rural White communities. Nationwide, the New York businessman has consistently trailed Clinton in urban areas, but an August Washington Post poll reports that he enjoys a 20 percent lead in small-town America. But those figures start to make sense when we consider what else Trump has staked his campaign upon: a broader rejection of the technocratic approach that many Americans associate with the political elites that run campaigns, the politicians that win them, and the journalists that report on them.
In a technocratic system, the state largely relies upon technical expertise when addressing a society’s problems. Regardless of party background or views on the federal government, our elected politicians have largely shared a commitment to a managerial style of governance once in office over the past few decades. Their policy programs might be directed towards ideological ends, but policy-makers rely on all sorts of technical expertise to devise just which economic reforms and social policies might achieve those specific goals: datasets, economic forecasts, academic research, policy briefs, and much else besides.
This, of course, does not mean that there will be agreement over which approach—or which data—is more likely to succeed. But Trump has surged into the American mainstream by advocating for a politics that rejects technocratic governance altogether. “Forget what the facts say; the truth is malleable, and I at least am honest about that,” Trump tells his supporters.
Liberals can hold up repeated examples that demonstrate that Trump’s professional successes owe more to generational privilege and luck than it does to his stellar business acumen, and his supporters won’t care. For them, it is not Trump’s record in the business world that proves he has special insights into how to run the country; it is that Trump has done away with the need to possess technical knowledge altogether. The longstanding connection between education and credentialed expertise, on the one hand, and political authority, on the other, has been severed.
Instead of trusting the bureaucrats and their statistical models, Trump tells us to trust our guts. He takes the widespread experiences of economic neglect—stagnating wages, growing inequality, decreasing unionization, dwindling labor force participation—and offers easy explanations. He tells us that immigrants, racial minorities pose serious threats to the levels of material advantage and social status that Whiteness used to bestow.
These explanations are nativist, racist, and downright wrong. And yet, even as we dismiss them, we would be foolish to dismiss the feelings that make those stories of White decline so attractive in rural America.
In some respects, Trump’s anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism are onto something. For many White Americans outside of the urban centers, those who did not go to premier universities and colleges, those who don’t work in professions where their labor is predominantly intellectually driven, the world of the urban American elite is far removed from their everyday problems, both socially and geographically.
For decades, economic prosperity has meant a certain kind of progress, progress that is tied to GDP growth and corporate wellbeing rather than to working class benefits. Since 1970, wages have stagnated even as corporate profits have skyrocketed and the financial capitalists have reaped steady incomes off of manipulating markets. Structural shifts in the economy have left blue-collar workers and their families by the wayside as states bled manufacturing jobs and low-wage, precarious fast food work replaced more stable working-class industries.
Yet too often the politicians who could pass policies that might help Black and White communities alike have chosen not to, and instead talked down to these Americans for failing to do better. After awhile, people get tired of being treated and talked about like a remainder in a market model, rather than as people who are trying hard to provide but are getting too little support or opportunity.
Because those in positions of authority appear to have ignored them, rural White Americans are mired in a crisis of authority. In today’s cynical environment, if you trust the speaker, then you can trust what he says. But when the citizenry’s sources of information and political analysis are as polarized and contradictory as their political champions, then it becomes difficult to find anything like consensus — even on matters that should be simple questions of fact. (See: does humankind have a role in the world’s increasing rate of climate warming?)
Reestablishing trust in political institutions, in academic and policy experts, in the possibility of objective knowledge and critical debate, is crucial to reclaiming a political space in which people with different views can come together to debate, disagree and compromise because they are open to and relying upon the same facts.
While we can’t pretend to have the 1-2-3 step solution to the problem of our political discourse, bridging the gap between the educated urban elites and the rest of the country requires more than spouting off more statistics and esoteric policy jargon. Rather than treat the working class and middle class Americans like a flock to be herded this way and that every four years, we ought to find space for more localized forms of governance that take non-elite folk seriously as experts of their own experiences who ought to be involved in deciding what happens in their communities.
Such a project sure feels daunting as the rage and insults fly from both political camps before the election, but it’s necessary. Until the Left can work with Trump supporters to arrive at a better understanding for who struggles in this country and how the state could work with communities to alleviate that suffering, then the cynicism that Trump is banking on will continue to rule the day.
This piece was originally published prior to the election as our Issue 6 editorial.