For better or worse, November 8, 2016, will go down in American history as a watershed election. Donald J. Trump’s victory represents a profound realignment in American politics. This much seems certain: the ancien régime is dead.
Our challenge is not to praise Trump’s virtues or to condemn his vices, but to understand why tens of millions of Americans voted for Donald Trump—the unlikeliest of candidates—to become the president of the United States.
In his inaugural address, President Trump voiced a theme that ran throughout his campaign: “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” Trump’s political genius was to find the lost, the forgotten, the dispossessed, and the invisible.
Ironically, the billionaire from Manhattan became the voice of the Forgotten Man—the man who works hard, pays his taxes, supports his family, and volunteers in his community as a soccer coach and a Boy Scout leader. When Trump said “We will make America great again,” he spoke to the deepest aspirations of ordinary Americans who love their country but see it crumbling all around them. He waged war on their behalf.
And now his supporters have fundamentally altered the traditional left-right political spectrum. A social-political-ideological realignment is underway, transitioning the country to a new party system that has been developing, mostly unseen, for two or three decades. The new political spectrum is less ideological and more cultural. It is divided between the Ruling Elite and the Deplorables.
The Ruling Elite are powerful: they occupy the commanding heights of social, economic, and political power; they make decisions about what other people should think and how they should live; they control the cultural institutions; and they control access to privilege, prestige, wealth, and power. The Deplorables are powerless: they must obey the rules made by others, and they are shamed into accepting cultural institutions they despise and mostly do not understand.
The Ruling Elite are typically Ivy-educated. They have investments and disposable income and live in 5,000-square-foot homes in safe, leafy suburbs. They are high achievers who see their path to advancement through adherence to a system of perpetual virtue signaling. They have contempt for the Deplorables and their way of life, and they think that America is fundamentally racist, sexist, and homophobic.
The Deplorables, by contrast, may or may not have graduated from high school. They have debt and live paycheck to paycheck, residing in 1,000-square-foot homes or double-wides in unsafe neighborhoods. Their communities have high rates of unemployment and broken families, closed manufacturing plants or mines, unaffordable health care, and meth addiction.
In essence, the Ruling Elite is protected from the world they have created for the Deplorables. Take regulations, taxes, and jobs, for instance. The Ruling Elite designs and enforces but rarely experiences the regulations and taxes that close plants and chase jobs overseas. College professors and public-sector bureaucrats have job security for life; the Deplorables have either lost their jobs or live in a state of constant fear that they will. The only way a Ruling Elite college professor could ever know what it feels like to live with the economic anxiety experienced by the Deplorables would be if the universities were to abolish tenure.
Or take immigration. For the Ruling Elite, there is something romantic and chic about living in a multicultural world where Main Street America looks like the General Assembly of the United Nations or the Star Wars Cantina. But this fantasy world barely touches the Ruling Elite other than to provide them with cheap nannies and gardeners and trendy ethnic restaurants on the Upper East Side or in Dupont Circle. Their gated communities are far away from sanctuary cities.
The Deplorables, however, experience the immigration policies of the Ruling Elite in a very different way. They live at the crossroads of immigration, where the clash of civilizations is a daily reality. This is particularly true in America’s government schools, where children in some cities are pressured to wear the hijab, to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, or to pledge allegiance to an “international flag.” It’s the Deplorables’ kids who sit in classrooms where a quarter of their classmates do not speak English.
As if all that weren’t enough, the Ruling Elite looks down its nose at, mocks, and parodies Redneck America. The fatal conceit of the Ruling Class is that it is intellectually, morally, and socially superior to the Deplorables. It mocks them on Saturday Night Live and The View. For decades, the Ruling Elite has shut out the Deplorables, stepped on them, and kicked them around.
But one day, the Deplorables, standing athwart history, yelled “Stop!” They saw their taxes given to crony capitalists, welfare recipients, and government employees; they saw their plants close and their jobs go overseas due to government regulations and taxes; they saw veterans used and abused by a dysfunctional Veteran’s Administration; they saw their cities erupt in protests and violence based on “Hands up, don’t shoot” lies; they saw their police officers assaulted and murdered by ideological thugs; they saw Islamic jihadists commit mass murder; and they saw the government schools force their kids to read Heather Has Two Mommies but otherwise leaving them uneducated.
The Deplorables had been neglected, forgotten, and abused for so long that the Ruling Elite just assumed they would fall in line as they always do. The Ruling Elite didn’t notice that the Deplorables had been pushed to the brink of despair. They were humiliated by unemployment and the foreclosure of their homes; they were sick and tired of twentysomethings defining marriage and bathroom policy for them; they felt threatened that their guns would be taken from them; they cried at the sight of their neighbors’ sons coming home in body bags; they were fed up with being called racists, sexists, homophobes, transphobes, xenophobes, and Islamaphobes.
What can’t go on forever, won’t. One day, about two years ago, the Forgotten Man, the faceless American, finally awoke from his slumbers. He looked around and saw the devastation, and he knew the promise of American life was no longer open to him. And so he screamed, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.” The cry went unheard by the Ruling Elite. One man did hear it, however. That man was, of course, Donald J. Trump.
This is Trump’s simple genius. In a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people, Trump found and took the time to listen to les Deplorables. He heard, saw, and sympathized with the moral malaise and downward mobility of provincial America. Trump not only listened to the unwashed, he stood up for them. He fought back. He attacked, insulted, and denounced the nattering nabobs of both parties.
Trump’s core message to his supporters is simple: Deplorables of America unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.
C. Bradley Thompson is a professor of political philosophy and the executive director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism. He is the author of the award-winning John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty and Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea.