“You’re not worth teaching because you’re gonna end up in jail anyway,” a high-school teacher once told Lance in class in front of his fellow students.
Lance, a white, working-class kid from a mostly white, working-class town in southern Ohio, had been silently sitting at his desk when the kid in front of him threw a paper bullet at the teacher. The teacher looked up and identified Lance as the offender.
“It wasn’t me,” insisted Lance.
The teacher accused him of lying, insisted he apologize, and a back-and-forth ensued. Finally, the teacher issued him a detention as he hurled his derogatory remarks.
“I think he said it to me because of where I was from,” Lance told us. “Because a lot of people and teachers treated students differently, whether you were from the upper class or lower class.” Still, he insists he wasn’t offended by the remarks, and just shrugged them off.
But about a decade later, Lance did not vote for the candidate who described some of her opponent’s supporters as “irredeemable.” Instead, he voted for Donald J. Trump.
As it turns out, our friend Lance never went to jail or abused drugs. In his late teens, he married his high-school sweetheart and began raising a family and (unsuccessfully) looking for stable work. Today, after more than probably a dozen jobs at restaurants, factories, and big-box retail stores, he makes $10 an hour as a temporary worker. His wife makes $9.50 an hour at a daycare. They both work 40 hours a week but are still barely able to pay the bills.
He hopes that Trump can bring “economic change” that would enable him and his wife to have some financial margin.
Another friend, whom we’ll call Cassie, a self-described “redneck” and Trump supporter, also hopes that Trump’s presidency will mean that hard working people will finally be able to do more than just scrape by. Though she makes $17 an hour as a hospital receptionist and her husband makes $13 an hour as a cook, they still live paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes, Cassie goes without meals in order to buy food for their daughter. When Cassie heard Ivanka Trump on TV touting Trump’s plan for paid maternity leave, she googled Trump’s plan and thought, “We really need that. There are so many women in this country that are losing their jobs, losing their homes, losing children, because they can’t afford it—because they don’t get paid to be off to bring a life into this world.”
Cassie knew this from personal experience: the day she had her first ultrasound of her now six-year-old daughter, her former employer fired her on unsubstantiated accusations involving customer complaints about her work. Cassie believes they made up the accusations to avoid paying her maternity leave. She hopes that Trump’s plan will take America “more in the direction of Europe” when it comes to parental leave. (Cassie wasn’t aware that Clinton had a parental leave plan with an even more generous policy.)
Like Lance, Cassie was on the receiving end of class-based bullying in high school. “Go to your box on the side of the highway,” a kid from the more affluent part of town once called out to her during choir practice. “No one wants you!” Cassie ran out of the practice in tears. Kids also made fun of her weight, and by the time she graduated from high school, she felt like she had “no self-confidence.”
Cassie notes that since the election, everybody is asking, “Oh my god, where’d all these Trump supporters come from?!’”
Her response? “What’s up?” she asked, raising her hand halfway with a sheepish grin. “I’m the one that’s sitting in the corner.” She added, “We’re the ones who weren’t sayin’ nothing.”
Quietly, the people in the corner—the white, working class, who are too often unnoticed and looked down upon by mainstream America for their accents, clothes, grammar, and modest homes—were forming their own opinions. Trump saw their pain and spoke to them. As Cassie said, Trump “reached into the corners.”
Many of our neighbors believe Trump understands the challenges that beset their families and communities, and shares their basic values.
It’s a common sentiment in the small Ohio town where we live: many of our neighbors believe that Trump understands the challenges that beset their families and communities, and believe he shares their basic values. He does not condone partial-birth abortion or illegal immigration. And he will be tough on national security, protect Second Amendment rights, promote economic growth, and “bring our jobs back.” Even as they voice skepticism that he can accomplish everything he has promised, they basically trust him. They feel that Trump talks to them, with them, in their language, and not down to them.
It was enough to get some voters to the polls for the first time, like our twenty-something unemployed neighbor who greeted David in line with a loud, friendly, “Dude! You’ve got to help me—I’ve never voted before!” He’d come to cast a vote for Trump on behalf of his relative who cannot vote because of a felony.
“Other politicians speak about us like we are peons,” one small business owner told us. “But with Trump, you know he is saying what he is thinking—the good and the bad. I could see Trump talking to the American people each week, saying, ‘Here’s what we worked on this week. Here’s what didn’t go well, here’s what did…With Trump, it’s about the people.’”
In a culture that values “tell-it-like-it-is” talk over polished euphemism, Trump’s candid and unrehearsed manner implied trustworthiness.
Eight years ago, when America made history by electing Barack Obama as its first African-American president, we had the privilege of witnessing the joyful celebrations. We watched the election results in a New York City pub, and spent much of the rest of the night trekking through Times Square and then up to Harlem, where crowds drummed and danced and mobbed an MTA bus in jubilation while the driver laughed with joy. No one seemed to mind that traffic had stopped—time had stopped, too. An African American in his sixties looked upwards and exclaimed, “You have no idea how much this means to me. Now, my daughter can get a good education and job.”
