Some time ago, the public intellectual Milton Himmelfarb put his finger on what the current presidential campaign is all about. Referring to his fellow Jews, he said that they "earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans." Never mind the rearview mirror of PC tut-tutness, what Himmelfarb had observed was that not all the people all the time vote their pocketbooks. It's not always the economy, stupid.
Himmelfarb, who died in 2006, lived long enough to see his quip extended to other social, ethnic, and cultural groups. In 2004, Thomas Frank did just that with his book, What's the Matter with Kansas? It wasn't just that the state had gone deeply conservative, it was that its voters were doing away with programs that benefited them. Ideology was overshadowing economics.
Now Donald Trump proves the same point. We have oodles of polling data to show that Trump's supporters are typically white males who topped out in high school. They are supposedly forlorn, adrift, not living better than their fathers and seeing their sons about to live even worse than they do. Trump, with his anti-immigrant, anti-trade, and anti-China policy promises to change all that. This check will forever be in the mail.
There is, however, some contrary evidence that money alone is not at the root of the Trump evil. More recent studies suggest that racial and cultural isolation also play a role — maybe a dominant one. For instance, anti-immigrant feeling intensifies the farther one gets from the Rio Grande.
In other words, to know Mexicans is to know that they are hard-working and law-abiding, hardly the rapists and criminals of Trump's description. Trump's appeal may not, at bottom, be economic. It might be just plain emotional.
Liberals have a hard time with noneconomic explanations of political behavior. They subscribe to the Officer Krupke Rule of Life, propounded by me and named after the character in West Side Story who is mocked by gang members who spout liberal platitudes relieving them of all responsibility for being bad. It's all society's fault. This explains why it surprised liberals that the crime rate did not zoom during the recent deep recession. Most crimes are committed by criminals, not people who have been laid off.
Trump has an economic message, of course, but it's beside the point. He doesn't really have a jobs program. He has a get-even program. His appeal is visceral, emotional, nationalistic. He instinctively knows something about resentment and pride and the place they play when someone enters the voting booth. I don't think he's given these matters a moment's thought. On the contrary, they come naturally to him. He makes his people feel good. He makes them feel proud. He makes them feel as Americans should. It's a feeling I yearn for myself, although not at the cost of voting for Trump.
Hillary Clinton's response to all this is quintessentially Hillary Clinton. Her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention was — in the harshest put-down of all — one of her best efforts, but it was bloodless, an endless train of programs and ideas, all of them good, but none of them producing a snappy salute. Her message was economic, almost exclusively so: "My primary mission as president will be to create more opportunity and more good jobs with rising wages right here in the United States," she said. Yes, yes, of course. All words. No music. She is the school's principal. Trump is the football coach.
Trump's advantage is that he has enemies — Mexicans, Muslims, the Chinese, criminals, idiotic government regulations, the media, and, by inference, a smothering political correctness that inhibits speech, seasoning hate with frustration. Never mind that his enemies are really scapegoats; he enables the angry and frustrated to vent. Their America has changed. It is less white and less Christian and more sexually permissive. It permits same-sex marriage and unisex bathrooms and has taken a blender to all sorts of sexual categories and made them all one. Trump's supporters are bewildered. Uncle Sam does not know which bathroom stall to use.
Clinton represents that changed America. Her enemies are hers alone — the vast right-wing conspiracy, for instance — but not those of wretched white males. She promises them a job, but they have heard that before. What they want is pride, status, a return to when white males owned the culture, understood the culture, were the culture. Trump offers them the past. For that, they'll sacrifice the future anytime.
Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.