I think it's still too early to know the extent to which Donald Trump won because of his appeal to the white working class. These folks have been moving steadily into the Republican camp for a long time, and 2016 merely continued this trend. At the same time, the upward spike this year was pretty big, and it appears to have been especially pronounced in several swing states in the upper Midwest. So it's hardly unfair to suggest that Democrats need to do more to reach out to rural, blue-collar whites.
At the same time, it's worth remembering exactly what Donald Trump's economic pitch was to the white working class:
- He demonized foreigners for "stealing our jobs."
- He promised to build a wall to keep out Mexicans.
- He promised to start trade wars by levying insane tariffs on countries he disapproves of.
- He promised to rain down hellfire on companies that move jobs overseas.
- He promised to essentially repudiate the entire postwar edifice of free trade.
- He promised not to touch Social Security.
- He promised to create blue-collar jobs by building $1 trillion worth of infrastructure.
This list is by no means comprehensive, but it hits all the high points. Here's the dilemma it presents to the progressive community: it is 100 percent composed of either (a) demagoguery that Democrats just aren't willing to engage in, or (b) things that Democrats already support. And when you add racial dog whistles and conservative social issues to the mix, the problem grows even worse. All we get is yet another list of things that Democrats flatly can't appeal to.
In other words, even if the white working class is the problem for Democrats, it's not clear what the solution is. That's especially true since Trump isn't going to do most of the stuff he talked about, and the rest of it is unlikely to help struggling blue-collar workers anyway. J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, says most working-class whites know this perfectly well:
My view is that folks are pretty clear-eyed about what Trump is actually going to do. I don't see many people saying, "Well, Donald Trump is going to fix these problems."
What he's offering them is a proverbial middle finger to all the people that they're frustrated at. If you think about what folks have been doing for 20 or 30 years, they have been bottling frustration and resentment that the political elites don't understand them, that the political elites don't care about them, that the political elites judge them in various ways.
All Donald Trump does is provide the opposite of those things. He seems to care about them. He seems not to judge them. He seems to understand them, and most importantly, he is willing to scream and yell at the people who have been judging them and misunderstanding them for a generation.
Progressives understand this language pretty well when it comes to their own constituencies. Even if there's not a lot that you can concretely do, at least you can show some respect and make it clear that you care. If a New York billionaire, a Vermont socialist, and an Ohio mega-liberal can do it, surely the rest of us can do it too?