We have done it. After over 400 days since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president and one of the most incredible elections in a recent history, we have arrived at a fabled “Peak Trump.” Unless there is an unprecedented reversal of fortunes, Nov. 8 will see former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton elected as the 45th president of the United States, and allow those of us who loathe the Republican presidential nominee to finally breathe a sigh of relief.
Yet now we must understand how Trump happened. Some Georgetown students do not often encounter the people drawn to Trump beyond news stories and posts on Facebook feeds. These students do not frequently interact with Trump supporters because, regardless of how they identify, they are members of an amorphous group: the elite. The elite send children to college, have generally stable families, grow up in cosmopolitan areas and have access to professional networks that land jobs.
But there is another America, one far less visible and glamorous. We catch glimpses of it in statistics of heroin overdoses, suicide rates and factory closures. We know it as the white working class, concentrated in Appalachia and the Rust Belt: communities tied together by God, college football and a deep-seated faith that they live in the greatest country in the world. Media outlets from The Economist to Fox News make the case that this group exists across the population.
This faith is, however, undermined by a feeling that the American dream is broken. Unlike any other demographic in the country, hard work and good choices will not enable members of this white working classes’ next generation to achieve greater financial success than their parents. The jobs providing ladders of opportunity have fallen under the tide of globalization and automation. A sense of fear and hopelessness, coupled with an anger at the political establishment in Washington, D.C., make fertile ground for paranoia and conspiracies. An atmosphere that has allowed Trump’s rhetoric to thrive capitalizes on long-simmering resentment within the white working class.
Undoubtedly, Trump is a racist and horrifies anyone who believes this country exists as a place of opportunity for everyone, regardless of identity and background. If our only takeaway from his popularity is that there are more closeted racists and sexists in the country than thought previously, then we have missed the point.
In an age of scripted speeches and political correctness, Trump’s spontaneous remarks and sexist overtones sound authentic even though many of his statements are blatantly false. He taps into a desperate feeling that toughness will return America to more prosperous times. Xenophobia and his TV entertainer’s charisma have brought racism and misogyny into mainstream politics, de-emphasizing the few policy objectives he has made.
The media’s attempts to explain Trump’s rise have been mostly disconnected from reality. With every racist remark or sacred political rule broken, many predicted Trump’s immediate demise, only to be dismayed a few weeks after. Many media outlets, from CNN to Al Jazeera to The New York Times, failed to broach the divide between their world and Trump’s because, as members of the elite, many newsroom employees cannot comprehend the working class’ feeling of hopelessness for its economic prospects that makes it side with Trump.
Consider where this election leads. If Trump loses the race in the fall, his views, now popularly known as Trumpism, will not disappear. They will remain with those who are anti-trade, love populism and nationalism, but possess younger, more appealing faces. We heard a hint of what that platform might look like with Donald Trump Jr.’s speech at the Republican National Convention, which advocated for America’s success over that of other nations and the abolition of public services with the potential to favor the elite.
It is easy to look at Trump voters and conclude that they are simply racists to whom we should not listen. But as Georgetown students and future leaders, we owe it to ourselves to take a more nuanced look at why such a flawed candidate appeals to many. If we do not learn these lessons, they will return to haunt us and threaten our dream of a better tomorrow sooner than the next election cycle.
Andrew Boling is a junior in the School of Foreign Service.