By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
In an earlier post, “Political Misfortune: Anatomy of Democratic Party Failure in Clinton’s Campaign 2016” (parts one and two) I looked why Clinton lost (summarized by two political cliches: “It’s the economy, stupid” and “change vs. more of the same”, with Clinton representing “more of the same,” as in “America is already great”). I should write a post on how Trump won, but I’m not yet ready to tackle that yet (exit polls here). My goal in this short post is far more modest: I want to introduce the idea that Trump voters took their votes seriously, and that their motivations were — dare I say it — more nuanced and complex than typical liberal narratives suggest (Jamelle Bouie’s “There’s No Such Thing as a Good Trump Voter” is a classic of the genre). To do this, I’ll look at things Trump voters actually said, using some material from Democracy Corps (“Macomb County in the Age of Trump”) on Obama voters who flipped to Trump, and more material from Chris Arnade. Both sources can be said to be reasonably representative, given that Democracy Corps used a focus group methodology, and Chris Arnade was been traveling through the flyover states for two years, talking to people and taking photographs. I’m going to throw what Trump voters said into three buckets: Concrete material benefits, inequity aversion, and volatility voting.
Concrete Material Benefits
One concrete material benefit is no more war and a peace dividend. Arnade:
I found a similar viewpoint in communities such as West Cleveland: Donna Weaver, 52, is a waitress, and has spent her entire life in her community. “I was born and raised here. I am not happy. Middle class is getting killed; we work for everything and get nothing. I hate both of the candidates, but I would vote for Trump because . Why we got to keep invading countries. .”
A second concrete material benefit is jobs. Democracy Corps:
“Bring the back, bring the back to the States.” “He’s trying to create , trying to keep in the United States.” “I just like the talk about bringing the back.” “To me, it’s going to get us our back, he’s going to boost our economy, boost their economic growth for families, to bring our future generations up.”
A third — and the most important — concrete material benefit is Democracy Corps:
10. [Trump will fix health care. . They say Trump “promised within the first hundred days to get rid of Obamacare” and fixing the health care system is one of their great hopes for his presidency. They speak of the impossibly high costs and hope Trump will bring “affordable healthcare” which will “help [us] raise our families and make us be prosperous.”
The experience of Trump voters is our health care system is similar to the experiences of many commenters here. Democracy Corps:
“My insurance for the last three years went up, went up, went up. Started out for a family of four, I was paying $117 a week out of my paycheck. Three years later I’m paying $152 a week out of my paycheck. I don’t even go to the doctor for one. I don’t take medicine.”
Such a deal. And here’s a lovely Catch-22:
“They cut my insurance at work…My doctor, because my back is bad, said, ‘Well, cut your hours. You can only work so many hours.’ Now I have to work more hours, take more pain pills, to get my insurance back, and now they’re telling me I can’t get it back for another year.”
Here’s a description of “inequity aversion” from the New Yorker, as shown in the famous experiment from Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal with female capuchin monkeys:
[T]hey found that monkeys hate being disadvantaged. A monkey in isolation is happy to eat either a grape or a slice of cucumber. But a monkey who sees that she’s received a cucumber while her partner has gotten a grape reacts with anger: she might hurl her cucumber from her cage. Some primates, Brosnan and de Waal concluded, “dislike inequity.” They hate getting the short end of the stick. Psychologists have a technical term for this reaction: they call it “disadvantageous-inequity aversion.” This instinctual aversion to getting less than others has been found in chimpanzees and dogs, and it occurs, of course, in people, in whom it seems to develop from a young age.
So who’s getting the short end of the stick? One perceived inequity is immigration in the context of scarcity. Democracy Corps:
“Well I mean we’re all talking about illegals, I made a straight up post that in America we have hungry, we have veterans, we have mental illness, that we at this point in time just can’t be concerned with, I feel bad but…our country’s in dire straits financially.” “I mean . We need to take care of the veterans, we need to take care of the elderly, we need to take care of the mentally ill, we need to take care everyone instead of us worrying about other people in other countries, we need to take care of our house first. then you know what, you need this and this and then we’ll help you.”
A second perceived inequity is bailouts for bankers and not for the rest of us. Democracy Corps:
[Obama] brought the country to a macro recovery by the end of his term, but not a single person in these groups mentioned any economic improvements under his presidency, even after the president closed the 2016 campaign in Detroit making the case for building on his economic progress. They have strong feelings about him, but in the written comments only one mentioned anything about the economy in positive impressions – specifically that he saved GM and Chrysler from bankruptcy – and just five mentioned anything economic when elaborating their doubts. Some described him as a steward for the status quo: “I think he just maintained. He didn’t really do much for the country. And he let a lot of jobs go.” Some did recall the bailout of the banks even though the crisis “affected millions or people,” leading them to think he favored the elites – “the wealthy,” “the richer people,” “the big wigs,” and “the lobbyists.” They know he “didn’t help the lower class, he didn’t help the middle class” people like them, they insisted over and over.
Taking on the reckless banks told them who you are really for. Some said they were “really irritated about the reckless banks” and “protecting consumers from Wall Street and reckless banks… was very important.” They recalled that “we lost our home because of that” and “with the bailout all the money went to the banks and it affected millions of people. And, then, a short time later, the banks were back to these huge bonuses” and “there’s never really punishment for them.”
The concept of volatility voting was invented by former Wall Street trader Chris Arnade. From “Why Trump voters are not “complete idiots'”:
Trump voters may not vote the way I want them to, but after having spent the last five years working in (and having grown up in) parts of the US few visit, they are not dumb. They are doing whatever any other voter does: Trying to use their vote to better their particular situation (however they define that)….. Frustrated with broken promises, they gave up on the knowable and went with the unknowable. They chose Trump, because he comes with a very high distribution. A high volatility.
