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Trump: Fishtown’s Champion Against Belmont

If Trump is a judgment on the GOP, he's also a judgment on conservative Christians

Take a look at this USA Today op-ed from J.D. Vance, a Marine Corps veteran who used to support Trump, no longer does, but says he gets it. Boy, does he get it. Vance said that until last fall, he thought Trump was a stunt candidate for the white working class; he backed Jeb Bush. Until when, in a GOP debate, Jeb defended his brother for “keeping us safe.” That did it. Excerpts:

My anger sprang, not from a difference over policy, but from somewhere more primal. I wanted, as Walt Whitman might say, to sound my “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” Whatever I thought about Jeb’s education plan or record as governor, he had touched a raw cultural nerve. His defense of his brother ignored and insulted the experiences of people like me, and he was proud of it.

In an instant, I became Trump’s biggest fan. I wanted him to go for the jugular. I wanted him to inquire whom, precisely, George W. Bush had kept safe. Was it the veterans lingering in a bureaucratic quagmire at the Department of Veterans Affairs or the victims of 9/11? Was it the enlistees from my block back home, who signed their lives on the dotted line while Jeb’s brother told the country to “go shopping” — something kids like me couldn’t afford to do?

Though Trump held his fire in the debate, he lit into George W. Bush on social media and in interviews afterwards. Other candidates defended the former president. They, too, failed to understand Trump’s appeal, how something so offensive to their political palate could be cathartic for millions of their own voters.


I quickly realized that Trump’s actual policy proposals, such as they are, range from immoral to absurd. But as a Marine Corps veteran who grew up in a struggling Rust Belt town, I understand why many adore him — why I, if only briefly, cheered him on. He tells America’s rich and powerful precisely what we wish we could tell them ourselves: that many of the things they view as accomplishments suck for people like us.

This is a key point. A key point:

This alienation separates Trump’s voters from the constituency of another firebrand insurgent, Ted Cruz. Cruz draws from married voters, evangelical Christians, the elderly and those who identify as “very conservative.” These folks might be angry about the political process, but their anger is ideological and their lives — filled with family and church — are fundamentally intact.

Trump’s voters, instead, wear an almost existential sense of betrayal. He relies on unmarried voters, individuals who rarely attend church services and those without much higher education. Many of these Trump voters have abandoned the faith of their forefathers and myriad social benefits that come with it. Their marriages have failed, and their families have fractured. The factories that moved overseas used to provide not just high-paying jobs, but also a sense of purpose and community. Their kids (and themselves) might be more likely to die from a heroin overdose than any other group in the country.

Cruz’s voters dislike Jeb Bush because he has strayed from conservative orthodoxy. Trump’s voters loathe Jeb Bush because their lives are falling apart, and they blame people like him.

Read the whole thing. It’s important.

A number of social and religious conservatives went nuts yesterday when I posted something called “A Social Conservative Case For Trump,” even though I made it clear I wasn’t endorsing that case. (This morning I posted “A Social Conservative Case Against Trump,” which I also do not endorse.) It seems to me that for no small number of intellectual religious and social conservatives, the idea of voting for Trump is so repulsive and alien that they cannot imagine why anyone with any brains or moral scruples would do so.

This is not Trump’s problem. This is their problem. Do they even know the country they live in?

I was e-mailing with a liberal friend this morning about my Trump posts. He said he was shocked by the reaction, especially considering that I was clear that I was just working out a thought experiment. He wrote:

I’m totally with you on how out of touch these people are. The Trump-ites are my people, your people. When I go home to [deleted] I see so much despair, it just feels bleak. If you have any acquaintance with actual working class folks Trump should be easy to understand. It’s disturbing really that these “leaders” can’t get this. How can you read the studies of working class white men dying, killing themselves, stuck in addiction, and more and think, “Well, more free trade and tax credits will solve this!”

I would add to this, “… and think, ‘Well, more restrictions on abortion, attempts to overturn Obergefell, and religious liberty protections will solve this!'”

