My work as a New England college professor and expert on the Middle East might make it seem unlikely that I connect to Americans who support Donald Trump. Yet my life story says otherwise.
My parents were lower-middle class folks struggling to make better lives for themselves and me. They grew up in poverty, and my dad's ticket to being the one and only person in his family to go to college was World War II and the GI Bill. My parents worked constantly to earn enough to give them lifestyles where they could eventually go out to eat once a week and enjoy modest vacations. They were unfailingly honest, fair to all, and patriotic. To honor them, I spared no effort to get a good education and advance myself. I was fortunate in succeeding through our collective hard work, but jobs and financial security have not always come easy. As much as I look like a multilingual, globalized member of the Northeast intellectual elite, my roots and values remain clearly middle class, within the broad age and ethnic background that favor Trump for president this year.
So I can understand the uncertainties and shifting ground in American culture and the economy that many Americans feel confused, and even suspicious of a government and culture that seem at the service of the powerful, or condescending towards other Americans. I don't share such elitist disdain, and, indeed, do not enjoy stories that try to make Trump supporters look stupid or bigoted. Unless you are one of what, as a loyal American, I assume to be the small minority of truly closed-minded or racist folks who do form part of the Trump movement, I see you as conflicted, well-meaning people who want the best for our country like my own friends and me.
With this background, I have three sincere questions about why Americans frustrated with changing economic conditions, government elites, and shifting national identity might vote for Trump.
1. Why should anyone trust Donald Trump to help people who are suffering in our economy?
The evidence seems overwhelming that Trump's entire career has been built on taking advantage of people, and in particular on making money off of vulnerable people with less wealth than himself. Whether this is in stiffing his contractors, refusing to pay his fair share of taxes, or coaxing people looking to improve their careers into shelling out for courses at Trump University that didn't help them, Trump's life story is that of a kid born with a silver spoon growing up to be a man who took lots from others, but gave little back. Here is a man who built a lucrative TV career out of enjoying "firing" potential employees. Hillary Clinton may be much more wealthy and powerful than you or me, but she didn't get rich from being born into great wealth, or taking it directly from hard-working lower middle-class people.
If Trump's message has appeal that the U.S. system doesn't seem fair to many of us and is stacked towards the rich and powerful, what is the proof that he as a messenger would reverse the course of his entire life and try to help the very people whose money has made him an elite billionaire? This question seems especially pressing given how mean and mocking he can be of people whom he doesn't like.
2. What makes anyone think Trump could fix the U.S. government?
I'll be honest here that, as someone with a doctorate in politics, I have a lot of good reasons to believe that the problems that make government not seem to work well enough for some of us have more to do with the influence of very large banks and corporations (like Trump's) than government officials themselves. Indeed, I know enough people who have been in government from both parties to have ample grounds to think that there is no conspiracy among public servants, and most are motivated by idealism. But let's assume that there are basic problems with our national government. I don't see how Trump could fix them. He has the least experience with politics of any presidential candidate in many decades, if not all of US history. He has alienated a lot of Democrats and Republicans in Washington. He would not have the authority to fire everyone in government, and replace them with people he knows.
Even if he could do this, it would make no sense. Like any of us, I can get frustrated with high costs when I need a doctor, an electrician, or a plumber. But I wouldn't trust myself or, say, a cell phone salesman, to do these tasks for me instead. And I sure wouldn't hire a demolitions expert to take on this work. To my ears, experienced with a lot of political knowledge and rhetoric, Trump sounds like a demolitions expert. He talks about destroying what he says is bad, but I don't hear a lot of plans or knowledge about how exactly he could fix anything. And don't get me started on foreign policy, where I actually know quite a lot, and must say that Trump's lack of knowledge seems worse than my most challenged freshmen students. For what it's worth coming from someone who has spent most of his life studying other countries and their connection to the U.S., the stuff that Trump says makes little sense and scares the hell out of me.
3. How does trying to get rid of Mexicans and Muslims in the U.S. help our American identity, values or "greatness"?
We all have our own version of what it means to be American. For me, our society was founded on an experience of people coming from many countries and religious backgrounds to seek lives of freedom, the ability to worship as they choose, and a chance at reasonable prosperity on the basis of hard work. Granted I have had the good fortune to know many Muslims and Mexican-Americans. Yet I truly don't get how the basic ideas of my country as a melting pot, haven of religious liberty for all, and land of economic opportunity are served by seeing these, or other American subpopulations, as a threat. As a religious person myself, I find the stereotypes and, even violence, directed towards some non-white Americans thriving during this campaign season actually immoral.
But, whatever one's personal reaction, the logic of blaming them escapes me. Immigrants and diverse Americans improve the overall economy historically. The main economic phenomenon that squeezes out many of us from a reasonable standard of living is rapidly growing inequality of incomes, where our country's 400 richest executives (people like Trump) own more than all African-American and 1/3 of Hispanic American households combined.
I raise these three questions, and my basic reactions, out of a genuine interest in understanding how others who find Trump appealing as a possible U.S. president. However engrossing the man may be, on what basis should we trust him to address problems that people with much less selfishness, more demonstrated concern for public policy and clearly-voiced ideas have been unable to solve?