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  • Why are so many working-class Republicans attracted to Donald Trump? Tweet This
  • The line between economic interests and values isn't always clear. Tweet This

Jolie is tired. She woke up at 6:30 this morning, put three kids on the bus, and took her youngest with her to the preschool where she clocks in at 8:30. At 3:30, she clocked out, and returned home to her husband (he is a technician for a telecommunications company) and her children. At 6:00 p.m. she will clock into the big-box store where she recently picked up a seasonal job, and she won’t finish her shift until 1:30 in the morning. But instead of sleeping while she has the chance, she’s explaining to me why she, like 46 percent of non-college-educated Republican voters, favors Donald Trump.

“Being a mom, there’s been times that I fall between the cracks,” she said. “I can’t get [government] assistance, because we make too much. But I don’t have enough to cover what I need to just to survive. And there’s times that I just question in reality, ‘How can I not be able to get help when I’ve worked my whole life since I was 14?’ I pay into it. I should be able to reap some of the benefits when I need it.”

Once, when Jolie lived with her parents in their one-story house, she applied for food stamps. She received them for a time, but then the county accused her of fraud: they said she was lying about living at her parents’ house, and stripped her of her food stamps.

Those food stamps, she said, were “the only way I had of feeding my children.” She got an associate’s degree to teach preschool, but in the six years that she has taught—almost all of that time with the same privately owned company—she has never made more than $10 an hour. And she was coming up short. Her checks weren’t enough to cover her family’s needs: basic stuff like rent, a car payment, and diapers.

“But yet there are people who live on government assistance, who collect it, and they turn around and sell it for drug money,” she noted. “And it bothers me. But Trump is talking about cutting down some of those benefits.”

In Jolie's view, we need a president who can ‘equal the playing field for everyone, not just for certain groups.’

Jolie likes that. As Alec MacGillis recently noted in the New York Times, working-class voters like Jolie are attracted to Republicans who promise to crack down on welfare recipients because they’re concerned that too many people are milking the system. In her view, we need a president who sees the problems, and who can “equal the playing field for everyone, not just for certain groups.” As she sees it, a married mother of four with an associate’s degree and with a husband who also works full-time shouldn’t have to work two jobs. And if she’s eligible to receive food stamps, she should receive them. But that hasn’t happened to her. She thinks she understands at least part of why that’s happening.

Just think of all the illegal immigrants who enter this country, she said. When they have babies, they are U.S. citizens, and thus eligible to receive government assistance. This doesn’t seem fair to her.

“So these people are coming over here, having these babies, collecting the welfare,” she said, “but yet not hav[ing] to pay any taxes towards it. Versus us, who have to work to pay for those taxes, can’t get it!”

This is another reason why she likes Trump. She heard that he was talking about closing down the borders and “shipping the illegals back over to their countries, which I kind of agree with.” We have too many homeless U.S. citizens who are struggling to survive as it is, she added.

Importantly, she noted, Trump is a successful businessman. “He has some experience in the financial world of how to make ends meet, and to get to the max potential of the company. The United States needs that because we’re in debt to a bunch of other countries.” She thinks that if we could get that debt under control, it would have positive, trickle-down effects for ordinary Americans like her. “And I think he could clear that [debt] up,” she said.

I told her about Trump’s comments that he thinks America shouldn’t raise the minimum wage to $15 because wages are already “too high,” and that Americans just had to work harder. Here she was, a woman lucky to get four hours of sleep because she had to work two jobs. Did his comment bother her?

“My thought is that I kind of agree with him, though,” she said. “Is it fair for someone who works at McDonald’s to make $15 an hour, versus I’m a teacher at a preschool with an associate’s degree making $10 an hour? Is that fair? Is it fair that I should go to school to better myself to have a career, yet any Joe that walks into McDonald’s is making more than me? Is that fair? I don’t think so.”

She points out that there’s no way her boss could afford to pay her $15 an hour for her job. She thinks that you have to look at things from the perspective of the small business owner, too.

‘He’s rich for a reason... He has a business, he knows how to run it.’

“What about the fact that he’s a billionaire,” I asked, “does that bother you?”

