In the wake of this year’s presidential election, amid the celebration and relief from those who backed Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, there is much handwringing that more than 73 million people voted for Donald Trump.
“How could they do this?” “Who are these people?” After four years of non-stop lies, insults, attacks, nepotism, self-dealing, corruption, incompetence, and negligence, how could anyone — let alone so many — vote for him?
The knee-jerk explanation has included judges, taxes and the economy. Law and order, freedom, and religious liberty. Socialism. He doesn’t bow to political correctness. He tells it like it is. Faced with this narrative, the experts resort to both-sidesism and declare that America is a hopelessly divided nation, beset by partisanship.
The real answer is right in front of us. Newsflash! White people vote Republican. Not all of them, and not in equal numbers by age, gender and education. But the last time the Democrats carried a majority of white voters was in 1964, when LBJ crushed Barry Goldwater in a landslide. Notably, Goldwater carried only the deep south and Arizona in the wake of LBJ’s landmark civil rights legislation. It was a sign of things to come.
A lot has changed in half a century. White voters have shifted in small but sometimes decisive numbers between the parties through the past decades. However there is one group that has remained steadfast. These are white men without college degrees. They comprise the largest grouping of Republican voters. They voted for Trump 71%-23% in 2016. This time the split was 70%-28%. A shift, but not much.
Who are these men? They are the Homer Simpsons of America. They work, they marry, they raise families. They camp, fish and hunt. They enjoy boating and golf. They go to church and watch sport. They tailgate. They volunteer in their communities and serve in our armed forces. They build our homes and maintain them, drive trucks, ships and trains, operate machinery, repair our roads and bridges, grow our food, produce our electricity and provide our internet and phone service. They run bars and auto shops. They sell everything we buy. Viewed like this, there is much to admire.
However, while white men do all these things, so do black men, and Hispanic men, and Asian men. So too do women of all backgrounds. Therein lies the rub. America has changed radically since the 1960s. We are transitioning from a country where white men dominate to a more socially and ethnically inclusive nation. An America that lives up to its promise for all, not just the few. Many Homers don’t like this one bit.
They recall an America that ruled the world. Where winning was all we did. We won wars, we won trade, we won the Olympics. We won the race to the moon. And the Homers ruled America.
Homers see themselves as self-made men. When they prosper, they are the architects of their own success. They worked hard for it and nobody gave them anything. Yet when they fail, someone else is always to blame. Affirmative action for women and minorities takes their jobs.
Globalisation ships their jobs offshore, or destroys the value of their crops and livestock. Technology replaces their jobs with computers and robots. Immigrants fill their jobs. Environmentalists make them unprofitable. And taxes and welfare take their hard-earned money and give it to all those left who haven’t swiped their jobs. In their minds, other people’s advances only happen at their expense.
This has been their story for more than 50 years. So they vote Republican. They stuck with Nixon through Vietnam and Watergate. They backed Ford after he pardoned Nixon. They hailed Reagan a patriot and hero despite Iran-Contra. They endorsed Bush Sr. in the face of a scarring recession. They lauded Bush Jr. despite an even worse recession and a catastrophic war.
And then came Trump, and they loved him most of all. He was their avatar of resentment, rage and machismo. He affirmed their grievances and behaved exactly how they wished they could.
But this resilience also offers a clue to their actual allegiance. For the past four years we have been led to believe that Donald Trump and his MAGA warriors represent the tip of the spear. That the Republican Party has become the Trump Party — following, as Jared Kushner bragged to Bob Woodward, a “full hostile takeover” of the GOP — and therefore everyone who votes for Trump has fully embraced his cult of division and denigration.
The evidence suggests otherwise. For all the Sturm und Drang of Trump’s diehard fans, the vast majority of Homers ticked the box for him because voting Republican is what they do. It’s part of their identity. These same people voted for John McCain and Mitt Romney, both implacable foes of Trump. Homers don’t vote for policies. The last four years have proven that. Their support is cultural. If Joe Biden had been the Republican candidate, Homers would all be wearing aviators.
American politics is tribal. Republican leaders count on this to secure support from people based on values, while implementing policies that stiff their voters. Take Trump’s tax cuts: heralded as a salve to working families, the data show that 30% of the benefits went to the top 1% wealthiest Americans, while adding $2 trillion to the national debt.
Instead of the promised $4000 boost per household, the typical full-time worker gained only $400. What few Homers know is that even this modest upside will begin to expire from 2021. It’s already in the law! Meanwhile Trump’s trade war has increased annual household expenses by $600 per year, thanks to his tariffs.
Yet Homers never question the myth that Republicans are better economic managers, so they stay loyal. They trust their leaders. Ten out of the 11 recessions in America since 1950 happened under a Republican president. If wrecking the economy were a school subject, Republicans would be getting straight As. But even this hard evidence does not blunt Homers’ faith.
