Increasingly among my liberal, college-educated friends, I am confronted with the same burning question.
"Who are these people voting for Donald Trump?"
Almost all of my Boston friends are Clinton or Sanders voters, with a few Kasich and Rubio (poor Marco!) supporters sprinkled around. The idea of supporting Donald Trump is so far outside the realm of their life experiences that it regularly defies belief. Yet Massachusetts, my home of eight years, somehow rejected Bernie among Democrats and gave Trump the win -- even in Boston, a majority-minority city.
In Michigan, Hillary Clinton has just tanked among working-class whites, much as Barack Obama did against her in states like West Virginia. So what is really going on here? Why are people voting for Donald Trump, and why do I increasingly think that he will win the presidency?
I am reminded of my freshman year of college at the University of North Carolina when George W. Bush handily won re-election against John Kerry. As the results rolled across brand-new flat-screen televisions, some of those gathered in the student union started to openly sob. "How could this happen?" they cried to the heavens.
It happened because we don't all live in the America of top-tier colleges, well-paying jobs and well-connected friends. In fact, the vast majority of us don't. And the vast majority of those people tend not to vote, but they are now. Bush winning, just like Trump winning, wasn't shocking to me at all. Growing up in eastern North Carolina exposed me to the mindset of people who weren't simply prejudiced or uneducated.
They were just plain screwed by unfettered global capitalism, and now they have an outsider candidate who will speak directly to them. When people say they "don't understand" why anyone would vote for Trump, it speaks directly to their lack of experience with rural America or with dying cities hollowed out by the new service economy.
Trump has built a coalition of disaffected voters across many groups. Yes, some of them are avowed or closet racists. Some of them do despise anyone who doesn't look like them, out of ignorance and fear. But I would argue that the most legitimate form of protest that Donald Trump has seized upon is what John Edwards called "Two Americas."
Remember John Edwards? Before he made a mess of his personal life, he was forcing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to talk about poverty, two topics they would both rather avoid. Born of third way politics and political compromise in the post-Reagan era, Obama and Clinton spent most of their careers avoiding any overt discussion of poverty in this country. Obama gave us health care and an economic stimulus and green energy, but the minimum wage wasn't anywhere near the top of his list. I would argue it's because he was concerned about being seen as a president for Blacks Only, so he has neglected anti-poverty programs that aren't couched in the conservative, free-market language of "accountability," "incentives," or "choice."
Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump understand the Two Americas. Unfortunately for Sanders, he is an imperfect, 74-year-old messenger for his cause. If I could hop in a time machine, I'd go back and convince Elizabeth Warren to run against Hillary. I imagine that she spends her nights awake wondering, "What if?" It's how Chris Christie feels about 2012 when he's chowing down on Trump steak. Warren's got none of the Clinton baggage and all of the Bernie fire. Even a Bernie loss decreases her visibility in the Senate when he returns.
So Trump, in his wholesale rejection of Republican policies that primarily benefit the rich -- free-trade agreements and ideological conservatism -- has exposed establishment Republicans for the lying liars that they are. Republican policies don't help poor white people. When Sanders supporters whine that people "just aren't voting in their own interest," look instead at the wholesale migration to Trump. Southerners aren't as stupid as the rest of the country would like to believe. After decades of poverty and failed policies from both the left and the right, most people are just looking to work for a decent wage. Good, honest work has never been this hard to obtain.
To my great dismay, the candidate best addressing this problem is Donald Trump. Sanders' myopic focus on Wall Street isn't enough. Worse, Donald's reliance upon racism and sexism is seen as part of his appeal, when in fact it's wholly unnecessary. He would be winning more, I would argue, without it. Truth-telling about the global economy would be enough. Life has gotten dramatically better for the poor in countries like India and China, while life has steadily declined for the vast majority of Americans in terms of wage growth, home ownership, infrastructure and a whole host of quality of life issues. Free trade may be lifting millions of people globally out of poverty, but it devastates working-class communities in the developed world.
Sanders incessant cry of socialism still carries with it the assumption that "others" will "get more." Trump doesn't say that; he plainly assures the return of good-paying jobs. And why should struggling people care about his specific policies when all of the old ones were empty words anyway? He's saying what Edwards ineffectively championed in 2008, when his message was drowned by an economic free-fall sinking all boats.
In a society where the rich have returned to prosperity while the rest have not, anger and rage are understandable. For college-aged millennials, Bernie is the vehicle for their frustration.
For everyone else, it's Donald Trump.