By now, we are all familiar with the story: Corporate bosses or factory owners move their plants overseas where labor and raw materials are cheaper. The result is the shuttering of factories, the collapse of the small businesses that supported the factory workforce, high unemployment among the laid-off, and the ensuing spiraling of unemployed workers into drugs, alcohol, anger, and despair.
When companies seeking higher profits move their plants and factories, they leave behind communities and families to face declining standards of living and to struggle to pay mounting bills. No wonder, then, that we have seen across the United States but especially in the hard-hit Midwest this epidemic of depression, alcoholism, addiction, suicide, and pent-up hostility.
Workers in that part of the country feel especially aggrieved. Losing their jobs brings not only economic hardship, but also a sense of worthlessness and humiliation. Work provides a sense of meaning, even an identity. With their jobs removed, workers feel left behind and, worse, overlooked. They blame not just the owners of the plants and businesses; they blame the elites who press for job-training in economic sectors the workers do not know; who argue that college is the best, if not the only, way out of poverty; and who push for immigration that brings in foreigners to compete for the few jobs remaining and who change the look of their communities.
So when a politician like Donald Trump comes along and promises to restore manufacturing, to bring jobs back from overseas, and who rails against elites, Washington, and immigrants, then blue-collar workers in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan cheer. At the time of Trump’s descent down the escalator, it was irrelevant whether Trump would actually make the workers’ situation better. The point was that they felt heard. Someone had acknowledged their losses, their anger, and their humiliation.
How long, however, can the mere acknowledgement of their grievances sustain them? At some point, promising the return of good jobs without their delivery runs thin. Where is that point? Isn’t it now, when Trump has failed to deliver new manufacturing, coal revival, or increased jobs in oil and gas? Between 2008 and 2018 Pennsylvania lost 80,000 manufacturing jobs. Trump hasn’t stopped the decline.
Forty-three percent of Michigan households, over 1.5 million households, can’t meet their basic needs, including housing, food, transportation, and health care. Where is Trump on providing them relief?
Where are the jobs? Sixty-one percent of all jobs in Michigan pay less than $20 per hour. Stoking anger against immigrants, minorities, liberals, and elites can only take you so far and only last so long. Yet Trump’s support remains solid in the low 40’s. That’s low for an incumbent, but not for Trump.
How have his approval and support not tanked? Because grievance supersedes evidence.
Manufacturing jobs across the United States under Trump have grown at about the same rate as under President Obama. Still, even before the pandemic, manufacturing was predicted to lose 450,000 jobs by 2029, losses thought to be permanent, since output has increased through automation. Continuing automation is likely to doom workers to unemployment, since robots and technology are getting cheaper and workers aren’t. The pandemic has made the situation worse, as companies commit to investing in more automation.
So, too, Trump’s tariff war with China: Higher prices for imports depress demand and shrink the need for manufacturing labor.
Coal isn’t coming back, and solar and wind now compete with oil and gas. Remove their government subsidies, and oil and gas will fall below renewables in affordability. Regardless, oil will be phased out, because solar is cheaper than new coal- or gas-fired plants.
So why do the blue-collar workers stay with Trump? One answer is that there is little alternative. Both Democrats and Republicans seem content to represent corporate America and to play to rich donors.
Another answer is that Trump’s blue-collar supporters are racists, misogynists, xenophobes, and champions of white patriarchy. But they aren’t, not all of them.
The third answer is that willful ignorance intersects with desperation. As a friend put it to me: “Stupidity supersedes sense.” Supporters hear the words, but never look behind the rhetoric for whether the claims have validity or make sense. So Trump’s cavalcade of lies and phony grievance continues to infect many more than even COVID-19.
This point leads to a fourth answer: Blue-collar workers aren’t stupid. They stay because they don’t care what Trump does. They care what he says. The “charm” and entertainment isn’t wearing off, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence of how he’s filled the swamp with former lobbyists and corporate cronies, has ignored the Constitution, has traduced our intelligence services and the military, tortured children at our border by kidnapping them from their parents, and done nothing legislatively but give the rich and his Wall-Street pals enormous tax breaks. Still, he rails against the swamp, elites, and liberals, while he dog-whistles to white supremacists, militants, misogynists, and xenophobes. For many Rust-Belt workers this is enough.