Surprisingly, the way our neighbors in Ohio talk about President-elect Trump reminds us of 2008. They use words like “hope” and “change” and talk about their hopes that Trump will strengthen the economy and unify a divided nation. The mood in town seems less driven by anger and resentment, and more by a desire to see positive change.
That’s not to say that anger, racism, sexism, and xenophobia are not part of the story for some Trump supporters. As Lance told us, “Some of Trump’s supporters are straight assholes.” But the handful of Trump supporters we interviewed swear they are not bigots. Having felt judged and stigmatized themselves, they live by a code of tolerance. The result is that it’s sometimes difficult to squeeze their views into a standard ideological box. Though they have their own passionate convictions—“I do love my God, my guns, and my country,” as Lance said—they are also shaped by their own personal relationships and the needs they see in their communities.
One of the most vocal Trump supporters in our town voted for Bill Clinton in the 1990s and proudly showed us the “Diversity Excellence Award” that she received from her employer after organizing a regional multicultural event. She wears a “diversity ring” on her finger every day. After talking about how she hopes Trump secures the border by building a wall, she mentioned her Puerto Rican family member, and her Mexican-American friend, emphasizing that they agreed to disagree on presidential candidates but remain friends. She said she would love to someday see a woman president, like Sarah Palin.
A passionately pro-life neighbor who refers to Clinton as “Killary” was also the photographer for her gay friends’ engagement photos. On Facebook, she approvingly shares a Washington Times story with the headline, “Donald Trump holds high the flag for gay equality.”
The bumper sticker on Cassie’s car bears the “rebel” flag, though she insists that it’s just a symbol of her “redneck” identity—for her, it has nothing to do with racism. She would lay down her life for her cousin’s biracial children who she helped her parents raise after they became their legal guardians. She says that anyone who calls her racist should “go talk to my Mexican and African-American friends,” many of whom attended her wedding a few weeks ago.
During the campaign season, Cassie hid her political views on Facebook because although she prides herself on telling it like it is, she also doesn’t like to “fight with people all the time.” But on Election Day, she broke her silence with a selfie of herself after voting with the hashtag, “#MakeAmericaGreatAgain.”
“I will respect you regardless of who you support in this election,” read another meme that a Trump-supporting neighbor posted on her Facebook page before the election. “I don’t unfriend people due to political views. That degrades democracy and free thinking.”
Trump is the candidate who “reached into the corner” and spoke to those who’ve been told they’re “not worth teaching,” that they’re “trailer trash.”
“The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” Trump said in his victory speech. While that rhetoric could have belonged to any politician, it’s Trump who won the trust of many white, working-class voters who otherwise distrust many authority figures. As Cassie said, Trump is the candidate who “reached into the corner” and spoke to those who have been told that they’re “not worth teaching” and that they’re “trailer trash.”
But many Trump supporters don’t want acknowledgment of the pain in their own communities to come at the price of disunity. Lance sees the “#notmypresident” protests and hopes that Trump can unite Americans. “I hope he does something, or says something … to bring us together as Americans,” he said. He blames Obama for “race-baiting” and dislikes the divisions he saw emerging during Obama’s presidency: Black Lives Matter against White Lives Matter, Muslims against Christians, gays against straights. He thinks too much of our discourse is “race-based, or religion-based, or political-based,” and he doesn’t like the hardening into groups that he sees as a consequence.
“It makes people start classifying themselves as something, and then automatically hating the other group that’s opposite of them,” he said.
Lance points to his workplace, a small company in which, “there’s Hispanics, there’s whites, there’s blacks, and we all get along.” He believes that’s how it should be. He points to his friendship with an African-American co-worker, and how they discuss their racial backgrounds with humor and without tension. He talks about the time his first-grader son asked his aunt’s African-American boyfriend why his skin color was black, and how the boyfriend was “just cool with it” and said, “Oh, I was just born this way.” Lance’s son responded, “Oh, okay.” That was it, no big deal.
He hopes America becomes like that: a world in which we “see no color,” only “brothers and sisters” who live out the saying, “‘United we stand.’” Why? “Because divided we’re not going to do anything.”
Lance once got in a conversation with a Clinton-supporting co-worker about politics but stopped himself once it became clear they strongly disagreed. He’s all for plainspokenness, but he also wants to help preserve the peace of a place that feels to him like “a second home.”
“We’re all brothers and sisters because we’re all Americans,” he said. “And we need to stick together.”
The next four years will surely test that hope.
Amber and David Lapp are Research Fellows at the Institute Family Studies and co-investigators of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project, an inquiry into how white, working-class young adults form relationships and families. They are writing a book based on their interviews and experiences.