What’s behind the Trump phenomenon

Many people are bewildered by the Donald Trump phenomenon, unable to explain how “someone like him” is able to inspire as much loyalty and support as he is. It is incomprehensible, the logic goes, that a man who many consider an uncouth reprobate could possibly be taken seriously or generate any real interest.

I have been rather open about my own personal distaste for Trump’s candidacy, yet the why behind the support he is getting always made sense to me, even if sometimes it was difficult to articulate. In fact, in March I outlined what I thought was a reasonable scenario that would lead to him winning the election.

But the rational explanation for Trump’s rise was never more effectively demonstrated than in a new book by J.D. Vance, called “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis.”

The book was brought to my attention after reading a review of it in The American Conservative. The review was titled “Trump: Tribune Of Poor White People.”

Vance’s book is not a political book, and it is not a book that seeks to explain Donald Trump. Instead, it is a personal examination of Vance’s family, the communities that shaped him and the lingering effects of that multigenerational upbringing today.

Yet the issues he talked about in the book — particularly the devastation of the white working class — offer us a window into the political factors that have been driving the rise of Donald Trump.

After reading the review, I bought Vance’s book and read it, having barely put it down.

Vance himself is a graduate of Yale Law School and a former marine. Certainly what anyone would consider a successful human being.

Yet his story is not that simple. Vance’s family came from abject poverty, with his grandparents originally living in the Appalachian region of Kentucky. There they experienced an extreme, impoverished lifestyle and were determined to escape from it, which brought them to Ohio.

There, they improved their circumstances and were able to build a solid middle-class life for themselves in the rust belt. Yet all was not well, as most of his family, including his parents’ generation, struggled to adapt to that new life and succumbed to the vices that plague so many poor communities, such as alcoholism and domestic abuse.

I had the opportunity to speak to Vance last week and interview him about what it was like growing up in such circumstances.

He told me he was determined, much like his grandparents were, to escape the circumstances of his birth, which is what led him to join the marines and later go to Yale Law School. As he moved up the social ladder, he would congratulate himself on “being better” than where he came from, having built a successful life, created a financially secure life and getting an Ivy League education.

In a word, he took comfort in looking down on where he came from.

In fact, Vance observed that the poor, white working class were the last real group of people it was acceptable and comfortable to look down on. He also relates a story of how alien he felt among his peers at Yale, realizing the more he interacted with them how little he shared in common with them.

His values and things that were important to everyone he knew growing up were looked down on by the upper crust of American society.

Quickly you begin to understand how this impacts the politics of the country today.

For several decades, the livelihoods of the white working class have been stagnant or declining. Factories have closed. Mill towns have evaporated. Middle-class jobs have disappeared. Wages have been flat. Poverty has persisted.

During this time, there has been a perception that the hopeful, optimistic, powerful, opportunity-laden land of America is going away, and in its place is a country that is openly hostile to the working class.

The elites look down on them. The political parties ignore them. The Washington establishment openly mocks them, and all the while nothing changes. Their lives are not getting better, and no one has spoken specifically to their problems or even acknowledged their existence for a very long time.

Donald Trump holds a rally in Daytona Beach, Florida, on Wednesday. Red Huber | Orlando Sentinel | TNS

Donald Trump holds a rally in Daytona Beach, Florida, on Wednesday. Red Huber | Orlando Sentinel | TNS

That has generated a great deal of frustration and resentment and a powerful urge to fight back.

So thirsty for someone to actually take up their cause, it was only a matter of time before somebody recognized this and took advantage.

Donald Trump is a very flawed candidate and one I have deep personal and political concerns over, yet he is the first national candidate in a very long time to speak for this group of people, which makes explaining the unflinching support he has received quite easy.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.