Many Trump blue-collar supporters aren’t paying attention to the evidence. Most of them want to throw a brick through the windows of Washington insiders, to disrupt the functions of our federal government, and to give a middle finger to our civil servants.
Evidence doesn’t matter to them because Fox News, Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh, QAnon, and OAN tell them they don’t need that. Just tune in. We’ll give you all you need to know. Numbed by the bombardment of endless tripe and wholesale lies, viewers are brain-fried.
All of these reasons might play a role in why blue-collar voters stay with Trump. But the most powerful reason for me is that Trump’s supporters have been duped, brainwashed, and brain-fried. All Trump voters are members of his cult.
I have written before about the Trump cult. I do not think it’s an exaggeration to say that his followers are cultists. Look at the crowds at his closing rallies. They are willing during a pandemic to herd together, many without masks, by the thousands. Many followers believe that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu, even with over 230,000 death within eight months; many believe the entire pandemic is a hoax, even with 1,000 deaths per day and upwards of 90,000 new cases each day. If Trump tells them the worst is over, masks are unnecessary, and social distancing is for suckers, then they believe him, despite what physicians, epidemiologists, and public-health specialists report.
Adherents in this Trump cult refuse to accept facts that denigrate or undercut their leader, though they are happy to accept lies, distortions, or “alternate facts” that champion their leader. They are willing to accept from their leader forms of behavior that run counter to the norm — for example, lying, cheating, scamming, bombast and bragging, inability to apologize…ever, scapegoating, and pussy-grabbing. In many cases, adherents might not see these behaviors as aberrant at all. Lying might be a quick change in perspective or circumstance or might be a false charge (“fake news”) brought on by the mainstream media to smear their leader.
Although a fair number of Trump’s associates and surrogates display the aberrant behavior characteristic of the leader himself — such as persistent and insistent lying in the face of obvious countervailing evidence — his followers do not necessarily display these behaviors themselves. Adherents are more characterized by what they lack and what they long for more than how they themselves behave. That is, followers tolerate and perhaps even applaud the aberrant behaviors of Trump, their leader, because he is a great man and above common concerns. As a great man, he can make deals and get things done, in spite of and for some adherents because of his behavior (for example, challenging political correctness or insulting national and international elites). But these are not behaviors that they themselves necessarily display.
We saw similar cult behavior just last week in the sentencing trial of Nxivm leader, Keith Raniere. A self-proclaimed expert on leadership and self-improvement, Raniere was convicted of sex trafficking, sexual predation, fraud, identity theft, extortion, racketeering, and child pornography and was sentenced to 120 years in prison. Still many supporters — several prominent in finance, consulting, and law — continue to declare his innocence; more than 50 wrote letters to the court asking for leniency and declaring that Raniere was a saint, if not Godlike.
All of this is proclaimed in the face of incontrovertible evidence of immense criminality. So, too, with Trump supporters. He is “not like other” politicians. Trump is sui generis, unique, one-of-a-kind. And so Trump can do nothing to fulfill the promises that he made during the campaign; indeed, he can even do the opposite of what he promised — e.g., rather than drain the swamp, fill it with more unsavory critters. He could even, as he bragged, shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York, and he would not lose his base. He could even abet the deaths of 240,000 Americans, and his followers will stay with him. As we have seen, they will even gleefully participate in his death parades. That’s because the base believes in him. Failure to fulfill promises or breaking of promises happens because of what others do or refuse to do — hapless Republicans in Congress, craven Democrats, and traitors to or defectors from the cause.
Thus, we have the persistence of the Trump cult, which means should he lose this election, his followers will not think that he should go quietly. Nor will they remain quiet themselves. Organizing for Trump and acting on his behalf provide purpose for adherents, even if — and for some especially when — such organizing and acting involves violence. Their belief in him and in his policies, such as they are, gives meaning to their lives. Trump is someone to believe in wholeheartedly, and his followers won’t give up any more than Trump will.
On the other hand, if he goes, then rest assured that Trump will continue to play up the grievance narrative as the head of the cult broadly known today as the Republican Party. So expect the promise that he will return to the ticket in 2024.
Of course, cults always come to an end, though the damage they cause can be extensive and deep. But the grievances that feed them always sprout new forms. So the 60 percent of us outside the cult need, therefore, to be vigilant, active, and wary. We can begin today by voting for Democrats who champion evidence over grievance.