Election 2016: Is this the season of the angry white male?

On Monday, two of American Catholicism’s most prominent conservative  intellectuals—George Wiegel, John Paul II’s biographer, and Princeton law professor Robert P. George—posted an open letter on National Review Online urging Catholics not to vote for Donald Trump.

Their appeal, addressed to “our fellow Catholics and all men and women of good will,” was joined by almost 40 coreligionists affiliated with academic institutions and non-profits. These folks are among the fiercest of culture warriors and for years have been trying to use the controversies over reproductive rights and marriage equality to pry Catholic voters out of the Democratic Party. They’ve promulgated the use of the term “faithful Catholic” to distinguish their sort of right-thinking believer from the apikorosim, like me.

“Donald Trump is manifestly unfit to be president of the United States,” Wiegel and George wrote. “His campaign has already driven our politics down to new levels of vulgarity. His appeals to racial and ethnic fears and prejudice are offensive to any genuinely Catholic sensibility. . .We understand that many good people, including Catholics, have been attracted to the Trump campaign because the candidate speaks to issues of legitimate and genuine concern: wage stagnation, grossly incompetent governance, profligate governmental spending, the breakdown of immigration law, inept foreign policy, stifling ‘political correctness’ — for starters. There are indeed many reasons to be concerned about the future of our country, and to be angry at political leaders and other elites. We urge our fellow Catholics and all our fellow citizens to consider, however, that there are candidates for the Republican nomination who are far more likely than Mr. Trump to address these concerns, and who do not exhibit his vulgarity, oafishness, shocking ignorance, and — we do not hesitate to use the word — demagoguery.”

Even allowing for the whiff of sanctimony that invariably floats like incense through this particular clique’s writing, the reaction from those posting comments on the site was fascinating. Since its founding by William F. Buckley, National Review has set a standard for civility as well as conservatism. Thus, the vitriol, resentment and contempt that poured through cyberspace and onto Wiegel, George et al was stunning. It was clear many of the respondents had no idea who these guys are—and think what you will of their conclusions, they have formidable credentials—and the resentment expressed oozed through the either like virtual acid. One after another, the commenters pronounced themselves sick of “elite” opinion, no matter from whom, and unwilling to take advice. These people were mad and unrestrained, even by Internet standards, in expressing their rage.

On Tuesday, we got a sample of what this angry electorate means and, perhaps, we can begin to pick out some of its individual currents—and there appear to be more than several. For one thing, it’s largely—though not entirely—a tendency of older white males. They cast 52% of the votes in Michigan’s primary, and went decisively for Trump.

It’s now the consensus opinion, of course, that this is an election cycle dominated by voters’ anger. Polls show that: people who agree with the statement, “the government and those in power don’t care about people like me” are highly like to cast a ballot for Donald Trump. Even more so, those Republicans who agree with the statement: “Our party’s leaders have betrayed us.” (The stab-in-the-back theory of politics ever has been the friend of authoritarian populists.)  Even so, there are things abroad in the country that the pollsters are glancing off of—or not picking up at all. Nate Silver’s prestigious Fivethirtyeight website pronounced their colleagues’ performance in the Michigan Democratic primary the worst failure of polling in primary election history. Every single survey forecast a decisive Hillary Clinton victory. Nobody saw the glimmer of a chance for Bernie Sanders, who won by a thread, 1.5%.

On Tuesday, we got a sample of what this angry electorate means and, perhaps, we can begin to pick out some of its individual currents—and there appear to be more than several. For one thing, it’s largely—though not entirely—a tendency of older white males. They cast 52% of the votes in Michigan’s primary, and went decisively for Trump. In Mississippi, Trump won the white male vote by more than 20 points. He also carried 57% of those who describe themselves as “angry” with the federal government.

There’s a similar story over on the Democratic side of the aisle, where Bernie Sanders lost women voters to Clinton, but beat her by 10 points among men. The Vermont socialist also continues to benefit from disenchantment among younger voters, including African Americans, who went largely for him in Michigan.

Some analysts are wondering whether angry white male voters may constitute the swing vote in this November’s general election. It’s an interesting question, and what we’re talking about here is working-class whites, the old Reagan Democrats, the guys who used to go to work with a lunch bucket and come home with dirt under their nails.

Both Sanders and Trump are drawing strength from voters, particularly white men, who feel they have lost jobs and wages to foreign workers through free trade agreements. Among Michigan Democrats who believe that, Sanders topped Clinton by 13 points and among those who ranked economic inequality as the top issue, he won by 21 points. The Clinton’s were architects of the 1990’s Democratic Leadership Council that moved the party to the center and helped make free trade one of it orthodoxies. Many in Michigan blame NAFTA and other agreements for the Rust Belt’s catastrophic deindustrialization. In large part, they’re right. Overall, free trade—like immigration—is a benefit to the country, but the failure of successive Democratic and Republican administrations to adequately assist Americans injured by free trade is an appalling social and moral scandal.

All of this has left some analysts wondering whether angry white male voters may constitute the swing vote in this November’s general election. It’s an interesting question, and what we’re talking about here is working-class whites, the old Reagan Democrats, the guys who used to go to work with a lunch bucket and come home with dirt under their nails. In 1980, they made up 65% of the electorate; today just 35%. Free trade and the digital economy have done their work, though slightly more than one in three voters still is a sizeable bloc.

And, getting back to Wiegel’s and George’s letter, it’s also one that remains disproportionately Catholic. In Michigan, Catholics make up 17.86% of the state’s populations and going into Tuesday’s primary, slightly more than half of them who are Republicans of voting age 52% told pollsters they support Trump. On the Democratic side, there’s no comparable exit polling, but estimates are that white working class men broke for Sanders.

About one in five American voters is a Catholic, and their percentages will increase in the upcoming Rust Belt primaries. In Ohio, Catholics are 26% of the population and in Illinois, 29%. A lot of those folks are unemployed, underemployed, inadequately paid for what they do and without a secure retirement. Is it really any wonder they’re angry—and in no mood to listen?

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