She shook her head. “I mean, he’s rich for a reason. I’m poor for a reason! We all have our reasons for our financial standing in life. He has a business, he knows how to run it. So clearly he did something right. I may not know the secrets yet—someday I might. Hopefully!”

“So you respect him as a businessman?” I asked.

“I do. I mean, you can’t always be all soft and buttery when it comes to your business. You gotta be hard and stern and know when to fold and when to push further. I think he knows how to do that.”

“And you think he could do that for America?”

“I think he could.”

Economic Interests Versus Values

Political analyst Bill Schneider has suggested that Trump is rallying the white working class not around their “economic interests” but around their “values.” But if Jolie’s answers represent how other less-educated white voters are thinking, that dichotomy is misguided.

Yes, the values Trump appeals to in many cases resonate with those of the white working class. As Lance, a gas station cashier and a married father of three, told me, Trump is speaking to “stereotypical Americans” like himself who revere “guns, Bible, soldiers, beer, football.” But as Lance also explained, he thinks people like him are quick to support Trump because they think “he’s going to be able to turn the economy around just lickety-split.” (It’s one of the reasons why Lance initially supported Trump.)

For Jolie, the fact that she’s falling “in between the cracks” and having to work two jobs drives her attraction to Trump. She thinks he can get the economy humming again, just like (she pointed out) it was during the Clinton years. In fact, if it came down to Trump against Hillary Clinton, she thinks it’d be a tough choice. She says things were better when “the Clintons” were in office.

Russ, a retired Army veteran whom I also interviewed, reiterated Jolie’s point. He likes what Trump has to say about barring Muslims from entering the country and deporting all illegal immigrants. But if it came down to a contest between Trump and Clinton, he’d vote for Clinton. Why?

“She was president before,” he explained with a mischievous smile. “She made all the decisions. The economy was good, the country was good. Since she got out of president, the country hasn’t been good. But when it was in the green, everybody had jobs. She’s a smarter person than [Bill Clinton] is.”

Russ’s daughter, Stacy, though, explained that she’d vote for Trump: “Because he’s going by the Bible: gay marriage shouldn’t be allowed,” before adding, “I believe that if you don’t believe in Jesus, then you don’t need to be in this country.” (For her, at least, values do appear to trump economic concerns.)

“Ronald Reagan was a good president, too,” Russ chimed in, “but he believed in the Bible, too.” For him, though, the economy was paramount. “I’d vote for Jesse Jackson if he made the economy good.”

‘I’d vote for Jesse Jackson if he made the economy good.’

What about the fact that Trump was a billionaire, I asked them? I had heard members of their family make disparaging comments before about the rich people who lived outside of the working-class part of town. Did they mind that he was wealthy?

“No,” they said in unison. And, no, they weren’t worried that he would cut food stamps. As Stacy began explaining why she is on food stamps and doesn’t have a job—she received custody of her nieces and nephews because of their parents’ battles with heroin—her father offered his opinion: “I believe in the Bible: if you don’t work, you don’t eat.” It also didn’t bother them that Trump said wages are “too high” for working Americans, though they personally believed that wages should be raised to at least $12 an hour.

“I used to watch him on TV,” Stacy said about Trump. She liked how on The Apprentice, he said it like it was: “You do what you need to do, or you’re fired. Plain and simple: you do your job.” Besides Clinton, the only other candidate they knew about was Jeb Bush, whose name rolled off Russ’s tongue as if he was uttering a disgusting slur. (“We don’t need another Bush in the White House,” Stacy agreed.) But they like a businessman who, as they see it, knows how to build a company and get rich.

Will It Last?

Many members of the white working class distrust everyone and everything from their own dads to the government. So how long can Trump keep their support? One working-class young man I corresponded with said, “I love the way Trump speaks,” but explained that he doesn’t vote. Why not? “I don’t believe any votes actually matter to me. Every election is rigged. Research where all the votes go.”

In light of such pervasive distrust, why do so many of them put their faith in the billionaire New Yorker who is the epitome of the so-called One Percent? The man who has implicitly questioned the work ethic of Americans in low-wage jobs (“People have to go out, they have to work really hard and they have to get into that upper stratum”) and said that he has never asked God to forgive his sins?

How long will the relationship last?

