The Chronicle Review

What Liberal Academics Don’t Get

Jim Lo Scalzo, EPA, Redux

November 20, 2016

All the election postmortems make me think of the disgraced former presidential candidate John Edwards, who famously talked about "the two Americas."

There are different ways to delineate these two Americas: according to race, gender, political preference, religious feeling or the lack thereof, even by dietary choices. But this past week I’ve been thinking more about the dividing line between less educated and more educated Americans.

I straddle that line because, though I’m a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy and have two degrees from Brown University, my roots are in Revere, Mass., a rough-edged, working-class city on Boston’s northern cuff. Many of my grammar-school classmates and both my siblings have gone through life without the benefit of undergraduate degrees. Of the 14 uncles and aunts on my father’s side, not one of them had more than a year of higher education. Six of my 36 first cousins went away to college.

When you spend a lot of time around people like that, as I do, and when you care about them enough to listen to them with respect, you come away with a much clearer appreciation for the emotions that propelled Donald Trump to victory than you do by listening to NPR, scanning your friends’ Twitter feeds, or sitting at a table in a university cafeteria with like-minded colleagues.

For those of us who see Trump as an appalling choice for the Oval Office it’s tempting to take the easy route and brand his supporters — overwhelmingly white men — as racist or misogynist. Hillary Clinton gave in to this temptation in her infamous — and politically damaging — "basket of deplorables" remark.

Certainly some of the people who voted for Trump are racists and bigots. Surely we’re within our rights to think of the white supremacists, KKK sympathizers, and woman-haters as deplorable characters, and to condemn Trump for the subtle and not-so-subtle signals he sends them.

But the Trump voters I know — and I know them well — don’t come close to fitting into that basket. The thought patterns that led them to support Donald Trump instead of Hillary Clinton had little to do with race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. They made their choice out of a deep-seated sense of humiliation, a feeling that they’ve been cheated out of their share of our national abundance.

I have a close friend who supports his family on a yearly salary of $48,000. In the past two decades, this man has not had a vacation that took him away from home. Every time he turns on the TV he sees advertisements with smiling men and women riding around in new cars, or drinking cocktails on a cruise ship, things and experiences he knows he will never have.

In his adult life, has there been a career politician he can point to, Republican or Democrat, who has made his situation easier?

Many people on college campuses are fond of using the term "white male privilege." I understand what they mean, of course. But try to imagine what it feels like to be a white man who lives like my friend and hear someone call you "privileged." Try, through the tightly woven curtain of intellect, to imagine that.

Try to imagine what emotions rise up when he hears a candidate say she supports the Black Lives Matter movement. What he hears is not what we in the educated half hear. He hears: "What! My life doesn’t matter?" And that message — of not mattering — is reinforced day in and day out by everything from snarky memes on Facebook, to smirks at his grammatical errors, to the kinds of looks he gets when he walks into the bank in paint-spattered work pants.

By some bizarre alchemy, Trump the billionaire knew how to speak to these people. "When I’m elected," he said early in the campaign, "we’ll say Merry Christmas again." To those of us in the better-educated America, this rings of divisiveness, perhaps even, like some of his other crude messages, of anti-Semitism. But to a lot of people in less-well-educated America, the comment sounds like this: "I know you’ve been made to feel self-conscious about everything you say, even the simplest things like a holiday greeting you’ve been using since you were 4 years old. I’m going to free you of those constraints."

People take it personally when you mock their candidate — whether the mockery is face to face, on the cover of The New Yorker, on a bumper sticker, or in a political speech. And if you’re in the less-educated group, mockery hits home in a particularly painful way. From first grade, these people have been made to feel less because they couldn’t read as well, didn’t get A’s, weren’t the ones with a star on their papers to show Mom and Dad after school. And they didn’t go to college.

And highly educated liberals thought it furthered their candidate’s cause to post Facebook memes calling Trump an idiot, a monster, a fool?

After winning the Nevada Republican caucuses, Trump said, "I love the poorly educated." We laughed and made fun. But poorly educated whites were listening. And they vote, too. For decades those people have felt ignored and belittled. During the campaign they heard a great deal about the concerns of African-Americans, gay and transgendered people, immigrants, refugees. For us, those concerns are part and parcel of a necessary compassion; they dovetail with our sense of being American. For many white voters in the other America, though, stuck in dead-end jobs and low-rent neighborhoods, those comments make them want to say, "But what about me?"

The educated elite — professors, artists, journalists, "expert" commentators — can judge the emotions behind that question as stupid and unfair, even brand them as racist or homophobic. But those feelings of exclusion are very real and not unfounded. As the saying goes, and as last week’s depressing election result clearly demonstrates, we have ignored them at our peril.

Roland Merullo, a former faculty member at Bennington and Amherst Colleges, teaches in the low-residency M.F.A. program at Lesley University. He is the author of the novel Breakfast With Buddha (Algonquin Books, 2007).