The easiest way to discuss politics is via the “we-they” model. This works well in describing Democrats, but very poorly when describing Republicans. Particularly in this election.
A Republican can say of Democrats, “They want to raise taxes and have the government give free handouts to everyone who’s poor and pursue clean energy and talk about global warming and let all the immigrants in,” and it’s mostly true.
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and their followers largely agree on the issues. Clinton’s argument against Sanders isn’t that he’s crazy to want the government to provide free college, medical care, food, shelter and clothing for all and go to 100 percent clean energy and ban corporate political contributions. Clinton’s argument against Sanders is that he’s animal crackers to think he can make it happen.
But when Democrats say of Republican voters, “If they’re so Christian, how come they only care about the lives of babies until they’re born,” these liberals, including most of the media, are missing what’s happening. Ditto when they say, “They’ll let the Koch brothers destroy the environment to keep a coal mine open”; or, “All this anti-government program stuff they spout is just racism.”
They are ignoring the huge variety under the “Republican” umbrella, as well as the new voters looking for someone to speak for them.
That’s why neither the media nor the Democrats nor the Republican establishment can understand or parry Donald Trump’s success or fan loyalty.
Take South Carolina, where Trump beat his closest opponents by 10 points. It was an open primary, meaning anyone registered to vote could cast a ballot. And it broke the previous GOP primary turnout record by 22 percent, meaning a lot of folks who hadn’t bothered in the past did this year.
So why did Trump win among so many white, predominantly blue-collar voters? Because he doesn’t obsess over cutting government regulations, slashing social safety nets and banning abortion.
Many hard-working voters in South Carolina hunt and fish and camp. They hate pollution, understand the need for regulation and work to maintain the environment. Since 2008, many of them have needed food stamps or extended unemployment benefits. And they don’t mind that Trump has supported abortion rights in the past. Many have had to pay for an abortion or undergo one. It’s possible to believe something is a sin and feel there are situations where it’s necessary. And such voters know the rich will always have access regardless.
What Trump focuses on is the sense that the regular-Joe job market in the United States has been destroyed by bad deals with slave-labor nations like China and cheap-labor nations like Mexico. The establishment in both parties has been complicit. Sanders sides with Trump on this, but no mainstream candidate in either major party has ever opposed such deals.
And Trump goes one step further with his immigration stance, telling voters that the wages for the jobs that weren’t shipped out have been driven down by immigrants who are here illegally and eager to work for less than natives.
Trump’s backers don’t hate abortion or the environment or Social Security or food stamps or even immigrants, necessarily. They hate the decline of manufacturing jobs, and service wages. They hate being broke and scared.
If politicians and the media want to sway Trump fans, they must address real concerns, not the caricatures and stereotypes such voters are believed to be. So far, the strategy has been to caricature Trump and his followers. And we see how that’s working.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.