I have spent much time since the 2016 election trying to figure out why so many people from Appalachia and the Rust Belt voted for Donald Trump. Having been born, raised and educated in the Rust Belt I should be able to figure that one out and to a great degree have. I’ve done a ton of reading trying to unlock the Appalachia mystery. I think I may have stumbled on a common link: the victim card. Let’s explore.
I grew up in an auto plant and steel mill town. The common wisdom was that you graduated from high school (neither the quality of that education nor your grades mattered as long as you received a diploma), you went in the military for the minimum enlistment and left with an honorable discharge, you stayed out of jail (a relatively easy task if you were white – and Trump only cares about white voters) and you got a good job at an auto plant or steel mill until it was time to retire. Those auto and steel jobs have all but disappeared. A lot of guys (Trump is aimed at white guys who he expects to bring their women’s votes along with them) did what they had been taught only to see their jobs vanish before they were old enough to retire. Left without opportunity or marketable skills they were forced to see their standard of living plummet in no part due to their wrongdoing. They felt like victims and with good cause. They were victims of what I like to call America’s second industrial revolution.
Appalachia is more complicated than just the sad saga of the coal miner but that is the tale I understand the most at this point. The “cycle” is very similar except instead of the plant/mill young men went into the mines. Mining has also succumbed to the second industrial revolution. It is a much more mechanized and much less labor intensive industry than it was in days gone by. That means there are fewer jobs available. Exacerbating that situation is the fact that the demand for coal is diminishing and will continue to for decades to come. Bottom line: we have displaced workers through no evil deeds of their own. They also rightly feel like victims.
Their lot has not improved in decades and in all honesty shows no sign of improving. The displaced workers find themselves saddled with homes, families and other adult obligations. They are in no position to reinvent themselves. With good cause these blue collar (and mostly former union) voters never trusted the Republicans and in recent years feel abandoned by the Democrats who started to drink at the same big money trough as the GOP and in that process forgot about the little guy who kept electing them. The workers remember the good days and long for their return. If only their got their old jobs (and compensation packages) back all would be just fine. After all they did what they were told and they deserve it. They feel like victims because to a great degree they are.
Along comes a snake oil salesman who tells them that not only that alone can fix it but that he will and quickly. They start to think in terms of one of his campaign trail lines, “What have you got to lose?” (That was never really aimed at black voters anyway.) At this writing we certainly don’t know just how impactful Russian interference in the 2016 election was (and we may never know); but we know Trump managed to get the election close enough in enough states to end up winning the Electoral College and he could not have done it without the “victim vote”.
Trump was never really a Republican and he certainly isn’t a Democrat. Trump’s only concerns are his ego and how much money he can accumulate. However, he did see an opening and he exploited it. He identified with his target voter in large part by portraying himself as a victim. Remember his campaign rhetoric in both the primary and the general election that the system was rigged against him. All the time it appears he was conspiring with the Russians to rig the system in his favor (and accepting a ton of money from them in the process).
Now that the pigeons appear to be coming home to roost with Robert Mueller, the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN and a plethora of other legitimate news organizations on his tail he is playing the victim again. It’s the old Republican play I call the Charlie Brown defense as in: Why’s everybody always pickin’ on me? Listen to his rhetoric at his campaign rallies and that is all you hear. He talks of what a great job he is doing and that the fake news is out to get him by telling lies. In his words, despite his historically great job performance the Democrats talk of nothing but impeachment. He is a victim just like the people cheering in the crowds that show up at his events.
Trump reminds me of a story my father used to tell me. (I have no idea if it is true, more likely he made it up to teach a lesson to his son.) In the story he talked of a guy he knew who hated the police because every time he committed a crime the police arrested him. Of course, the moral of the story is not to commit the crime in the first place.
Many American workers are to a great degree victims. They are victims of a changing economy and little or no support to retrain them. Trump is a rich man because he was born rich and privileged. His daddy paid for school and Trump avoided the service. He never worked in a plant, mill or mine; he worked for daddy. If he becomes a victim it is only because of his own misdeeds. Trump is not an innocent victim but he plays one on TV.
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