Identity politics, of a different brand from Trump’s, is also gaining strength among progressives. In some cases, it comes with an aversion toward, even contempt for, their fellow-Americans who are white and sinking. Abstract sympathy with the working class as an economic entity is easy, but the feeling can vanish on contact with actual members of the group, who often arrive with disturbing beliefs and powerful resentments—who might not sound or look like people urban progressives want to know. White male privilege remains alive in America, but the phrase would seem odd, if not infuriating, to a sixty-year-old man working as a Walmart greeter in southern Ohio. The growing strain of identity politics on the left is pushing working-class whites, chastised for various types of bigotry (and sometimes justifiably), all the more decisively toward Trump.
Last fall, two Princeton economists released a study showing that, since the turn of the century, middle-aged white Americans—primarily less educated ones—have been dying at ever-increasing rates. This is true of no other age or ethnic group in the United States. The main factors are alcohol, opioids, and suicide—an epidemic of despair. A subsequent Washington Post story showed that the crisis is particularly severe among middle-aged white women in rural areas. In twenty-one counties across the South and the Midwest, mortality rates among these women have actually doubled since the turn of the century. Anne Case, one of the Princeton study’s co-authors, said, “They may be privileged by the color of their skin, but that is the only way in their lives they’ve ever been privileged.”
According to the Post, these regions of white working-class pain tend to be areas where Trump enjoys strong support. These Americans know that they’re being left behind, by the economy and by the culture. They sense the indifference or disdain of the winners on the prosperous coasts and in the innovative cities, and it is reciprocated. Trump has seized the Republican nomination by finding scapegoats for the economic hardships and disintegrating lives of working-class whites, while giving these voters a reassuring but false promise of their restoration to the center of American life. He plays to their sense of entitlement, but his hollowness will ultimately deepen their cynicism.