You readers know that I think religious liberty is the most important question facing America today. But I don’t know many people outside my relatively small circle of intellectual Christians who share my concern. It’s not even on their radar. Hey, it ought to be on their radar, because it’s going to affect them down the line more than they realize. Still, when you’re facing the kind of problems so many Americans who are not as well off and as secure as I am are facing, the kinds of things I worry about are an abstract threat.

I believe abortion ought to be further restricted. I believe Obergefell was wrongly decided, though I think attempts to overturn it are a waste of time. I am extremely interested in more religious liberty protections — so much so that the religious liberty issue will probably determine my vote this fall.


Late the other night, we got a text from a woman we know. She is one of the working poor, white, and older. She is a good-hearted woman who works very hard. She came into work one day for a friend of mine. Her hand was swollen, and probably broken. She didn’t have the money to go to the doctor. My friend offered to pay for it, but the woman wouldn’t take it. She was too proud to take charity. She went to work. With a broken hand. My friend was moved to tears by her dignity, and begged her to go to the doctor, to not worry about the cost. It did no good.

When she texted the other night, she asked us for help moving. She lives in a poor town a parish (county) over from ours. She is in a bad marriage. I’m not sure which marriage this is; she has bad luck with men. We asked her if she was safe, did she need a place to stay? No answer. We were on tenterhooks. She has grown children, but they’re a mess, for Fishtown reasons. The next day, she got back in touch with us, and said everything was fine. I’m sure everything is not fine. She’s working with a broken hand, metaphorically speaking. This is her life.

I have no idea who this lady is supporting for president, or if she even votes. But I would bet you what’s in my wallet that to the extent that she is engaged at all in politics, she’s voting Trump. Because she would be voting her desperation. When you live in a small town like I do, you see folks like her, and you get to know them. It’s not hard to see how folks like that are the authors of their own misery in many cases, but that doesn’t make them any less human, or any less our neighbor (and that is true for people of all races). The thing that gets to me about this woman is that because of my own personal social network, I know how hard she works, and at a time in life when people her age are supposed to be able to slow down and take it easy. She will be working that hard until the day she drops, because she has nothing.

What does Jeb Bush have to offer her? Or Marco Rubio? Or Ted Cruz? Frankly, I don’t think that Donald Trump has much to offer her either (as J.D. Vance grasps), but he at least sees her, or appears to. That’s not nothing.

Another story. Since I’ve been back in Louisiana these past few years, I’ve done some travel through the state with my work, and on family business. I’ve had the occasion to drive through small towns all over the state that I had not seen since I was a kid in the 1970s and early 1980s. And it has shocked me what has happened to most of these places. As my liberal friend said about his part of the country (not the South), many of these towns are pretty damn bleak, in ways they were not 30,, 40 years ago. The people who could have gotten out, got out. The only ones left are those too proud or too broke to leave. But there they are.

The Davos elites of the Democrat and Republican parties didn’t get the teenage daughters of Fishtown pregnant, or didn’t get the Fishtown sons busted for possession or fired from his job for failing a drug test. Those elites didn’t make them stop going to church, or break up their marriage, and don’t tell them to sit on their butts playing video games all day instead of trying to hustle up a living. But those elites did, in many cases, have a lot to do with why they got laid off in their fifties and can’t find work, and why their adult children have to make do with crappy service industry jobs instead of manufacturing jobs that paid well, and on which a family could build a future.

Some of these folks have sons and brothers who came back from Iraq and Afghanistan shattered. A friend of mine is an Iraq vet, a rock-ribbed Republican who won a medal for his service, and he considers the Iraq War to have been a godawful waste. (I don’t know who his candidate is this year.) And Donald Trump is the only Republican Party candidate who has the sense and the courage to say, however crudely, that Iraq was a mistake. You think injured vets give a rat’s rear end whether or not Donald Trump is being mean to Jeb Bush’s family? Some do, no doubt, but I’d be surprised if many did.

On the church thing, J.D. Vance has it right. I live in the rural South, and around here, church is primarily a middle-class thing, at least among white people. People who think Trump’s voters care that he’s a bad Christian, or a Christian in anything but name only, are dreaming.

Remember J.D. Vance:

They, too, failed to understand Trump’s appeal, how something so offensive to their political palate could be cathartic for millions of their own voters.

