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What Trump got right about white America

AEI’s Tim Carney discusses how social breakdown killed the American dream on The Ezra Klein Show.

President Donald Trump speaks with supporters.
President Donald Trump speaks with supporters as he arrives in Palm Springs, California, on February 19, 2020.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

In the wake of the 2016 election, Tim Carney, a commentary editor at the Washington Examiner and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, began traveling across the country and poring through county-level data in an attempt to understand the forces that led to Donald Trump’s victory. The culprit, he argues, is not racism or economic anxiety; it’s the breakdown of social institutions.

In his new book, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, Carney posits that for centuries religious (and other private) institutions formed a much-needed social glue that kept communities together. That social glue, however, has decayed in recent decades, creating a void of despair, alienation, and frustration in so-called Middle America. Donald Trump did not offer a compelling way to solve these problems, but he was the only candidate willing to name them — and in 2016, that was enough.

I sat down with Carney on The Ezra Klein Show to discuss this thesis. We also talk about why white evangelicals love Trump so much, how communities of color have responded differently to institutional loss than white communities, the appeal of Bernie Sanders, how Trump’s reelection strategy will differ from his 2016 campaign, and much more.

A lightly edited excerpt from our discussion follows. You can listen to our whole conversation on The Ezra Klein Show.

Jane Coaston

In Alienated America you look county by county at areas that Trump won during the primaries and find that these areas tended to be those that lack opportunities for civic engagement. In some of these places, folks would go out and work in oil fields where there are lots of jobs and lots of money, but they lacked strong civil society. So, support for Trump was not necessarily about money; it was about a lack of civic togetherness.

Tim Carney

That’s exactly right. There were lots of things that I thought were confusing in trying to analyze where working middle-American suffering comes from and where Donald Trump came from. I thought the answers that were flawed were the ones that just looked at materialistic explanations.

Having money is very correlated with success in life. You’re less likely to get addicted to drugs if you’re in a place that has more money. If you yourself have more money, you’re more likely to get married, you’re more likely to self-report happiness. But what I’m trying to argue is that that’s not because of the money itself. In the book, I point to middle class, heavily religious places in Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Salt Lake City, where you don’t have to be really rich; you don’t have to have a college degree to be plugged into that. So I think we’re being overly materialistic if we assume that the struggles with the working class are just material and cultural deprivation.

The individuals who originally got on that Trump train — those who never voted before until Trump jumped in the race — weren’t necessarily the ones who were [materially] suffering the most, but they were living in places that were [socially] collapsing. That’s what Alienated America is about. The social cohesion and social trust of where you live is a key to having the good life.

Jane Coaston

You talk about going to some of the very early primary States and seeing how the people who were helping Trump win weren’t connected to other people. They felt as if their country had left them behind. There was a lot of talk about how they don’t trust their neighbors and they have to keep a gun by the front door. What did they think Trump would change or do about that?

Tim Carney

To reiterate, I’m not talking about the people who chose Trump over Hillary. I’m talking about the people who had never voted before and now they are waiting for four hours outside of a rally outside in Milwaukee. What was motivating these people?

As I was finishing up the book, I played back my earliest interview. In it, I asked the guy, “you’re wearing a hat and a scarf that say Make America Great Again. What’s not great about America?” I thought he was going to say something about immigrants or trade or the sexual revolution or whatever. But he said something along the lines of, “Well, when I was a kid, we had Memorial Day parades and all the Boy Scouts and all the Girl Scouts and all the Little Leagues would walk down and pant American flags in the cemetery in town.”

That later became the thesis of my book: The American dream seems dead to him because where he lives now, outside of Charlotte, is a place that doesn’t have strong community. The same sort of thing that draws people to Bernie Sanders — people wanting to be involved and connected and organized. I think a lot of voters just wanted somebody just to say “the American dream is dead, and those guys who in Washington are ripping you off.”

Jane Coaston

I was thinking about how much of conservatism in some ways is inherently reactionary — and when I say this word I don’t mean it negatively. I mean the idea of “standing athwart history yelling stop.” Is that what his voters expect from Trump?

Tim Carney

I do think that’s some of it. It’s easy to just focus on the policy issues and just to look at immigration or trade. But I think that that’s the surface. I use the image in the book of the first domino. The first domino has already fallen: China’s already sort of taken all of our jobs. The factory’s already closed down.

But if you think that that’s the beginning and the end, then you’re missing the problem. Go to Uniontown, Pennsylvania, which used to be a steel town and see that the factory isn’t the only thing that closed down. The coffee shop where the factory workers went closed down. The Methodist church closed down. The Catholic church consolidated with a parish in a different county. The owners of the local bar can’t stay open more than two nights a week. So people don’t have that many places to come and gather.

Trump can’t bring back the factory. But they see the closure of the factory as a first domino that’s led to a collapse of their community. And Trump is the only one saying this whole thing has been bad while Marco Rubio would say, some of this is bad but trade generally is good. Trump was most willing to curse the changes that have led to real suffering in these people’s lives. And white working-class guys — the sons of the people who had the factory jobs 30 years ago — really are struggling,

Jane Coaston

When I spoke to Chris Arnade, who wrote the book Dignity, he raised the point that for white working-class voters, their response to a political downturn for them has been to vote for a Trump or a Pat Buchanan or a Ron Paul; black working-class folks drop out of voting altogether. There was a really great New York Times piece from Milwaukee right after the 2016 election that reiterated this point. Based on the work that you’ve done, why do you think that different working-class communities deal with political and cultural and societal downturns differently?

Tim Carney

There’s going to be a million reasons, but one thing to keep in mind is that the white working-class voter mostly did drop out. If you remember, the best post-2012 analysis was by Sean Trende who wrote about the missing white voter. Most of the reason Romney lost was because working-class whites who weren’t really attached to religious institutions from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa stayed home. Had they voted, it’s possible Romney would have won some or all of those states. So I would argue that a lot of the white working-class vote had started tuning out [of politics].

A lot of what I do is bar reporting. And one place that I was skipping for years were the roadside country bars because I would pull over, start talking about the economy, try to gently bring it over toward politics, [and] universally people would say “Politics is a bunch of BS. I don’t vote, and I’m not going to talk about it.” In 2016, [it was] “politics is a bunch of BS; that’s why I’m voting for Donald Trump.” There was this disaffected white population that was pushed totally away from politics. And these people in Pennsylvania weren’t voting for Pat Toomey for Senate, but they were voting for Donald Trump.

What I would say is that Hillary Clinton certainly was not the candidate who was going to bring the disaffected working-class black voter. Whether Bernie or Biden is, is an excellent question. Biden’s excellent performance in polls of black voters early on is promising, and I do see Bernie turning out lots of people who wouldn’t vote if he weren’t on the ballot.

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