How the Left and Right Created Donald Trump

By George Yancey Published on March 13, 2016

I have struggled trying to understand the support Donald Trump has gained in his run for the presidency. I have little respect for Trump as a candidate but am somewhat sympathetic to those supporting him. As I have considered his popularity I have come to the conclusion that his ascendency is at least somewhat tied to actions by progressive and conservative activists.

From the Left

While Trump’s support cuts across the Republican spectrum, his strongest support appears to come from lower to middle class whites who do not have a college education. These individuals feel marginalized. They have been told about white privilege but do not feel privileged. They see groups such as Black Lives Matters and Human Rights Campaign fight for blacks and homosexuals, but nobody seems to be ready to fight for them.

Progressive activists are often sympathetic to marginalized groups, but they are anything but sympathetic to these lower to middle class whites. Indeed, they tend to be dismissive of them. If you need evidence of this attitude, look at how lower-educated whites, especially those who are culturally conservative, are portrayed in movies. Look at the stereotypes (i.e., stupidity, bigotry) those with Christianophobia have towards those who share the religious beliefs of those whites. There is no relief for these whites from progressive activists, in fact, they tend to marginalize this group even more.

Add to that the reality that middle class blacks are complaining about mistreatment in the sort of Ivy League schools such individuals can only dream of attending. Gay, lesbian, and transgender activists also tend to come from a middle to upper class position that these individuals would envy. So I suspect that for the typical Trump supporter, it would seem as though people were falling all over themselves to care about blacks and sexual minorities — but that nobody listens to them.

From the Right

So they look toward conservative voices to find support. But this is problematic for two reasons.

First, they see those voices losing in the culture war. Thus, fairly or unfairly (I tend to think unfairly), they blame these conservative activists for not achieving for them what they want in our society. They hear people saying that if conservatives just fight then they can win — but they never see the victory. So they blame the conservatives for being losers.

Second, the major emotion they pick up from conservative activists is anger. It is an anger that resonates with them. They’re angry, and these conservative commentators are giving them permission to express that anger. In fact, they’re teaching them that anger is the proper way to respond to their concerns, that working to blow up the system that has marginalized them is the right way to deal with their pain.

This is the situation that Trump has entered into. He has perfected the expression of anger for these lower class whites. It is incredible that they believe a billionaire relates to them, but his rude comments towards Hispanics, Muslims and women demonstrate a new kind of freedom to challenge the progressive sentiments that have so belittled the concerns of his followers. He is raising an assault on the political correctness that has always dismissed the concerns of these lower to lower-middle class whites. Conservative activists have provided them with cues of anger acceptance, and this relieves them of any concerns that this kind of rudeness is wrong. In short, those on the left and the right have contributed, in distinct but powerful ways, to the rise of the Trump candidacy.

Other Factors

Of course there are other potential factors explaining his popularity. His celebrity status has clearly helped people feel relatively good about him. He is media-savvy, which earns him a ton of free press. He is also running at a time when there is a mood favorable for a political outsider, and where previous political experience is actually seen as disqualifying. It would be short-sighted to argue that only progressive and conservative activists are responsible for Trump. But without the dual influences of these activists, I seriously doubt that Trump would be in the advantageous political position he enjoys today.

Both conservative and progressive activists should be concerned about the rise of Trump. Conservatives have argued that a Trump nomination could destroy the conservative movement, whether he wins or not. Progressive activists might feel comfortable with a Trump nomination, since it could make it easier for them to win the Presidency. But it is not guaranteed that he will lose. As some have noted, Clinton’s weaknesses could make a Trump victory a real possibility. Progressive activists should ask if they are ready for a president who based his candidacy on banning Muslims from our country, and a draconian border policy.

Regardless of what ultimately happens in Trump’s run for president, it is important to recognize that the lower to lower-middle class, and the less educated whites who support him, have real needs that should be addressed. Failure to address them could lead to another candidacy by someone else like Trump, or possibly some other way they might try to “blow up” the system. They may not protest out in the streets like Black Lives Matter, or mount cultural pressure the way the Human Rights Campaign has done. But make no mistake: they will find a way to protest. And whether we’re on the right or the left, we really might not like the results.


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