The Angry White Men That Gave Trump and Sanders Their Victories

The populist N.Y. billionaire and the socialist Vermont senator are miles apart ideologically, but they often play similar tunes for their frustrated fans.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
AP, Bloomberg

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were the big winners in the latest round of presidential primary contests that came to be known as “Super Tuesday II.” Trump racked up impressive victories in Mississippi and Michigan and garnished with a win in Hawaii, stopping the momentum of his opponents and possibly polishing off Marco Rubio altogether. Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in Michigan in an upset victory that defied all the polls and predictions and provided the Vermont senator with renewed energy for the races still to come.

Clinton did wind up with more convention delegates than Sanders, after her whopping 83-17 percent victory in Mississippi, in which overwhelming African-American support continued to vanquish the entire south on her behalf. African Americans also gave her an impressive, though lesser, 65 percent of their vote in Michigan, but that only showcased her chronic weakness among whites, mainly males, especially from lower income families. Her loss provides a stark warning sign, as it gives a renewed hope to Sanders and his followers, that similar results can be expected in neighboring and similar states, in which primaries are just around the corner, including Ohio, Illinois and Missouri, which will head to the polls next week, and later Pennsylvania, Indiana and Wisconsin.

Sanders, who was down by 27 percent (!) in polls published Monday by Fox News, achieved his slim-yet-dramatic victory with a majority of votes from young, male, white voters, though his support among other demographics didn’t lag that far behind. Commentators and pundits had praised Clinton for devoting time and energy to the lead-poisoned water affair in Flint, but in retrospect that may have distanced her from voters in other parts of the state. And although I haven’t seen any indications to back such a claim, it is also possible that Clinton is facing a sort of “white backlash” because of the overwhelming support she gets from African Americans and Sanders’ concurrent failure to win them over, despite his efforts.

In this sense, tensions between whites and African Americans are a sort of leitmotif not only of the divisions between the GOP and Trump and Democrats, but also inside the Democratic Party itself. Even though an ideological chasm separates the two “outsiders,” their victories in Michigan drew from similar, though not identical, sources. Both enjoyed the support of the white middle and lower middle class who are sick of the establishment, the politicians that represent it, and their insistence on staying the course and safeguarding business as usual.

Although the Obama administration rescued Detroit’s failing automobile industry after the economic collapse in 2008, Michigan’s economy hasn’t fully recovered in comparison to many other American states. Trump and Sanders both pinned some of the blame for Michigan’s performance on free trade agreements, specifically the 1992 NAFTA deal with Mexico and Canada as well as the Trans Pacific Partnership signed in February. Clinton has supported both in the past, as have Rubio, John Kasich and, to a lesser degree, Ted Cruz as well. Trump, with his theme of economic jingoism against Mexico and China, and Sanders, with his portrayal of free trade deals as an instrument of the devil serving the interests of big money at the expense of the little worker, were playing the same kind of tune before audiences that were supposedly miles apart, though they probably have much more in common than they would care to admit.

The inherent suspicion of foreign trade partners, and the fervent wish to protect American markets - and dignity - at any cost, is one of the characteristics of so called “Reagan Democrats” who were “born,” as it were, in Macomb County at the south east corner of Michigan. Pollster Stanley Greenberg famously explored migration of hitherto Democratic white, blue-collar workers from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential elections. Some of them returned later to support Democrat Bill Clinton while others stayed Republicans forever, but their motives and outlooks are echoed among today’s disgruntled Democrats as well: a sense that their party leadership has abandoned them and that it represents minorities, welfare recipients, feminists, ultra-liberals and the like. And the feeling that America, as Rodney Dangerfield used to say gets no respect.

This group is similar, though not identical, to the far bigger body of voters defined at the end of the 1990s by Walter Russell Mead - the Jacksonians, named after the (controversial and racist) seventh U.S. president, Andrew Jackson. Jacksonians are no great ideologues, as Mead describes them. They’re neither liberal nor conservatives, religious or secular, but they are intensely patriotic, obsessively suspicious, radically individualistic, and mostly, though perhaps not exclusively, white. They oppose a strong federal government, welfare handouts and gun control, but unlike pure conservatives, they are fiercely supportive of a government safety net and social security. On foreign issues, they believe America should mind its own business but they nonetheless support a massive use of military power if and when American interests are endangered or its honor is at stake. Trump, and to a far lesser degree Cruz as well, speaks their mind.

Trump supporters, channeling their Jacksonian instincts, are enraged at their dishonorable treatment at the hand of the global economy, which has left them on the sidelines, and nationally, at America’s continued humiliation on the world stage, as they see it, by upstart, arrogant countries. They admire Trump’s war against the politically correct, and they insist on supporting him despite, or maybe because, of the concerted establishment campaign against him. This is also another way of viewing Rubio’s spectacular downfall and his humiliating single-digit results in Mississippi and Michigan on Tuesday: his close ties to the establishment and to billionaire bigwigs, his support for needlessly interventionist foreign and military policy, his smooth tongue and perhaps his metrosexual mannerisms simply rub the machoistic and jingoistic Jacksonians the wrong way.

Rubio’s decision to get down and dirty with Trump may have damaged Trump but they hurt Rubio no less: he was seen as someone who had relinquished his dignity and self-respect in order to score political points. Jacksonians, more than most, are fanatic about self-respect and holding one’s own. Perhaps, in the final analysis, Rubio was the wrong candidate at the wrong time in the wrong party in 2016.

Cruz, on the other hand, picks up support by virtue of being despised by the establishment. He is also the candidate preferred by Evangelicals for whom the vulgar and offensive Trump is a bit too much. Cruz did win a consolation prize in the Idaho primaries on Tuesday, but his close race with John Kasich in Michigan as well as his close-but-no-cigar second place finish in Michigan and Mississippi detracted from his efforts to portray himself, following his wins in Maine and Kansas on Saturday, as strong enough to overtake Trump. Cruz is undoubtedly going from strength to strength, but at pace which nonetheless renders his momentum too little and too late to satisfy the #NeverTrump movement.

Which sets the stage for the dramatic showdowns next week that can be expected on what should now be dubbed “SuperDuper Tuesday,” when Kasich and Rubio will face their do or die moments. Despite his disappointing third place finish, Kasich’s 24 percent in Michigan was respectable enough to give him hope that he can still prevail in his home state of Ohio, but Rubio’s prospects seem to be growing dimmer with each passing day. The Rubio campaign has denied reports that he is contemplating a suspension of his race before Tuesday, in order to avoid the embarrassment of a loss to Trump on his home turf.

Perhaps Rubio is still dreaming of a come-from-behind victory in winner-take-all Florida that will still succeed in preventing Trump from getting the 1,237 delegates he needs for the nomination while keeping Rubio in play as an alternative candidate. It my sound crazy, but in this insane campaign season, what doesn’t.