Listen up, my fellow religious and social conservatives of the middle class. Trump may well be a false messiah; that’s an easy case to make. But we should try to remove the scales from our eyes and see the conditions that a lot of our fellow Americans live in, and ask why it is that the kind of candidate we have been voting for all these years, and have been pushing, have no credibility with these people. The Democrats tend to think of people like that as racists, and therefore beyond caring about. What’s our excuse?

Charles Featherstone once told me that when he was in ELCA (Lutheran) seminary, he often felt alienated from his fellow seminarians, because of his own hardscrabble, messy background. The others were so very, very progressive, and held on to harsh prejudices against white people who didn’t fit their neat, middle-class progressive mold. Charles was not ordained, in the end, and he’s pretty bitter about it. The other day he wrote this about his experiences, and in it, I saw a lot of myself, and middle-class Christians like me:

I think Lutherans are afraid of the world, of its rough edges, of dirt and grit, of strange smells, of babbling tongues they don’t understand, of crowded and uneven streets, and especially of dark alleys where life is lived in shadow. Lutheran good works generally involve cleaning and tidying and organizing and installing bright lights rather than meeting people where they are in chaotic darkness and then grabbing hold of them and not letting go. Because of this, I would, as an ELCA pastor, never be free to walk in that world and to witness to the love of God the way that I am truly called to do. The ELCA, for all its professed theological and social progressivism, is at its heart a very culturally conservative community — Lutherans believe deeply in certain social norms and expectations, in a right order to the world, and they harshly punish those who don’t adhere and do not conform. They may genuinely be a kind and gentle and tolerant people, but as a herd, they have the power to crush and destroy and marginalize just as easily as anyone. And they do. Far too easily and far too much.

ELCA Lutherans love, but almost always it’s love in box, love that is bounded, love that knows its limits, love that is well ordered and not allowed to overflow and make a mess. It is love that knows exactly who it is for, and why, and how. In the ELCA, love is only for certain people, who behave themselves, are good, and have the foresight to be born into the right, well-ordered, bourgeois circumstances. I said this in my book, and I will repeat it here — Lutherans may preach unearned grace, but their lived confession emphatically states, “If you truly need God’s grace, you clearly have not earned it.”

Note well, Charles Featherstone is a Lutheran complaining about his fellow Lutherans. I think his critique, though, strikes at the heart of a lot of middle-class American Christianity, including my own.

Does Featherstone’s harsh judgment of the liberal Lutherans of ELCA have anything to say to the rest of us Christians who (as I used to do) go nuts when confronted by the fact that lots of people like Donald Trump? Are we missing something important? Have we been far too narrow in our understanding of what it means to live in a Christian society, and of what it means to conserve Christian values? We have done a good job of bracketing off economic questions from social and moral ones in our politics, and now it has come back to bite us on the backside. If Trump, as Ross Douthat has suggested, may be a judgment on the Republican Party, people like you and me should also consider him a judgment on ourselves and what we have done, or failed to do, with our influence in the Republican Party and conservative movement.

A reader of this blog said that the Trump phenomenon reveals that there are two kids of social conservatives. I forget the language that he used, but I think that you have the ideological SoCons (those who operate out of a certain set of principles) and the nationalistic SoCons, who are more tribal and emotional. Cruz, and to some extent Rubio, appeal to the ideological SoCons; Trump, to the nationalists. Trump social conservatives probably don’t much care about abortion, gay marriage, and religious liberty; the society they care about conserving is the one they see around them now, and see falling apart because of forces they (rightly and wrongly) see as beyond their control.

I’ll leave you with this essay on the present and future class war, by Joel Kotkin. Excerpts:

More Americans see themselves as belonging to the lower classes today than ever in recent times. In 2000 some 63 percent of Americans, according to Gallup, considered themselves middle class, while only 33 percent identified as working or lower class. In 2015, only 51 percent of Americans call themselves middle class while the percentage identifying with the lower classes rose to 48 percent.

