What Really Made the Right Nuts

It seems like a lot of people are observing the psychiatric wreckage of the American right and wondering out loud if the president bears any special responsibility for this emotional crackup. It got to the point last week that Obama actually had to answer a question about this. He said the theory was “novel,” and then he dismissed it.

There are a lot of theories going around, actually, and none of them seem to have a complete explanation. That the president is a biracial black man certainly has caused a reaction, but it’s a pretty incomplete theory, and one that by its own terms precludes the president from bearing any possible responsibility. No one chooses their parents.

At the Washington Monthly, we just ran a piece on the startling fact that middle age white men are now more likely to commit crimes than young adults. Kevin Drum thinks the current generation of young adults are less violent because they weren’t exposed to as much lead as children. Either way, the hollowing out of the manufacturing base and loss of good-paying blue collar jobs should be a pretty important component of any theory about why older whites without high school diplomas are flocking to a charlatan like Donald Trump.

The places where Trump has done well cut across many of the usual fault lines of American politics — North and South, liberal and conservative, rural and suburban. What they have in common is that they have largely missed the generation-long transition of the United States away from manufacturing and into a diverse, information-driven economy deeply intertwined with the rest of the world.

“It’s a nonurban, blue-collar and now apparently quite angry population,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. “They’re not people who have moved around a lot, and things have been changing away from them, but they live in areas that feel stagnant in a lot of ways.”

Mr. Trump has his share of support from the affluent and the well educated, but in the places where support for Mr. Trump runs the strongest, the proportion of the white population that didn’t finish high school is relatively high. So is the proportion of working-age adults who neither have a job nor are looking for one. The third-strongest correlation among hundreds of variables tested: the preponderance of mobile homes.

Needless to say, the Great Recession did these folks no favors. And the way they express their angst and dissatisfaction may not be rational, but the objective facts of their lives are such that there’s a very rational basis for their anger. It may even be a perverse form of progress that the current objects of their strongest derision are Republican elites like John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and the Bush family. Donald Trump is their way of saying ‘fuck you’ to a lot more people than just the president.

By identity, experience, temperament, and style, it’s obvious that Barack Obama is “not one of them,” so it would never have been easy for him to become their champion. He’s done what he could for them, and it’s been considerable. Where their governors have permitted it, they have full access to Obamacare, even if they need to go on Medicaid to get it. Their communities are less poisoned, although that doesn’t mean that they live in healthy communities. They have much better protection against predatory businesses and the credit card industry. Many fewer of their kids have been maimed and injured in ill-advised military adventures under Obama’s leadership than the leadership of his predecessor.

But the Republicans have ignored them throughout this presidency, even as their communities have been ravaged by the opioid epidemic and an inexorable process of globalization and energy-greening that is leaving them and their communities behind. On Nov. 2, 2015, Anne Case and Angus Deaton published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences called “Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century.” The findings were alarming:

If the white mortality rate for ages 45−54 had held at their 1998 value, 96,000 deaths would have been avoided from 1999-2013, 7,000 in 2013 alone. If it had continued to decline at its previous (1979‒1998) rate, half a million deaths would have been avoided in the period 1999‒2013, comparable to lives lost in the US AIDS epidemic through mid-2015. Concurrent declines in self-reported health, mental health, and ability to work, increased reports of pain, and deteriorating measures of liver function all point to increasing midlife distress.

Simply put, a population that makes up the core of the Republican base has been committing suicide, overdosing on opioids, and drinking itself to death at a rate comparable to the AIDS epidemic. And the Republicans not only spent zero time trying to help them during the Bush and Obama years, they didn’t even seem to know that this was happening to them.

It seems to me that this is a tremendous failing. As president, Obama is responsible for all Americans and American communities, but these people aren’t his core base of support. They by-and-large did not vote for him or the Democratic Party. The first responsibility here is for the Republicans to talk to their supporters, figure out what they need (and, no, it’s not Wall Street deregulation and tax cuts for the rich) and take some proposals to the president.

I’m sure that President Obama would have, for example, been very amenable to a big program to help coal-country inhabitants transition to a clean energy economy.

None of this happened, which is why I believe that we’re not just seeing a reaction against the president. We’re seeing a wholesale rejection of the Republican party establishment that decided to oppose everything the president would seek to do even before he was inaugurated.

It’s exactly what they’re doing now in refusing to consider a Supreme Court nominee before they even know who that nominee will be.

They could exert their influence to get a Justice more to their base’s liking, but they’re giving up their influence just so they can appear to be maximally opposed to Obama.

This hasn’t helped their voters who continue to commit suicide, and drink and drug themselves to death.

So, you can say Obama drove people nuts with his bloodless Mr. Spock routine and that he doesn’t get the emotional needs of the country, but that is a very partial explanation for what we’re witnessing.

When the Republicans cannot even identify an AIDS-size epidemic in their communities and give up on the political process as a way to help their people, their people turn to an anti-political movement. You cannot expect people to remain dedicated to democratic institutions when their representatives are unwilling to use those institutions to better their lives.

What you get, then, is support for fascism. You get people semi-rationally calling for a strong man who will smash the weak legislature and stick a boot on the necks of their elites who have abandoned them.

[Cross-posted at Booman Tribune]

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.