Philip Kotler
8 min readSep 21, 2023

--

September 20, 2023

Are We Liberals to Blame for Workers Loving Trump?

Philip Kotler

We liberals are puzzled at the persistence of so many Americans who love and adore Donald Trump. Trump is a proven liar, a great disrupter of established norms, a man of many misdeeds and serious legal problems, a person urging us to return to a fictional past. How can so many working men and women believe that their future will be in better hands with Trump as President than Biden as President.

Liberals picture themselves as educated men and women who work hard, earn a decent living, care deeply about human rights and social problems, and believe in progress. Liberals and moderate centrists believe in multi-culturalism, environmental causes, and fair treatment of workers, black Americans, women, and members of the gay community. We liberals caring citizens and “good guys.”

In August 2, 2023, columnist David Brooks published “What if we’re the Bad Guy Here?” in the New York Times. He asks: Are we liberals to blame for Trump and his millions of followers?

Brooks looks back to our history to find an explanation.

1. In the 1960s, high school grads were drafted to fight in Vietnam while wealthy educationally-driven students went to college or got other deferments.

2. In the 1970s, working class families had to accept integration and busing while many persons in upscale communities didn’t have an integration or busing problem. And if they did, there were always private schools that those elites could afford.

3. College graduates are able to get high-paying entry level professional jobs. They marry other educated persons, have children, and put a lot of their resources into improving their lives and the lives of their children. Meanwhile most non-college students take lower paying jobs unless they get into the trade or start a small business. Lower middle class and those in poverty rely on credit to obtain their consumer goods, appliances, and housing. They barely save enough to buy a home or send their kids to college. They rely on church, VA, FHA, and government assistance. They may have to take on two jobs and still feel insecure about their job and their prospects. Many non-college educated individuals think that the system is rigged against them.

4. Higher and middle class liberals lead a good life. They support policies that largely serve their interests. Free trade makes the products they buy cheaper and professional jobs are unlikely to be moved to China. Open immigration policies make our products and services cheaper. Immigrants provide less costly labor in menial jobs such as harvesting produce, caring for animals, janitorial work, lawncare, and menial jobs in the food service industry.

5. Many members of the highly educated class tend to be insular and have few contacts with non-college graduates, other than their household, garage, gardeners and maintenance staff or perhaps the sales staff and checkout persons in the places where they shop.

6. David Brooks believes that the working-class is frustrated with an economic system rigged in favor of those with (college degrees) and greater means. Less-educated, lower middle classes rally around Trump as their best warrior against the educated and more upwardly mobile class.

All said, Brooks uses an “economically deprived narrative” to explain the workers’ love affair with Trump.

However, another observer, Zack Beauchamp, thinks that Brooks narrative is “weak at best.” (See his “I regret to report the economic anxiety theory of Trump is back.” Zack @vox.com). Beauchamp offers an alternative narrative based on racial and cultural conflicts.

He sees the late 20th-century marked by a revolution in social values. More open sexuality, distancing from Church ethics and morality, unrelenting media competitors racing to be first with the most outrageous stories or old gossip. Segregation had ended, mass nonwhite immigration took place, feminists were challenging patriarchy, church attendance was in decline, and the LGBTQ movement was rising. Millions of traditional American workers, who were brought up with more traditional values, became outraged with the new permissive, unashamed perversity that a small minority of Americans felt they had to reveal to the public. Many MAGA Trump followers began to feel “strangers in their own land.” They came to believe that they were losing the America of the past. As President Lyndon Johnson pressured the Democrats to pursue civil rights, many Southern Democrats switched to the Republican party. When Barack Obama was elected President, many wondered whether he was a Muslim or not a legitimate citizen according to Trump. This increased the worker’s sense of social alienation.

Beauchamp believes that a cultural theory of worker alienation provides a better explanation than worker resentment over a rigged economic game. A 2018 study by three scholars found that racism and sexism provided a stronger explanation than economic alienation. Another 2018 study concluded that “attitudes about race and ethnicity were more strongly related to how people voted” in 2016.

Alienated voters who are concerned about race, feminism, and immigrants would prefer a strong Presidential candidate who will restore the old order. They support more authoritarian actions to restore the old power groups against the emerging new power groups. The same tendency is seen in Europe’s response to its changing demographic makeup. The cultural anxiety about immigrant groups changing their country’s values counts for more than fears about wage competition or economic inequality. Groups from other cultures, rather than joining the “melting pot,” want our culture to change to allow them to live the culture from their native country. We are allowing too many minority cultures to twist and smother our culture.

