Andrew Stark is a professor of management and political science at the University of Toronto
"I AM YOUR VOICE," Donald Trump declared in his speech to the Republican National Convention in 2016. The capital letters appeared in his own text. The "your" referred to white, non-college-educated, working-class voters.
But is he really their voice? Ever since Mr. Trump made this declaration, journalists and academics – Arlie Hochschild, Joan Williams, J.D. Vance, George Packer, Larissa MacFarquhar and many others – have been travelling to the heart of "Trump Country" to report on what his (non alt-right) supporters were actually saying, in their own words, about their lives and their problems.
Enough such dispatches have now been published that it's time to take stock of them as a whole, as a body of work. And what they disclose is a profound divergence between how Trump voters express themselves politically and what Mr. Trump himself says. In fact, in key ways, he gets them exactly backward.
Two complaints above all repeatedly issue from Trump country. The first has to do with illegal immigration. Importantly, not one person in any of the pieces of reporting objected that illegals were taking American jobs in the marketplace. Nor did anyone complain that immigration, illegal or not, is making the country unrecognizable in the cultural realm.
What bothered Trump voters is that illegals, as they perceived it, hadn't put in the time and labour contributing to the country to merit welfare, health care, education and other rights of citizenship in the political sphere. They weren't playing by the rules; they were cutting in line. "When you hear about illegal aliens getting benefits," one Trump voter says in a typical comment, "and you have people here starving to death and can't get nothing" – by which he meant nothing from government, nothing as a right of citizenship – "it's just a slap in the face."
In fact, the same theme gets sounded in connection with Muslim immigrants. No one mentioned cultural issues such as sharia law. Instead, Trump voters raised the kind of issue that one hospital nurse did with Susan Chira of The New York Times: "An Iraqi immigrant came in last night, he needs dialysis … I feel for him, I want to help him, but we have to take care of our own people first. Driving to work yesterday, I saw three homeless people. They need our help."
The other main grievance of Trump voters focused not on newcomers but on the establishment. They felt disrespected for being "a bunch of toothless, uneducated miners," as one Trump supporter told The New Yorker's Eliza Griswold, by elites whom they identified as educated, urban, professional and coastal. No one in Trump Country, interestingly, talked about being looked down on for cultural developments in their communities that were harmful ones, such as alcoholism, drug addiction or divorce. Instead, they felt they were condescended to for what they saw as their admirable cultural traits: hunting to feed their children, attending church, opposing abortion and supporting their families through hard physical work in mines and mills.
And more: The "elite," Trump voters believed, seemed to be blaming their current economic woes precisely on their cultural virtues. They could readily find good jobs elsewhere if only they weren't so rooted in their own communities. They could easily retrain for a new career in an industry that wasn't dying – nursing, say – if their traditional views hadn't wedded them to masculine values of blue-collar work. And so on.
In the reportage from Trump Country, it is these two grievances – against elites for their cultural and economic condescension; against illegal immigrants for their political and civic presumptuousness – that come to the fore. But does Mr. Trump himself give voice to them?
No. He turns them precisely inside out.
When Mr. Trump attacks elites, his target isn't cultural elites. It's what he calls "political elites": the politicians who made a hash of trade negotiations, designed the "disastrous" Iran nuclear deal and signed the "catastrophic" Paris climate accord. No one in Trump Country, though, mentioned any of these elite political "mess-ups." Meanwhile, what did concern Trump voters – their being looked down on in cultural terms by the New York media elite or the L.A. entertainment elite or the Cambridge academic elite – Mr. Trump never actually voices.
True, he attacks those elites for looking down on him. But he never once takes himself out of the picture. The President never speaks about the issue in the way that one West Virginian did to a visiting journalist: When Trump voters "talk about how they don't like the establishment or the elites … they envision people in New York City making fun of them and calling them stupid. Every time you leave the state, you get it – someone will say, 'Oh, you're from West Virginia, do you date your cousin? Wow, you have shoes, wow, you have teeth, are you sure you're from West Virginia?'"
Look through Mr. Trump's rhetoric. He never vocalizes this kind of cultural indignation. His voters might like the fact that he enrages the very elites they also resent: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. But he never sympathizes with, or shows that he understands, their own reasons for their resentment.
When it comes to illegal immigration, Mr. Trump never objects, as so many of the members of his base do when given the chance, that it flouts the rules of citizenship: of waiting in line and not queue-jumping. Instead, he focuses on attacking illegals, in raw cultural terms, for being rapists and murderers, and in raw economic terms, for stealing jobs and driving down wages.
Last week, he apparently embroidered this theme by attacking African and Haitian immigrants in raw cultural terms for coming from "shithole" countries, and in raw economic terms for not having the skills he identifies with Norwegians.
Set aside the veracity of Mr. Trump's claims. What matters to Trump voters, in their own telling, is not that an immigrant might be "low-skilled"; many of them are too. Nor is it skin color. What matters is neither economic nor cultural but civic: it's the idea that an immigrant who is lucky or fast-tracked, via the immigration lottery or the Temporary Protected Status Program, will enjoy rights and prerogatives of American citizenship that, they feel, should take far more time to earn.
Oddly, Barack Obama came closer to giving Trump voters a voice. In a 2014 speech, he declared: "Millions of us, myself included, go back generations in this country, with ancestors who put in the painstaking work to become citizens. So we don't like the notion that anyone might get a free pass to American citizenship."
Although he assails elites for their political transgressions of leadership, Mr. Trump has never once defended his supporters from what really bothers them: elite cultural and economic condescension. And although he attacks illegal immigrants for being cultural threats and economic thieves, he never articulates what actually troubles his supporters: illegal immigrants' political transgressions, as Trump voters see it, of the norms of citizenship.
And that leaves the field open for a Democrat to explicitly address their concerns in a way that Mr. Trump never has. Yes, it will take political talent to confront those concerns without inflaming or pandering to them. But any politician who does so, even while offering a different path forward, will get closer to his own voters than Trump does. Closer to truly giving them voice.