In search of insights, I talked with Lance, who until very recently was a Trump supporter. And if my conversations with him are any indication, a break-up could be in the offing—and it if happens, it will be ugly.

“He’s a rich guy with a hot wife that wants a lot of power” is how Lance describes Trump now. Or as he added later, “Trump’s being a complete jackass…there are two people that I don’t want in office, and that’s Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.”

Lance initially liked Trump “because he was all for getting illegal immigrants out of this country so that we can rebuild our economy.” He liked that “he was all for gun rights.” He liked that “he isn’t a politician” (“everybody knows politicians are liars”). He liked that “he was brutally honest.” He liked that he would “bomb the shit out of [ISIS].” He liked that “he’s a businessman, and maybe he can build this economy back to what it was.” Summing it all up, he said, “To me, he was the stereotypical American: guns, religion, soldiers.”

But then a video he saw on Facebook turned Lance against him. At a rally, Trump had been disparaging the number of Americans on food stamps when he was interrupted by a protester. As the protester was escorted out of the rally by security, Trump made fun of the man’s weight. That really got to Lance, who had been on the receiving end of a lot of bullying in school for “being poor.” And suddenly, he saw Trump in a new light: he wasn’t the smart, no-nonsense businessman who could solve America’s problems; he was just a grown-up bully. “How old are you to make fun of someone’s girth?”

The fact that it happened while Trump had been blasting food stamps particularly angered Lance, and it got him thinking. As he said, “The reason I dislike him now is because he’s talking about getting rid of food stamps completely.” Lance agrees that it should be harder to get food stamps; he thinks you should be drug-tested and you should have to work. “But if you’re actually trying in life,” he said, “and you’re coming up a little short, there’s no problem with government assistance.”

The fact that Trump has never suggested abolishing food stamps doesn’t really matter; what matters is that his rant broke Lance’s trust. As Lance said, “I think his problem isn’t with food stamps; I’m honestly starting to think his problem is with poor people. Because he’s rich. And I don’t think he knows the first thing about being poor.”

He added, “I think to him Red Lobster is like McDonald’s.”

‘I think his problem isn’t with food stamps; I’m honestly starting to think his problem is with poor people.’

Lance and his family don’t receive food stamps—he and his wife both work, and every time they’ve received food stamps they’ve quickly become ineligible—but he’ll be the first to tell you that some months, $100 of food stamps would help them out a lot. Sometimes, they’re barely able to afford rent. But when Lance hears Trump denigrating those on food stamps, he hears the message that he is poor and lazy.

Never mind that Lance is barely able to sleep because of his and his wife’s work schedules: he works at night, his wife works during the day, and someone (Lance) has to watch the kids during the day. Never mind that they don’t abuse drugs or otherwise “abuse the system.” Never mind that hostile family-work policies and unjust firings (as I detailed here and here) are primary reasons he and his wife have yet to find work that pays well. As Lance sees it, Trump doesn’t understand people like him; he’s just another rich person stigmatizing working people as poor.

Two days after Trump proposed barring Muslims from entering America, I spoke to Lance again, and he was even more livid.  He thought that Trump was deliberately playing on Americans’ raw fears, and using them for his own power.

“Basically, what Americans are most scared about and worried about, he speaks out about to gain their support,” Lance said. For instance, he pointed to the gun control debate. “Trump knows that most Republicans cling to their guns, and he’s speaking the opposite of Obama: ‘No, I would not tighten gun laws.’” And just when people are scared about home-grown radical Islamists, “he comes out and says what the people want to hear: ‘I would get rid of all Muslims.’ He’s just full of shit!”

As Lance emphasized to me, he’s the last person who wants to crack down on guns, or go soft on terrorists. He thinks “we need a president like Trump, but not Trump.” He no longer trusts the man himself: “all he sees are dollar signs, and how much power and fame he can get.”

“He’s poking at the American people,” Lance said, referring again to what he sees as Trump’s attempts to manipulate Americans’ fears. “I think he’s basically trying to control our minds, in a way. He’s figuring out how to steer us in whatever direction he wants us to go in.”

But Lance, he won’t be fooled.  Yes, he wants a president who loves guns, religion, and soldiers just as much as he does. Yes, he wants a president who can “build this country’s economy back up to 100 percent.” But he also wants a president who respects him.