Trump Country

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.


8 thoughts on “Trump Country

  1. Trump, like Carter, was a outsider that the party insiders tried to tame. Carter and Ted Kennedy were like Trump and Cruz, but worse, if you read any history of the time. With Carter, the party insiders never fully succeeded in bringing the president into check, but in their attempts to do to, they re-asserted the role of Congress as a check against an imperial presidency. This was something that was lacking during the Kennedy and LBJ years, and which started with Congress standing up to Nixon. I think the GOP party establishment will suddenly find the guts to make Trump deal with them in a center-right policy space, when just a few years ago they went spaghetti spined against Obama on almost everything of importance.

    Moreover, the GOP has always been willing to throw overboard their own, and for many conservatives, principals matter as much as power, while with liberals it’s power first and then principals second. I do not think the GOP will stick together in the face of obvious malfeasance like the Dems did with Bill Clinton and Obama. They turned on Nixon. But I hedge my bets on this point though, because they stuck by Reagan during Iran-Contra.

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    1. I think my biggest hope for a Trump presidency (aside from generally avoiding disaster) would be a Congress that saw itself on a check on the President for foreign policy, especially.


      1. Congress rarely, though, deals with foreign policy. Not only are most of the powers related to it conferred to the executive in the Constitution (aside from treaties and a few other things) but historically Congress has almost always deferred (no matter the party or majority) to the president, a few aberrations aside.


  2. Okay, then to your valid point, what checks would a resurgent Congress put on a Trump presidency?

    Making Trump not play willy-nilly with treaty obligations or entering into “executive agreements”? That barge sailed long ago, for both parties.

    Making Trump not enter into dumb foreign excursions by withholding funds or not giving authorization for the use of force? That’s a mixed bag of sometimes yes, but usually not, when it comes to Congress preventing foreign excursions.

    Playing with the appointments process for senior military commanders and cabinet members? Maybe…..Congress has used this leverage well in the past. Once, McCain filibustered officer promotions until he got what he wanted from the Air Force.

    Reducing the size of the military? Hmm, the GOP, regardless of insider/outsider status want it rebuilt, and Dems will ensure that juicy defense contracts end up in their districts.

    Conducting their own foreign policy? The history of members of Congress interacting with foreign powers in an attempt to undermine the President, like Ted Kennedy with the Soviet Union, SO FAR have not been successful. Even Pelosi was squashed by Obama when she tried to have the Armenian Genocide formally recognized.

    Jawboning? Again, maybe…the Dems did successfully undermine public opinion on the Iraq War. But now we are talking second tier effects, rather than what Congress does directly. It was public opinion, not Congress, that stopped Bush. Just as it was public opinion that stopped Obama from bombing Syria when even his own party was set to vote against him on the use of force resolution.

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  3. Random thoughts:

    – agreed about hopes for restoring Congressional checks. I told friends that before the election, “Whoever wins, I look for a weaker presidency.”

    – I said a year ago that the Rust Belt would win it. Trade matters there more than a lot of other places. And no, NYT, keeping a measure of mid-skill level jobs here and negotiating better policy does not mean you’re “against trade”.

    -Tuesday was a repudiation of Richard Florida economic theory. A lot of voters decided this country can support only so many Boulder, CO and Asheville, NC -type places. Whole chunks of this country aren’t going to become tech giants, distribution centers for Amazon, or make a creative class magically appear. And they won’t benefit from finance. I wonder if anyone is going to give them credit for being more realistic than the elites who despise them. I kept hearing how flyover people were fools for longing for jobs that weren’t coming back. Memo: in my once deindustrialized area, they have, big time. Get some pols who disagree with this meme to get actually advocating for you, and those jobs may come back to yours- though your citizen’s mileage may vary.

    – This conflating of “xenophobia” with “protectionism” has resulted in adding to the list another one of those policies that the Left has left behind.

    -The Dems went on about dog whistles and various crypto-fascist marginilia pretty heavy this season (hi, Pepe!). Maybe they should have dog whistled rather than whistling loud and clear stuff like this: ““The emerging demographic majority isn’t quite there yet,” said Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist and former White House communications director. “The idea you can get to a presidential campaign and just press a button and they’ll vote, it’s not there yet.” …” Tip: Be patient for a few more cycles, and you’ll get your demographic shift. Try not to stir the natives too much for now.

    – Yeah, it’s been said enough in the last couple of days, but some people just woke up to the possibility that Thomas Friedman basing an op ed on a Manhattan conversation with his Afghani cab driver might be as parochial as Miss Emmie Lou polling her garden club before writing her weekly column for the Hickville Gazette.

    – There’s a number of people who just don’t cotton to neo-con foreign policy.

    Liked by 1 person

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