In August, I took my kids camping in North Central Pennsylvania, and we (or at least I) liked it so much we went back in early October: beautiful rolling hills and little mountains and streams, small family farms and fishing cabins and a few fancy-looking vacation homes. We also drove through and stopped to eat breakfast at some surprisingly empty, desolated, even bombed-out looking small towns. This matches some of the economic factors that seemed to predict Trump’s vote share in the primary- low average income, downward mobility for people who grew up at the 25th percentile, and some upward mobility for people who grew up at the 75th percentile. And indeed there were Trump signs everywhere, not just the official campaign ones but hand-painted wooden boards with “TRUMP” spray-painted in three-foot-high letters, or even painted directly onto abandoned barns. As Barack Obama said in 2008 about similar rural Pennsylvania towns:
You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
Lion of the Blogosphere notes that Pennsylvania had demographics that looked good for Republicans for a while, but it hadn’t gone for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988. How Trump, with no organized campaign and hardly any support from the party machinery, along with a hostile relationship with organized media, was able to do it, will be a question for the history books, and lots of different answers will be offered, from the simplest (it was a Republican Year) to the tried and true, to the more ornate (Trump was a “Master Persuader,” a mutant who can manipulate emotions, and so on.)
Something that is less often proffered is that, between meeting more-or-less personally with thousands of voters every day for over a year in giant rallies, and spending a lot of these rallies ad-libbing rather than reading a prepared speech, Trump had a lot of information coming in as well as going out. That is, journalists made a lot of the uglier side of these rallies, the shouts of “Lock Her Up” and sexist and racial epithets screamed out over Trump’s speeches. And this atmosphere definitely shaped the harshness with which he approached Hillary in the debates and on the stump, as well as feeding back on his supporters’ hostile and even hateful relationship with the press. But they also put certain issues front and center that, it seems to me, a candidate who was less submerged in his constituents- or who had a more consistent or articulated set of beliefs- would have missed. Immigration was the most obvious of these, but my sense is that he spent at least as much time talking about trade, which was an issue that clearly resonated with his supporters but is almost always treated as uninteresting and better left to the smoke-filled room by the press. The rallies- and basking daily in the adulation of thousands of supporters- also reinforced Trump’s (obviously largely innate) bullheaded determination never to back down, which served him so well in clearing out the other Republican candidates as well as against Hillary.
Journalists have roundly mocked “economic anxiety” as an explanation for Trump’s success. I will reiterate that I think the argument about whether his supporters are themselves deeply hurting (perhaps not) sometimes misses the point of whether their communities are. During the primaries, it was noted that Trump’s support was strongly correlated with the rise in middle-aged white mortality from suicide and drug abuse that Anne Case and Angus Deaton observed last year; though I haven’t been able to obtain good county-level numbers it’s worth noting that this correlation, especially with increases in death rates since 1999, continued in the general election results at a state level last night.
What mechanism (if any) could connect a rise in deaths to political change? Well, your guess is as good as mine:
Like most people in my social orbit, I have a fair amount of worry and concern about a Trump presidency; I’m hopeful that it will be more Berlusconi than Mussolini, but time (and, perhaps, the restraint imposed by federalism and other branches of government as well as the media) will only tell. But it seems to me that what Trump learned from his supporters is, for better or worse, at least as important as what they learned from him.