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The Left Are Now Strangers in Their Own Land

How Trump redeemed alienated conservatives and cast liberals into the political wilderness.

In Berkeley, California, a few days after election night, my two granddaughters played on the living-room floor, wearing safety pins on their blouses. The pins were a gesture of protection and solidarity with America’s most vulnerable—those who felt unsafe as a result of the attacks Donald Trump made on Muslims, Mexicans, and other minorities during his campaign. A Comcast repairman arrived at the front door to look at our broken phone. “I’m from Morocco,” he told me. “I’m Muslim, and I can’t believe Trump is my president.” Before he left, he picked up a safety pin, too. The mood was glum.

Over the next week, however, I called up some friends whose mood was very different. Well before the election, I knew how they were going to vote: I had spent five years with them in southwest Louisiana, researching a book about the American right. In the interviews I conducted with dozens of supporters of Trump and the Tea Party, I sought to understand why their right-wing political beliefs felt right to them. I tried to shut off my own political alarm system and to listen to what people were saying on fishing trips, at church gumbo cook-offs and political meetings, and on visits to schools, graveyards, and birthplaces. What I found was a deep sense of loss: Many of my informants felt cast adrift in a country that was changing and increasingly, they felt, held little place for them. “Ronald Reagan told us ‘I didn’t leave my party, my party left me,’” one explained to me before the election. “Now we aren’t leaving our country, but our country is leaving us.”

My friends in Louisiana defined themselves as “strangers in their own land,” a phrase I chose for the title of my book. But now their chosen candidate would soon be in power. “The forgotten man and woman will never be forgotten again,” the president-elect tweeted on November 9. “We will all come together as never before.”

I picked up the phone. I wanted to know what my friends thought the result meant to them—and what, if anything, they believed they might have won. Not least because the future of the Democratic Party, now in opposition, will depend in part on reaching out from our liberal enclaves to all those in conservative ones. First we have to get to know and appreciate each other as people. Then we have to build a new politics—one that truly addresses the toll taken by widening income inequality, and that rewards companies for creating and keeping jobs here.

The first person I called was Sharon Galicia. A petite single mother of two, she works for Gulf South Benefits, selling insurance mostly to workers in petrochemical plants on the dreary outskirts of Lake Charles. Galicia is a libertarian conservative and former president of the Republican Women of Southwest Louisiana; she had feared that Hillary Clinton would open the floodgates to illegal Mexican immigrants in return for Democratic votes and more government handouts. That, she felt, would have led to the long-term loss of American jobs, culture, and identity. Today, however, she feels confident that Trump will return her country back to her. “I feel surprised and relieved Trump won,” she confided. With him, she expects better jobs for blue-collar whites, lower taxes, fewer handouts, and a brave new culture of national pride.

Borders were the central issue for another Trump supporter I called. Shirley Slack is a former flight attendant in her seventies who had predicted Trump’s win. Her dread focused less on immigrants swarming into the United States than on global “higher ups” coming to direct America from “afar.” Like many commentators, she sees a link between the American vote for Trump and the British vote for Brexit. “I’ve had a lot of layovers in London hotels,” she explained, “and I tell you, the English live for their tea and toast. But the European Union wanted to ban high-powered tea kettles and toasters. If it weren’t for Brexit, the British would have had to live with a ban on eight of the best tea kettles and nine of the best toasters in England to meet emissions targets. Globalization isn’t good for a lot of us.” At stake in both of these elections, she seemed to say, was not just a set of policies but the defining symbols of each nation.

Many Trump supporters I came to know in Louisiana were the elite among those left behind by globalization—elite in the sense that some half of them had college degrees and had prospered. But their story was one of loss, both of class position and of social identity. Of the 40 Tea Partiers I studied intensively, most had grown up in blue-collar homes. In their own families and those of neighbors and friends, they had witnessed divorce, single parenthood, drug use, and unemployment. Some spoke with anguish about the humiliating search to replace jobs they had lost. Some had faced age discrimination and financial decline.

Their fears about future employment are not unfounded. In Louisiana, I found the state government desperate to attract new industry to the state, but the single biggest industrial newcomer—the South African petrochemical giant, Sasol—planned to employ Filipino pipe fitters and Mexican construction workers to build a new multibillion-dollar complex. The plants, once expanded, will be—like the ones there now—highly automated.

And their perceptions of a system rigged against them were borne out by some grim statistics. Over the last three decades, the real median hourly wage for white, blue-collar men has fallen by over 10 percent. These days, the term “blue collar” usually refers to the 68 percent of Americans who lack a bachelor’s degree, that supposed passport to good jobs. Insofar as Trump spearheaded a movement on behalf of blue-collar workers, it’s a movement that reached out to that 68 percent.

Blue-collar workers pay a heavy price for their lack of opportunities. According to a study by Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case, the mortality rate for whites with no college education between the ages of 45 and 54 years old has increased by 22 percent since 1999. The rate for the college-educated, meanwhile, actually fell during the same period. In another study, the journalist Jeff Guo discovered a correlation between counties with higher rates of premature death among middle-aged whites—often by alcohol, drug abuse, and suicide—and support for Donald Trump.

For many of the Tea Party and Trump supporters I interviewed before and after the election, something more than economic standing was at issue: personal honor. In Trump, they saw the promise of strong, masculine leadership and the possibility of redemption. One of my Louisiana contacts, a retired oil professional, posted about the aftermath of the election on his Facebook page. He pointed out that violent crimes take place mainly in blue-state cities, referring to the troublemakers as “Hillary’s stormtroopers.” In another post, he offered an image of five freakishly dressed young men with strange beards (Hillary supporters) next to an image of robust men in military uniform (Trump supporters). Perhaps he had read that many liberals fear Trump’s potential for German-type authoritarian rule, felt insulted by it, and was trying to reverse it. Hillary is the scary one, he seemed to say. We’re not unmanly, pampered men: We’re the return of “real” men—those with honor.

For these voters, Hillary Clinton came to personify an attack on their honor: someone who promoted the interests of newcomers over theirs, who justified their loss of status in the language of identity politics, who was friendly with Wall Street. My Louisiana friends got most of their news from Fox, Breitbart, and right-wing Twitter feeds. Who killed Vince Foster, the deputy White House counsel whom Hillary worked with as First Lady? Who killed the young Democratic Party operative who was about to leak damaging documents about her? The many rumors that circulated about Clinton during the campaign only bolstered these voters’ feeling that she did not have their best interests at heart.

So what now? Trump has made some big promises that may be very hard to keep. He’s vowed to stop the outward flow of blue-collar jobs to Mexico and reverse the trade deficit with China. But what if jobs continue to disappear not through offshoring, but through massive automation? What if the deficit with China grows? Disappointment is bound to follow, and soon after that, the search for someone or some group to blame. Understandably, in the euphoria of their victory, this line of questioning didn’t come up among my Louisiana friends. But it’s not too soon for us to start thinking about it.

The United States is not alone in its sharp turn to the right. A mix of globalization and automation has exacerbated inequality—and made the footholds of those on its lower slopes more uncertain—all over the world. The Philippines, India, Great Britain, France, Austria, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Russia, China: In each of these countries, the right is gaining political traction and in some cases elected office. It is now those of us on the liberal left, trying to guard the safety of those shamed and blamed by Trump, who are strangers in our own land. Out of the cultural spotlight, our beliefs will be more aggressively questioned, our media critiqued, and we will be thrown on the defensive. It won’t be easy to recover and move forward. But just like those forgotten men and women who voted for Trump and embraced Brexit, we can remind ourselves that here at home and around the world, we are not alone.