Thousands of people who dive deeply into issues that cleave and bind society will come to the Minneapolis Convention Center this week, and like a lot of Americans, they will try to answer the question: “What just happened?”
The theme, of course, refers to the 2016 election that stunned many pundits. But because some of them have spent years studying the segments of society that felt marginalized or ignored, they don’t seem terribly surprised by the Trumpnado that hit the country. I talked to two anthropologists who will participate in discussions about the election at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association.
Christine Walley, professor of anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will show a documentary, “Exit Zero,” that she filmed about the closing of a steel mill in Illinois. She sees it as a pretext to the culture change that caused white, rural Midwestern workers to turn to Trump, who constantly reminded voters of the collapse of industry.
It was the story of her own family and one that her father was reluctant to tell.
“The closing of the steel mills was really devastating to my dad both psychologically and economically,” Walley said in an e-mail. “Like many industrial laborers, his sense of himself was built around being a hard worker and family breadwinner, and when that was lost after decades of working in the mills, it was like he no longer had a sense of identity.”
Many attributed the lost jobs to immigrants or companies moving them overseas, but Walley said it’s more complicated.
“You see a systematic disinvestment in manufacturing by a U.S. economy increasingly focused around finance,” she said. “It was simply more profitable for companies to make money in other ways, and there was little concern for the destruction left behind. The last few surviving mills have become highly automated and now employ a very small number of workers. I think one struggle right now is over the interpretation of why this all happened and who to blame. The irony, of course, is that many of Trump’s proposed policies aren’t going to help the people he’s claiming to help.”
The anthropologists question the popular notion that this was a “class-based” election.
“Class is now being defined as whether one has a college degree, but nearly 70 percent of whites don’t have a college degree,” said Walley. “Is 70 percent of the population really working class?”
Primary exit polls showed those “working class” Trump supporters were more financially secure than Democratic voters. “At that point, Trump’s core supporters seemed to be more lower-middle and middle class folks who feared downward mobility rather than those actually hurting.”
Hugh Gusterson, professor of anthropology and international affairs at George Washington University, agrees. He wrote a book, “The Insecure American,” that looked at a country (in 2009) in which the vast middle was retreating to gated communities and had fears for their jobs and their 401(k)s. They were nervous about health insurance, debt, terrorist attacks and immigrants.
“A lot of people are trying to understand this election in terms of class,” Gusterson said. “But I’m more struck by how geographical it was.”
People in the middle of the country saw a “slow-motion collapse” before 2009. Even as much of the country rebounded, the middle saw stagnation and decline. It’s not a coincidence, Gusterson said, that the heart of the opioid addiction problem runs through much of the geography that Trump won.
“The people who support Trump think they are losing ground,” Gusterson said. “For large parts of the middle, things haven’t turned around.
“If you are not seeing that the pie is expanding, you circle the wagons and you build walls. It’s not so much the people who have fallen, it’s people who fear falling.”
The fact that whites flocked to Trump is a key. “I don’t think you can understand this election without talking about race,” he said. “When there is an economic downturn, people turn their anger toward other groups. In Europe in the 1930s, it was toward the Jews. Today, it’s toward Muslims.”
Though Trump, a billionaire, is certainly an “elite” in America, his supporters didn’t see him that way. “Neither did Americans see FDR as an elite,” Gusterson said.
Gusterson, who is from Great Britain, said the Trump victory and Brexit appealed to similar people — not the lower class, but rather a kind of “petite bourgeoise” of workers and small business owners who seek to identify with people like Trump.
“In a way, Trump was a mirror to his audience,” Gusterson said. “He would try out different lines and see what the response was. People talk about his cruelty, but there was also an empathetic quality to him. It was a perverse kind of empathy, but he had an ability to tune into his audience. Despite his wealth and status, he found a way to genuinely talk to their pain.”
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