While many college students spent their spring break in Mexico, I spent it watching a man with suspiciously small hands condemn that same country at a rally for himself in Wichita, Kan. What I observed was a byproduct of years of political and social trends manifested in one man. While their support for Donald Trump’s rhetoric is reasonably condemnable, the majority of his supporters seem to gravitate toward him in the hopes of seeing real grievances resolved. For Georgetown students, the tendency to write off Trump’s support base seems to illustrate the type of elite bias that has driven so many toward him.
Trump, reality television star and bankruptcy enthusiast, has captured America’s political imagination. His combination of racist vitriol and protectionist sentiment makes him the kind of 1920s throwback only a “Downton Abbey” fan could appreciate. His capacity to offend is only rivaled by his capacity to renege on his positions.
Yet though his persona borders on parody, he continues to see electoral success. A friend and I attended the rally less to listen to Trump than to try to make sense of his ascension by interacting with his supporters. I assumed a large portion of the audience would also be there solely to observe the political spectacle and/or death of American democracy. However, most audience members were genuinely enthusiastic about the prospect of seeing Trump.
When we arrived at the convention center several hours early, there were already hundreds of people in attendance donning the now-ubiquitous “Make America Great Again” hats and engaging in a range of what can be called political speech. A man held a sign that read, “Mitt don’t get to choose,” and a woman wearing a Trump T-shirt waved a Bible in the air. Though these characters captured my attention at first, I quickly grew bored and moved to the quieter sections to listen to conversation there.
While Trump’s support base often seemed bizarre, it was also sympathetic. His supporters seemed to be genuinely enthralled by his ridiculous overtures at times, applauding at any mention of building a wall, and they also seemed to harbor very real political grievances. My study was by no means systematic and my few interactions with supporters were limited to pleasantries and small talk. Still, my image of Trump supporters began to change.
The audience, nearly exclusively white and overwhelmingly male, seemed to feed off Trump’s disparagement of political elites. Most of his supporters seemed to come from working — class backgrounds and framed their support in economic terms. To them, critiques of Trump were nothing but reactionary backlash from the professional political class who sought to deny the working class a political voice. They were concerned about jobs and government debt and viewed issues such as immigration only in the instrumental terms of how they could impact the economy. I did not hear racial slurs or even anger, but concern that many Americans were being neglected by the political establishment and no longer had a voice.
Trump’s appeal began to make more sense to me. As a changing global economy begins to endanger some working class livelihoods, these people were insecure about their futures. While there are many groups who are more disadvantaged than that audience, this visceral fear of being forgotten seemed to drive those present into Trump’s arms.
The image of the Trump supporters that I saw at the rally defied my expectations. Trump was not gaining support with his policies, or even his antagonistic rhetoric, but with his ability to make a group of working — class Americans feel politically relevant again.
The ascent of Trump should also serve as a lesson in humility for the many Georgetown students who study politics. Too often, those of us who study elections and governance discount the very real human emotions at play. By discounting many Trump supporters as being as crazy as he is, we are validating their belief that elites are unwilling to fully listen to their views. His audience’s implicit message seems more important than the message Trump delivered that morning. When people fear being forgotten, they will pick any avenue as a conduit for change, even a man who feels compelled to defend the size of his manhood on national television.
Andrew Shaughnessy is junior in the College.