The bulk of this population belongs to what some social scientists call the “precariat,” people who face diminished prospects of achieving middle-class status—a good job, homeownership, some decent retirement. The precariat is made up of a broad variety of jobs that include adjunct professors, freelancers, substitute teachers—essentially any worker without long-term job stability. According to one estimate, at least one-third of the U.S. workforce falls into this category. By 2020, a separate study estimates, more than 40 percent of Americans, or 60 million people, will be independent workers—freelancers, contractors, and temporary employees.

This constituency—notably the white majority—is angry, and with good cause. Between 1998 and 2013, white Americans have seen declines in both their incomes and their life expectancy, with large spikes in suicide and fatalities related to alcohol and drug abuse. They have, as one writer notes, “lost the narrative of their lives,” while being widely regarded as a dying species by a media that views them with contempt and ridicule.

In this sense, the flocking by stressed working-class whites to the Trump banner—the New York billionaire won 45 percent of New Hampshire Republican voters who did not attend college—represents a blowback from an increasingly stressed group that tends to attend church less and follow less conventional morality, which is perhaps one reason they prefer the looser Trump to the Bible-thumping Cruz, not to mention the failing Ben Carson.

Many Trump supporters are modern-day “Reagan Democrats.” Half of Trump’s supporters, according to a YouGov survey, stopped their education in high school or before. Trump’s message appeals to these voters in part by preserving Social Security and other entitlements. He appeals to populist rather than the usual GOP free-market sentiment, and decisively won all voters making under $50,000 a year. Tellingly, among Iowa Republican voters who called themselves “moderate or liberal,” Trump trounced Cruz, and duplicated the feat again in New Hampshire.

Conservative intellectuals dismiss Trump as both too radical and not conservative enough. He offends pundits in both parties by pushing things verboten in polite circles, such as trade with China, which has been responsible for the bulk of U.S. manufacturing losses. He also has embraced curbs on immigration, something that rankles the established leaders in both parties. “There’s a silent majority out there,” Trump says. “We’re tired of being pushed around, kicked around, and being led by stupid people.”

Trump is the revenge of Fishtown against Belmont.  As Charles Murray has written:

Sometimes the isolation is geographic as well as cultural. In major cities and their surrounding areas, those top-ranked zip codes in which the members of the new upper class live are surrounded by other top-ranked zip codes that form elite clusters consisting of tens or hundreds of thousands of people, creating large bubbles within which life can go on without reference to anywhere outside the bubble. Even when the geographic isolation is not extreme, the differences in culture often are. The members of America’s new upper class tend not to watch the same movies and television shows that the rest of America watches, don’t go to kinds of restaurants the rest of America frequents, tend to buy different kinds of automobiles, and have passions for being green, maintaining the proper degree of body fat, and supporting gay marriage that most Americans don’t share. Their child-raising practices are distinctive, and they typically take care to enroll their children in schools dominated by the offspring of the upper middle class—or, better yet, of the new upper class. They take their vacations in different kinds of places than other Americans go and are often indifferent to the professional sports that are so popular among other Americans. Few have served in the military, and few of their children either.

Worst of all, a growing proportion of the people who run the institutions of our country have never known any other culture. They are the children of upper-middle-class parents, have always lived in upper-middle-class neighborhoods and gone to upper-middle-class schools. Many have never worked at a job that caused a body part to hurt at the end of the day, never had a conversation with an evangelical Christian, never seen a factory floor, never had a friend who didn’t have a college degree, never hunted or fished. They are likely to know that Garrison Keillor’s monologue on Prairie Home Companion is the source of the phrase “all of the children are above average,” but they have never walked on a prairie and never known someone well whose IQ actually was below average.

When people are making decisions that affect the lives of many other people, the cultural isolation that has grown up around America’s new upper class can be disastrous. It is not a problem if truck drivers cannot empathize with the priorities of Yale law professors. It is a problem if Yale law professors, or producers of the nightly news, or CEOs of great corporations, or the President’s advisors, cannot empathize with the priorities of truck drivers.

And it is a problem when Christians who run things, and live in nice neighborhoods, and are able to afford to send their kids to good schools, cannot empathize with the priorities of people who drive pick-ups with Trump stickers on the bumper. I’m seeing those around my town. I have yet to see a sticker for a single other Republican candidate. Not one.