Last month The New York Times’ Bret Stephens wrote a piece that triggered an avalanche of unjustified, vitriolic criticism. As part of a Times series where columnists confess things they got wrong in their writing and commentary, Stephens says he was “wrong about Trump voters.” He regrets his past “broad swipe” at them and the way he “caricatured” their motivations.
Here’s how he described Trump voters now:
Trump’s appeal, according to [The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy] Noonan, was largely to people she called “the unprotected.” Their neighborhoods weren’t so safe and pleasant. Their schools weren’t so excellent. Their livelihoods weren’t so secure. Their experience of America was often one of cultural and economic decline, sometimes felt in the most personal of ways.
It was an experience compounded by the insult of being treated as losers and racists —clinging, in Obama’s notorious 2008 phrase, to “guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.”
No wonder they were angry.
Noonan and Stephens are onto something … about 2016. I live in a deep-red part of America, and I heard a version of this argument countless times during the 2016 primary and the 2016 presidential election.
I know this account doesn’t describe every Trump voter (some took a much darker view of politics at that time), but it does connect with a very real sentiment—especially when describing big portions of Trump’s rural, working-class base.
While Trump was not the normal politician, the reasons I heard for supporting him were (mostly) conventional, and unsurprising. There’s a long history of different American constituencies feeling disregarded and disrespected. There’s a long history of populist movements in American politics.
I’m bringing up Stephens, however, because it’s important to understand that this explanation is outdated. The case for Trump is changing, right along with the attitudes of the MAGA base. While MAGA Republicanism remains populist, it’s radicalizing. The case for Trump now is different from the case for Trump then, and the change is profoundly harmful for American politics.