As any trader will tell you, if you are stuck lower, you want volatility, uncertainty. No matter how it comes. Put another way. Your downside is flat, your upside isn’t. Break the system.
The elites loathe volatility. Because, the upside is limited, but the downside isn’t. In option language, they are in the money.
Or more vividly from an earlier post in the Guardian:
People don’t make reckless decisions because things are going well. They make them because they have reached a breaking point. They are desperate enough to trying anything new. Especially if it offers escape, or a glimmer of hope. Even false hope.
That might mean drugs. Politically that might mean breaking the system. Especially if you think the system is not working for you. And viewed from much of the America the system doesn’t work. The factories are gone. Families are falling apart. Social networks are frayed.
And Arnade gives an example:
Lori Ayers, 47, works in the gas station. She was blunt when I asked her about her life. “Clarington is a shithole. Jobs all left. There is nothing here anymore. When Ormet Aluminum factory closed, jobs all disappeared.” She is also blunt about the pain in her life. “I have five kids and two have addictions. There is nothing else for kids to do here but drugs. No jobs. No place to play.” She stopped and added: “I voted for Obama the first time, not the second. Now I am voting for Trump. .”
Democracy Corps also gives examples:
“I felt like it was – . Status quo’s not good enough anymore.” “Just a lot of change, no more politics as usual. Maybe something can be changed.” “I was tired of politics as usual, and I thought if we had somebody in there that wasn’t a Clinton or wasn’t a Bush that would , which he obviously has, and maybe get rid of the people who are just milking the office and not doing their job. I’m hoping that he’s going to hold people more accountable for the job that they’re doing for us.”
The Democracy Corps pollsters conclude — and I should say I’m quite open to the idea that they were trying to sell the Democrat Party on a strategy the party was ultimately not willing to adopt, as shown (for example) by the Ellison defenestration — as follows:
Democrats don’t have a white working class problem, as so many have suggested. They have a working class problem that includes working people in their own base. We can learn an immense amount from listening and talking to the white working class independent and Democratic Trump voters, particularly those who previously supported Obama or failed to turnout in past presidential contests.
Clearly, I agree with this conclusion. It’s also clear that a Democratic Party that had come out for #MedicareForAll, wasn’t openly thirsting for war, and was willing to bring the finance sector to heel would win a respectful hearing from these voters. (At this point, it’s worth noting that the Democrats, as a party, are even less popular than Trump and Pence. So I guess focusing like a laser beam on gaslighting a war with Russia is working great.) Whether today’s Democrat party is capable of seizing this opportunity is at the very best an open question; the dominant liberal framing of Trump voters as Others who are motivated solely by immutable and essentially personal failings and frailties — racism; stupidity — would argue that the answer is no.
 This is not so say that no Trump voter was motivated by racism (or sexism). However, that is a second post I’m not ready to tackle, in part because I find the presumption that liberal Democrats pushing that line are not racist (“İ cried when they shot Medgar Evers”) at the very least open to question, in part because the assumption seems to be that racism is an immutably fixed personal essence (in essence, sinful), which ignores the role of liberal Democrats in constructing the profoundly racist carceral state (“super-predators”). However, this passage from a Democracy Corps focus group gives one hope:
But despite all that, Macomb has changed. Immigrants and religion were central to the deep feelings about how America was changing, but black-white relations were just barely part of the discussion. Detroit was once a flash point for the discussion of racial conflict, black political leaders and government spending. Today, Detroit did not come up in conversation until we introduced it and Macomb residents see a city “turning around for the good” and “on an upswing” and many say they like to visit downtown. Even the majority African American city of Flint provokes only sympathetic responses. They describe the area as “downscale” and “poor” and lament the water crisis and the suffering it caused.
 “Democracy Corps conducted focus groups with white non-college educated (anything less than a four-year college degree) men and women from Macomb County, Michigan on February 15 and 16, 2017 in partnership with the Roosevelt Institute. All of the participants were Trump voters who identified as independents, Democratic-leaning independents, or Democrats and who voted for Obama in 2008, 2012 or both. Two groups were among women, one 40-65 and one 30-60 years old. Two groups were among men, one 35-45 and one 40-60 years old.” Stephen King has an interview with a panel of fictional Trump voters. They sound quite different from the voters of Macomb county, and I don’t think the difference is entirely accounted for by geography, much as I respect Stephen King, who has done great things for the state.
 A fourth possibility is that Trump voters were engaging in altruistic punishment, where people “punish non-cooperators even at cost to themselves.” (Personally shushing a cellphone user in the Quiet Car instead of calling in the conductor is a trivial example.) Altruistic punishment would provide an account for why Trump voters (supposedly) don’t vote “in their own interests,” but I couldn’t find examples in the sources I looked at.
 Democracy Corps puts legal immigration, illegal immigration, and refugees in the same bucket as, to be fair, some voters seem to. I think they are three different use cases. In my personal view, we need to accept refugees, particularly those from wars we ourselves started. For legal and illegal immigration, the United States should put United States citizens first. I would love to emigrate to Canada to work there and take advantage of its single payer system, or to any of a number of countries where the cost of living is half our own. However, if I travel and overstay my visa, even as an “economic refugee,” I would expect to pay a fine and be forced to leave. I don’t see why my case is any different from any other illegal immigrant in this country. Canada does not have an open border. Nor need we (except to the extent our goal is beating down wages, especially in the working class, of course).