Listen to the Trump voters

Story highlights

  • Jay Parini: Donald Trump has drawn support from the Rust Belt, Appalachia
  • Parini says many have been cast aside in the past few decades, as jobs have shifted abroad
  • They have seen their world shredded, hollowed out and mocked

Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. His latest book is "New and Collected Poems, 1975-2015." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)It's time for all of us to listen, to hear the hopes and fears, the groans and angry riffs that arise among white working-class Americans in the so-called Rust Belt and Appalachia, many of whom support Donald Trump for the presidency (though Bernie Sanders also holds some appeal). Not a single one of these people -- on whom this critical election in November may turn -- wants their children to live without economic prospects, and many of them know that education is, as it has always been, the only way out.

Jay Parini
And education begins, as it always has, with acute listening.
    I don't take Trump seriously as a candidate -- he's too wacky, inconsistent and immature -- but I do take seriously the voters who put their money on him. They have been woefully cast aside in the past few decades, as the industrial base has changed, as jobs have shifted abroad or transformed in unrecognizable ways. They have seen their world shredded, hollowed out and mocked.
    I grew up with these people, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where the anthracite mining industry left the people high and dry a very long time ago. Nothing has replaced that industry, and I would not be surprised if many of them found something appealing in Donald Trump: a return to yesterday, when life was perhaps simpler and certainly more prosperous.
    The brute fact is that we're never going back to the 1950s. We live in a global marketplace, with information technology changing the way we do business and live our daily lives.
    Despite the rhetoric of Trump or Bernie Sanders, it will never work simply to cut free-trade agreements, which make up an essential part of our economy. And we benefit hugely from these agreements, with a big trade surplus in manufactured goods with 20 countries with which we have pacts.
    Anyway, you can't force an economy to change its colors and forget about market forces. Like it or not, it's a commercial world, and commerce is necessary for our survival.
    But Trump supporters rightly sense that their environment has changed in ways that leave them high and dry. The rich only get richer. When they see immigrants working, they assume (wrongly) that these people are taking their jobs. More worryingly, they see their children without a future, as education has become far too expensive. (It costs over $60,000 to send a child to the college where I teach for a single year!) And so they regard upward mobility as part of the long lost "American dream."
    It gets worse and worse. They feel culturally threatened on every front. They like and probably need to drive their pickups (and probably don't believe in climate change). They like to hunt -- it's part of their culture -- and they're afraid (the NRA is telling them, loudly) that someone in Washington wants to take away their guns.
    They know for sure they were taken for a ride in the Bush era by protracted and pointless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What did Americans actually get for the thousands of lives lost, for billions and billions of taxpayer dollars spent on "nation building," on propping up failed regimes in far-flung places?
    They got zip.
    Many of these white working-class people are deeply religious, and they feel that their practices are disrespected, even threatened, as a culture moves steadily away from organized religion, with more than a third of Americans under 30 professing no faith at all. It may trouble them that Trump is far from religious -- in fact, he pretty much embodies everything Jesus condemned. Yet they worry that their religious views are threatened.
    But does the government listen to them?
    It doesn't, of course. Instead, there is derision, and decisions from the top (such as the transgender directives, however well-meant) that are not only puzzling but annoying. To put it simply, the cultural rug has been pulled out from under these people.
    Trump knows this, and he knows how to talk to them. Let's give him credit for that.
    But he doesn't have anything for them. Only huge disappointment, as taxes are lowered on the wealthy. Do you think Trump understands for a moment that their children need a good education to lift them out of the downward draft? Despite his own Wharton education, he plays to the anti-intellectualism that has long been a defensive measure among poor white workers. One suspects they don't really know much about his own proposals on loans for students, which seem destined to put higher education even further from their reach -- at least judging by what Sam Clovis, his campaign co-chairman, has said.
    We must listen closely to Trump's voters. They responded to the hate speech he has spewed on the campaign trail, but we need to understand why. We need to hear them out, and address their deeply human wish to earn a good living, to live in a safe country, and to feel hopeful about the future for their children.
    To be frank: They need the same things all of us do.