Politics

Why Would Blue-Collar Workers Support Donald Trump?

America’s trade policy is written by the college-educated to benefit the college-educated.

A large crowd of closely people, many of them wearing red hats.
Supporters at a Donald Trump rally in Janesville, Wisconsin, on Saturday. Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

On Tuesday’s episode of Trumpcast, Virginia Heffernan spoke with Kathleen Kingsbury and Farah Stockman of the New York Times editorial board about the publication’s weekend op-ed package, Stockman’s experiences with the Trump-voting working class, and how NAFTA and normalization of trade with China have fundamentally restructured American manufacturing. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Virginia Heffernan: Farah, you’ve been living with or coming to understand the working-class voters who are usually dismissed on the coasts as simply racist, but you found out much more about them. Tell me about your reporting and about the charge that economic anxiety is just a fig leaf for racism.

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Farah Stockman: I spent about seven months following some steelworkers as their factory shut down in Indiana. Then I followed them for years afterward to figure out what happened. I followed a white woman, a Black man, and a white man. I should say that not everyone in that factory voted for Trump, and the union there endorsed Bernie Sanders. But a lot of them did vote for Trump—probably about half the white workers. I learned so much from these people.

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The reason I chose this factory was that Trump tweeted about it. He tweeted about the workers. He made them feel personally important. He called out the boss of the factory. He said, This has got to end. No more. Another one going to Mexico. No more. He was vocalizing what they’d been saying for 10 years. And he was vocalizing what Democrats used to say. Sherrod Brown still says it, but you don’t have that flavor of Democrat anymore. Trump just ripped from the pages of red-meat unionism. He exploited a vacuum that had been left by a lot of Democratic leaders when they went centrist.

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One of the things I learned is that the working class is not white. Most, or many, of those factories had a lot of Black people in them. The factory I was following was about 40 percent Black. So the charge that blue-collar people are just bigots and racists? It’s understandable in a certain way, because the history of unions is a history of excluding Black people and excluding women, but in the ’70s, after the Civil Rights Act, a lot of those factories had to share their jobs. They had to open up. And that was exactly the time that factories started moving away. Liberals champion the idea of affirmative action, and evenly or fairly distributing these jobs, but they have totally forgotten this notion of keeping the factories here, making sure the jobs actually exist.

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What was so amazing to me is that Black and white, men and women, they all talked about politicians as crooks. Their standards were so low. You and I, college-educated people, were raised to believe my voice matters, my engagement will change things. These people were raised to believe they will ignore you. They are not really listening to you. They’re not really listening to your concerns.

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They had seen it time and time again. Every four years, people come down to the union hall, shake everybody’s hand, and then go away. And then more factories would leave. More jobs would be gone. These were the lucky ones, who still had union jobs paying $25 an hour with health benefits. They were like the last of the Mohicans in Indianapolis. We would be at these rallies outside the plant and people would stick up their middle finger at the union workers. Because they were people in the new economy, in the gig economy, where you’re making $11 an hour. Of course unemployment’s low, because you need two jobs to survive.

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These people had felt so abandoned that they weren’t really voting. I interviewed so many people who had cast the first ballot of their life for Donald Trump in 2016.

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I’m afraid that if more people like that come out of the woodwork, we could see a surprise in November. There are a lot of people who feel totally left out of the political system. The more I understood their point of view, the more I couldn’t argue with it. Our economy has been designed and shaped by trade policy, by tax policy. It has been designed for college-educated people. And college-educated people make up a third of the American adults in the United States.

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I’m reeling from the thought we might see a surprise in November. I’ve just decided to ignore that.

Kathleen Kingsbury: I don’t think you can ignore it. I spent four months this summer in Wisconsin, where my parents are from. I lived in Waukesha County, where there are still many, many people who support Donald Trump. There are a lot of people in this country who feel like they are about to be left behind—even if they’re still doing very, very well.

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I don’t think that we’ve seen a total shift yet. Thirty million people have already voted. That’s a good sign for Democrats. But people still need to get out the vote. People still need to go and cast their ballot if they want change.

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Stockman: If the message is that these people are stupid and racist, how are you expecting to get them to come out and vote for your party? That’s been the message. It’s been that economic anxiety doesn’t exist. It’s all racial anxiety. We talk about these things in silos, as if they don’t interact. The irony, or the hypocrisy, of people in a law firm or a newsroom that is overwhelmingly white—far whiter than the factory—turning around and telling them they are racist. Some of these articles don’t even bother to quote a Trump supporter. We’ve gone away from the act of persuasion. Democrats have a great argument to make to these blue-collar people. They used to be Democrats. We left them. They didn’t leave us.

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