A white man with a long pony-tail under a cowboy hat calmly walks down a row of seats in a large arena, heading for the aisle. Walking up the aisle in front of him is a small group of protesters, most of them black men, being escorted out of a rally for Donald Trump in Fayetteville, N.C., on Wednesday.
Suddenly, Cowboy Guy sucker-punches one of the black men in the face. It's all captured on video. The stunned black man is wrestled to the ground by four security guards and then led out of the building. The man who committed the assault is ignored by the same guards and, presumably, returns to his seat off-camera.
Cowboy Guy is clearly not a likeable person. The next day, the 78-year-old man was charged with assault. But on the theory that even reasonable people can be provoked into violence under certain circumstances, is there a chance we should try to understand him?
Tellingly, Cowboy Guy supports Mr. Trump, the inflammatory, racist billionaire on the verge of becoming the Republican presidential nominee. An analysis of the core of Mr. Trump's support reveals that his typical follower is an older American who, as a representative of a struggling economic demographic in the United States, deserves at least some sympathy.
Because the truth is that, as the U.S. economy has changed since the 1970s, with industries more exposed to free trade, its population more educated and its economic gains increasingly concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest, its politicians – especially its Republican politicians – have abandoned the losers in this equation. Freer trade with Mexico, Canada and Asia has benefited Americans overall, but there is a segment of less educated, working-class people that have seen jobs disappear, incomes shrink and opportunities dry up.
Analysts have spent a lot of energy trying to understand who is supporting Mr. Trump. What they've found is that, while the people he is attracting come from a fairly broad swath of American society, there are characteristics that define the base of his support.
They didn't go to university, for starters. Only 19 per cent have college degrees, according to one survey. They are older, too. Four out of five of his voters are over 50. And they don't like foreigners – they roundly support Mr. Trump's proposed ban on Muslim immigration and his crackdown on Mexican immigrants.
Given that most of Mr. Trump's support comes from the South and the industrialized Northeast, it is clear that he is tapping into the frustration felt by older, white working-class men and women. These people have cultural insecurities about the changing face of America, and the entire Republican Party has long played to them with so-called dog-whistle politics – subtle appeals to racism, never overt. Mr. Trump is winning in part by replacing the dog whistle with a bullhorn.
But Trump voters also have real economic insecurities. A generation ago, they could aspire to well-paid, low-skill jobs. Now many of them have poorly paid, low-skill jobs.
At the same time, these same people have lost their voice in politics. They have voted Republican for decades, but they are increasingly angry at the GOP. What Mr. Trump has done is give them a voice. He has turned their frustration into outright anger and pointed it toward China and Mexico. Blaming free trade rings true to them, for good reason.
Mr. Trump says he'll put tariffs on Chinese imports, punish American companies that set up shop in Mexico, and keep out immigrants who compete for the low-paying service jobs that many of his voters have been reduced to. He opposes Mr. Obama's particular version of national health insurance, but he is loudly (albeit vaguely) in favour of the idea of some kind of health coverage – a big taboo in the traditional Republican Party. He even spoke out in support of Planned Parenthood. Unlike mainstream Republicans who want to cut the benefits that working-class people rely on, he consistently hints that he's different. His platform won't actually do much to help lower-income voters – but his rhetoric, which is what people hear, says otherwise.
There is one more thing, though, and this is where it gets so ugly: Analyses of Mr. Trump's voters show that they are concentrated in states that have higher rates of racial animus, especially toward black people. Mr. Trump shamelessly endorses his voters' bigotry – something no mainstream Republican has dared to do. This is why his supporters love to boast that their man "tells it like it is" and "says what he thinks." He is saying what they think.
What is striking for Canadians is that this country has also lost manufacturing jobs, but we have not developed a large, angry underclass of "old-stock" voters. Why? We are far from perfect, but Canada has been both lucky and smart. Lucky: A decade-long boom in commodity prices, which meant that Canada's 2008 recession was short and shallow. Smart: We have decent federal political party finance rules – the rich and powerful can't buy federal elections in Canada. We embrace diversity. We have universal health care, and a stronger and better-funded social safety net than the U.S. The same is true for most European countries.
But not the U.S.A. The strangest thing of all about Mr. Trump's neo-Republican base is that they would be far better off voting Democrat, the party that favours giving benefits to people in their situation, including medical coverage. It is also the only party interested in reducing income inequality, or even talking about it. But the Democratic Party is the one that gets the vast majority of the black vote in the U.S., and so they don't go there.
That strange and sad fact has given Mr. Trump his route to the Republican nomination – via Republican voters left behind by the Republican Party. It's a conundrum epitomized by the sight of Cowboy Guy slugging a black man in the face in North Carolina. You want to sympathize with these people, but then that happens.