Donald Trump has done a lot of unprecedented things since he started running for president in June 2015. He’s attacked prisoners of war. He’s bullied just about everyone in the world of politics. He’s downplayed the white supremacist violence that led to a woman’s death in Charlottesville, Virginia. He’s said thousands, literally, of things that are not true.
But the most amazing trick Trump has pulled as a politician – and now as president – is to convince lower-middle class, predominantly white voters that he is one of them.
I was reminded of that trick on Sunday when Trump was asked whether he can relate to federal workers not being paid due to the ongoing government shutdown. Here’s how the President responded:
“I can relate, and I’m sure that the people that are on the receiving end will make adjustments, they always do, and they’ll make adjustments. People understand exactly what’s going on. But many of those people that won’t be receiving a paycheck, many of those people agree 100% with what I’m doing.”
“I can relate.”
Let’s explore that idea.
Donald Trump was born into a wealthy family. His father, Fred Trump, was a well-to-do developer in New York City. Sometime soon after Trump graduated from business school, his father loaned him $1 million to get him started in the business world. At a town hall in 2015, Trump described the loan this way: “My whole life really has been a ‘no,’ and I fought through it. It has not been easy for me, it has not been easy for me. And you know I started off in Brooklyn, my father gave me a small loan of a million dollars.”
Assuming that loan came in 1968 – the year Trump graduated from Penn – it would be the equivalent of an almost $7 million loan today. And as The New York Times revealed in a stunning piece last year, the actual amount of money that Trump reaped from his father was well in excess of $1 million. Try more than $400 million – at least some of which came as the result of very questionable tax dodges and schemes.
Wealth aside, Trump is not exactly the average Joe. He was raised in New York City and, with the exception of his resort in Florida, has never lived outside the city. He went to private schools through high school. He dated models and actresses. He starred in a reality TV series for more than a decade.
And yet, Trump somehow, in the course of the 2016 campaign, effectively convinced a decent chunk of voters – especially in the Midwest hollowed out by manufacturing losses – that he and he alone understood the challenges they faced in life. Time after time, at rally after rally, attendees would tell the media that Trump got them – that he effectively channeled their frustrations, their anger and their hopes.
They said these things even as Trump was regularly touting signs of his wealth, his elite education, his differences. Then they voted for him.
Trump won 71% among white men without a college education, according to exit polling. He took 61% among non-college educated white women. Trump won 51% of voters whose highest level of education was high school and a similar 51% of those who had attended some college but not graduated. By contrast, Trump took just 37% among voters with some sort of postgraduate degree – like him.
(Sidebar: Education is not a perfect stand-in for socioeconomic class. But there is no breakdown in the exit polling that better – through history – has lined up with how middle class, and lower-middle class, voters tend to think and vote than education level.)
Since being elected President, Trump has kept up the I’m-just like-you drumbeat. At a campaign rally in North Dakota last fall, he said this:
“I meet these people they call them ‘the elite.’ These people. I look at them, I say, ‘That’s elite?’ We got more money, we got more brains, we got better houses, apartments, we got nicer boats, we’re smarter than they are, and they say they’re elite? We’re the elite. You’re the elite. We’re the elite.”
What’s remarkable about all of that is that people cheered wildly after Trump said it. Trump may have more money and “better houses” and “nicer” boats than the people he is calling elites. But the average person in the crowd in North Dakota has neither multiple houses nor a boat. They know that Trump does have these things – he talks about them incessantly – and yet, somehow, they believe him to be one of them.
Why? My educated guess is because, for Trump’s supporters, it’s less about the President’s actual background – which is elite in every sense of the word – and more about who he is now. He tells it like it is! He sticks it to these self-satisfied elites! And I tend to believe that Trump’s wealth and background actually make him more credible with these voters because he was one of those elites but is now running them down. He’s turned on the elites, and they can’t deal with it! Or something like that.
Donald Trump considers himself the world’s greatest deal-maker – a salesman extraordinaire. Perhaps the greatest sale he’s ever made is the idea that he is a man of the people. It’s the sale that made him the President.