So, on the one hand, there is Brooks theory that Trump people are defined by their resentment of more affluent, educated and upwardly mobile individuals, and Beauchamp’s theory that Trump people are primarily upset with cultural changes over racism, feminism, immigration and other culture changes.

A February 5, 2021 nationwide survey conducted by the University of Washington largely supports Beauchamp’s theory (UW News, Kim Echart). Over 1500 fervent Trump voters and MAGA supporters were interviewed. They believe:

1. The 2016 election was stolen.

2. That Covid-19 was a bio-weapon from China.

3. The January 6 riot at the Capitol was the work of antifa; and that the riot or rally was mostly a peaceful protest. Results showed 25 percent of the respondents believed the riot was justified.

4. “Right now, these people feel like they’re losing their country and their identity. They feel like they’re being displaced by communities of color, by feminists and by immigrants. These people are motivated by what they see as an existential threat to their way of life,” said Christopher Sebastian Parker, professor of political science at the UW and co-author of the research.

5. Nearly all respondents said they believe Trump’s election fraud claims and distrust the actual results of the presidential election.

6. More than two-thirds said Trump bears no responsibility for the events of Jan. 6 — roughly the same percentage that laid the blame on antifa.

7. At least 90% said Trump was honest about COVID-19, and that state and local government restrictions related to the pandemic should be loosened.

8. Almost all said they were concerned that “forces are changing our country for the worse” and “the American way of life is disappearing”.

9. On race, significant majorities of respondents agreed with statements like “Black people should work their way up like other minorities” and “Black people would be as well off as white people if they tried.”

10. A majority of respondents agreed with statements such as “Women interpret innocent remarks as sexist,” “Feminists are seeking more power than men,” and “Immigration is changing our culture for the worse.”

What is also surprising are some of the myths about hard-core Trump supporters. Nearly half of MAGA adherents earn at least $50,000 a year, considered middle-income by many standards, and approximately one-third have at least a college degree.

What Can be Done to Disenchant Workers’ Love of Trump?

We are dealing with the phenomena of idolatry, a condition of extreme admiration, love, or reverence for someone or something. That “someone” (Donald Trump) connects his fans in their everyday lives. They watch for favorable articles about Trump, listen to his speeches, contribute money to his causes, wear his Maga hats, and buy his new mugs. They put Trump signs in their yards so that whole neighborhoods are filled with his image. Local residents are happy to talk with each other about Trump’s latest statements. It is not safe for any resident in the neighborhood to talk negatively about Trump.

His fans consume the media that shows Trump in the best light. They avoid all negative media and articles and believe that anti-Trump media and articles are untruthful and twisted fabrications coming from liberals. They see the 91 indictments against Trump as a vicious plot to prevent his reelection.

The Trumpers carry a negative view toward government. They blame the government for passing all the laws favoring blacks, women, gays and immigrants. The animus against the government is so strong, that even in the most polluted state, petrochemical Louisiana, intense anger at environmentalists and the EPA exists.

MAGA’s fundamental failing is their obsessing about those below them on the financial pyramid, not those way above them. Welfare beneficiaries and immigrants are more real and visible. Invisible are executives occupying C suites and their shareholders. MAGA members fail to talk about all the profits earned by the wealthy and fail to see the connection between wealth concentration and their own fragile economic situation.

Trump’s fans are ready to battle with relatives and acquaintances who criticize Trump. Many families and friends have broken up over a fan’s idolatry of Trump.

The main hope is to reach Trump fans when they are out of their neighborhoods. On their job, Trumpers prefer to avoid politics. Or if Biden comes up as a topic, or African Americans, or immigrants, they may show their displeasure or say nothing.

Trumpers will spend their social time with other Trumpers. They may join committees with parents who want to ban books or change curriculums that conflict with their more traditional upbringing, morality and values. Their children will develop a more traditional view of America.

I don’t see how Trump idolatry can be broken even with the insights of Brooks and Beauchamp. Brooks hopes liberals would do less flaunting of their college education and be more aware of workers’ resentments about their low paying jobs and limited opportunities. Beauchamp hopes that liberals will have a better understanding of the animosity of Trumpers toward new power groups that don’t seem “American.”

Liberals, in seeking a better world of human rights and social justice, have unwittingly contributed to the rise of a new and unfamiliar landscape that threatens traditional ideas of America. Even knowing this, liberals are not likely to change their ways and beliefs. The war for minds will have to be fought in our public media, our social media, our educational system, our political system, and our judicial system.

Please help me if you have better ideas on how to bring about less heated feelings and more mutual understanding.

--

--

Philip Kotler

Philip Kotler is the S.C. Johnson and Son Distinguished Professor of International Marketing, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University (emeritus)