I’m clearly not the only person trying to make sense of Trump’s voters. Who are they? Why do they continue to support him? Why do they seem so susceptible to conspiracy theories and alternate realities?
The political science research has found a strong correlation between racist grievance and support for Trump, but as I have previously written, I am unwilling to conclude that the 70 million Americans who voted for him are all motivated by racism. (Granted, as my youngest son points out, they obviously didn’t consider Trump’s racism disqualifying…)
And where did the extra ten million votes–those over and above his support in 2016– come from?
The founder of the liberal Daily Kos site has an intriguing theory. He began by noting that both times Trump has run, he’s turned out voters that haven’t shown up for any other election–and probably for that reason, didn’t show up in the polls.
Remember, polling was perfectly fine in 2018, and Democrats swept races in 2017, 2018, and 2019. They even won governorships in blood-red Kentucky and Louisiana!
Yet both 2016 and 2020 saw the emergence of a massive wave of white voters that polling totally missed. In fact, despite suffering some defections among suburban Republicans, Trump still managed to get 10 million more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016! So I came up with a theory: the Hidden Deplorables.
According to this theory, the “hidden deplorables” are neither Republican nor conservative.
They’re apolitical, otherwise ignoring politics, because their lives legitimately suck. They live in meth country, with dim job prospects (in fact, those two factors are highly correlated). Institutions have failed them—corporations abandoned them for cheaper labor overseas, government feels distant, and it’s certainly not improving their lives. Cities feel like walled gardens—unattainable, unaffordable, yet that’s where all the jobs are, the culture, the action. These deplorables have been left behind. So their attitude? “Fuck them all.”
In other words, these are people who have lost everything and simply want to burn everything to the ground.
Kos concedes that he has no hard evidence for his theory–that it is simply his best explanation of the fact that these Trump voters only show up when Trump is on the ballot, and why pollsters are unable to capture them. He notes research on the 2016 election conducted by David Shor, a Democratic pollster. Shor’s research echoed the findings of surveys by Daily Kos leading up to the 2020 election. Trump support was highest among white voters who had low levels of social trust — a group that researchers have found is also less likely to participate in telephone surveys.
A Daily Kos pre-election survey to measure the strength of Americans’ social networks found that nearly one in five Americans (17 percent) reported having no one they were close with, marking a 9 percentage point increase from 2013.
Think about that.
What’s more, we found that these socially disconnected voters were far more likely to view Trump positively and support his reelection than those with more robust personal networks. Biden was heavily favored by registered voters with larger social networks (53 percent to 37 percent), but it was Trump who had the edge among voters without any close social contacts (45 percent to 39 percent).
And this was especially true among white voters even after accounting for differences in income, education level, and racial attitudes. Sixty percent of white voters without anyone in their immediate social network favored Trump, compared to less than half (46 percent) of white voters with more robust social ties.
If this analysis is correct–and it certainly rings true–it would explain so much: why urban whites are so heavily Democratic (they are surrounded by community). Why suburban whites–especially women– are turning blue as well. (It could also explain why suburban men, who are less likely to engage in social activities, remain more Republican.) Why seniors–the age group most likely to be isolated–remain more heavily Republican. It even explains part of the education gap—college is a community building experience.
Kos is interested in the political consequences of this phenomenon. He posits that It is “Trump the destroyer of norms, traditions, and liberals” that motivates their votes– that they’re attracted to his specific brand of destructive chaos. If he’s right, they don’t and won’t vote unless he’s on the ticket.
If this theory is right, however, it affects far more than political strategy.
Those of us who worry about the future of the nation need to figure out how to bring these people back into the American community. Many of them, as Kos suggests, are irredeemably damaged–the incels, the QAnon followers, militia members and the like are probably lost causes. But if he’s right, there are a lot of hurting, lonely, angry people “out there.”
Ignoring them, their isolation and their pain shouldn’t be an option.