Part of the fallout from this electoral season, regardless of who wins or loses, is the acrimony that has been generated by the primaries and the general campaigns. Yes, there has been mud-slinging in the past; yes, there has been controversy. But a number of commentators suggest that this election has been the most antagonistic and hostile of them all.
So Hillary Clinton speaks of the Trump supporters as “deplorable.” Trump demeans women, immigrants, Muslims, and others in ways that have reached a new low.
If you believe this is an exaggeration, consider your reaction to what Al Gore announced after the 2000 presidential election: “Just moments ago I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43rd president of the United States…I offered to meet with him as soon as possible so that we can start to heal the divisions of the campaign and the contest through which we’ve just passed…I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country.”
That Gore put country above partisanship was part of a tradition, and one that served as a model for the greater good of the country. But that sounds light years in the past.
The rise of Trump was fueled by the anger of those who fear that the future will increasingly neglect them.
That this sort of reconciliation is increasingly hard to imagine between Clinton and Trump at the conclusion of the 2106 election suggests we are in dangerous territory. It may well be that long-term damage has been done to the country.
This brief essay cannot hope to document that in all possible ways. Rather, I wish to consider those who are supporting Donald Trump (and to some extent before him, Bernie Sanders) and ask what generated such acrimony and, yes, anger, especially among white men who are members of the working class. I ask this primarily for rural people, those long forgotten by the government and the church, and I ask it towards a future that could well reflect the divisiveness of the election.
An observation: Where do you see (or did you see) Trump-Pence stickers during the campaign? Were they not often attached to the bumpers of pickup trucks or working vehicles?
So, two questions: first, why have so many rural, working class, white voters been attracted to Trump?
Second, assuming that Clinton wins, what might we expect of the electorate, and how can the country (and especially the church) begin to heal the very real damages that have been done?
Older white voters were told that if they worked hard, exhibited civic virtue and followed the rules, a high school diploma and industriousness would allow them to live well. And their kids to live even better. But, as we know, that is no longer the case.
First, the anger generated among rural white voters. These are generally the most “patriotic” of our citizens. They believe(d) in the American Dream. Older white voters were told that if they worked hard, exhibited civic virtue and followed the rules, a high school diploma and industriousness would allow them to live well. And their kids to live even better. But, as we know, that is no longer the case.
Younger white voters compare their futures with that of their parents and they see that the parameters of the American Dream have changed. It takes more to “get ahead.” The people that Charles Murray described in his book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, as living in “Fishtown” are working class, white citizens by and large. Their divorce and separation rates have skyrocketed as the divorce rate among the well-fixed has remained low. They have become increasingly segregated from both other ethnic groups and well-fixed people’s neighborhoods. They find that their educations serve them poorly; the jobs they have produce incomes that have risen only 0.03% a year since 1979. Furthermore, rural people have borne the brunt of those killed on the ground in the Middle East; they have been disproportionately represented among the causalities and injured in those recent wars.
The social and economic worlds that defined the lives of traditional rural white voters have disappeared. They fear that the changes taking place are leaving them behind. And in many ways they are.
Rural people tend to be traditionalists; family relations and place matter a great deal to them. The urban, modern value set is cosmopolitan by contrast. Part of that cosmopolitan value set is seen to hide a conspiratorial mentality, as when Trump accused Clinton of “meeting in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers.”
How can the country (and especially the church) begin to heal the very real damages that have been done?
Cosmopolitanism also suggests that we have an obligation to others, others that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by blood, tribe, or even citizenship. The more hopeful aspect of cosmopolitanism is that we take seriously the value of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance. (For more, see this recent article from the Washington Post.)
Those who live cosmopolitan lives need to take account of those who can be called “neighborhood people” to whom the “citizens of the world” are of less concern than their family, friends, and neighbors. They love their way of life and their homeplaces. Their identities are tied up with traditions of self-sufficiency that are being weakened and—too often—disrespected. From their perspective change has not been kind to their kind – it erodes their economic progress, chases many young people out (along with their schools, grocery stores, and gas stations), and often brings in people whose language they do not speak.
(This is not only an American phenomenon; consider the rise of nationalist movements in Europe and the increased consciousness of ethnic identities. I am betting that such movements have attracted many rural people who are experiencing inequality.)
How can we remedy this situation post-election? The church has often been among those cosmopolitans who regard rural folk as backward. The genius of rural and working class culture has been ignored by graduate education which is clearly cosmopolitan. Consider the Greek and Hebrew language requirements for Presbyterian ministers.
We cannot demonize those supporters as “deplorables.” God loves them.
Christians can become aware of their class bias. They can begin to welcome neighborhood people into their churches. They can go out, volunteer, vote with a consciousness of how forgotten peoples are affected, become a community church. They can carry the church outside. On a national scale, Christians could support the Fight for Fifteen minimum-wage movement, they could volunteer in and support public education, which has increasingly become minority education. In short, the church needs to be attentive to those who fear change. In fact, many of our churches are smaller membership and rural (and inner city) congregations that exhibit this character. Suburban class bias, frankly, does not understand their loyalties and senses of loss. Yet the wider church could learn much from them.
The sort of acrimony that might follow this election (“We are Second Amendment people”) calls us to understand that social innovations need to address the forgotten white working-class people. It calls us to appreciate their patriotism and sense of place. The rise of Trump was fueled by the anger of those who fear that the future will increasingly neglect them. They do not feel appreciated; more deeply, they may not feel loved by God. Politicians well before Trump have played to their resentments while helping keep them poor.
We cannot demonize those supporters as “deplorables.” God loves them. They hate being patronized, just as we do. Giving an ear and a heart to rural peoples and those of the working class is not just what Jesus would do; it is what Jesus did.
AUTHOR BIO: L. Shannon Jung, retired professor and Parish Associate, Peace Presbyterian Church, Bradenton, FL. His books include, Hunger & Happiness: Feeding the Hungry, Nourishing Our Souls (2009) and, as co-editor with Patricia Beattie Jung, the eighth (!) edition of Moral Issues & Christian Responses (2013).