What else keeps Homers in the Republican camp? From Reagan onwards the GOP has incessantly smeared government and its purpose. They assert that government is inept, wasteful and intrudes on Americans’ freedom. The crucial exception is those branches of government that have a monopoly on force. For reasons that are never explained, Republicans argue that these government workers — those who wear a uniform and carry a badge or gun — are infallible and unassailable.
Any challenge to their authority and power is deemed unpatriotic and un-American. A self-evident truth. Perhaps if teachers were rebranded as Knowledge Indoctrination Agents and environmental scientists as Climate Control Officers, they might receive similar support.
Taken together, this mindset conforms to the Homers’ sense of rugged individualism and cements their distrust of government. Meanwhile the constant drumbeat of Second Amendment rights, religious liberty and tax cuts, obscures the perennial pro-business program of Republican Party leaders.
In the case of Donald Trump’s rise to the White House, pundits argue that populism was a crucial part of his appeal. They claim that Homers, in particular, responded to his denunciation of elites and pledges to prioritise their interests above all. “Make America Great Again” was the anthem for the forgotten people.
According to this logic, Homers backed Trump because they were angry that the American dream was slipping out of reach. But this ignores some obvious facts.
First, Homers on average earn more than women and minorities in America, yet these latter voters weren’t moved to back Trump’s vision. Moreover, a majority of Americans earning less than $100,000 per year voted against Trump both times. Those earning more than $100,000 preferred him at the ballot box.
Another factor cited was Trump’s status as a reality television personality and his instinct for exploiting our turbocharged media landscape. This carries more weight. Celebrity is nothing new to politics. Jesse Ventura catapulted from professional wrestling to become governor of Minnesota. Arnold Schwarzenegger terminated Gray Davis’ tenure as governor of California. And the Gipper, the GOP’s greatest modern hero, rode his Hollywood stardom all the way to the Oval Office.
Politics has always blurred with entertainment. Trump erased all boundaries and established a 24/7 one-man infotainment network. All Trump, all the time. The Homers lapped it up. However this underscores the limits of Trump’s appeal. Without the bully pulpit, he won’t seem nearly as mighty. Soon enough the Homers might see that the emperor has no clothes.
Now as Trump tweets from his bunker and Joe Biden prepares to lead the country, we are told that we must listen to the Homers. We must understand and respect them for the country to heal. Listening, understanding, and respect are vital, but it’s a two-way street. The Homers have to do their part too. Enough with the hostility and hatred. Whatever they hear on Fox or talk radio, no-one wants to take anything away from them. Quite the contrary. Everyone should be able to succeed in America.
Meanwhile, Homer’s better half, Marge, has been listening, understanding, and paying attention. The voting gender gap between women and men has widened to its largest span since the 19th Amendment passed 100 years ago. Women have fled the GOP in droves over the past four years. Repelled by Trump’s aggression and misogyny, they have kicked their Republican habit and embraced the Democratic platform.
Marge knows Lisa and Maggie aren’t growing up in 1950s America. She wants them to have an equal chance to make their way in the world and realise their potential. She wants them to know that they too can be Kamala Harris. And she sure as heck doesn’t want Bart to mimic a no-good president who cares about nobody but himself. A man who proudly boasts “I take no responsibility at all”.
That’s the opportunity for Homers, and for healing. While Homer can be instinctive, impulsive and uninformed, he can also be altruistic. He makes mistakes and he doesn’t always make good choices. But in the end, with Marge’s bottomless patience and guidance, he usually sorts out the difference between right and wrong. Importantly, he wants to choose right.
Homers may have shunned masks because Trump told them too. But if Marges wear them, Homers can too. Homers may parrot “hoax” and “fake news” but if Marges pay attention to facts and science, Homers can be convinced to do the same. Homers may back the blue, but if Marges can weep for George Floyd, Homers can understand that recognising black lives matter is simple human decency.
Marge might also help Homer realise that many who claim to represent him are frauds. Those who he has been listening to — Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Rush Limbaugh — make more money in a day than Homers make in a year. These Sideshow Bobs are the true elites. Do Rupert Murdoch and his fellow Mr Burns billionaires give a damn about Homers? When was the last time a Homer was spotted at Mar-a-Lago?
Still, most Homers will continue to vote Republican. That’s who they are. But they are not immoral and they have not been lost to Trump’s cult. They backed Trump because he was their candidate. Now the Trump show has been canceled. Sooner or later the repeats will fade away. And the Homers will move on.
Many Homers don’t know it yet, but Joe Biden cares more about them than Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz ever will.
Some have figured this out already. In time it might dawn on the rest. And when that day comes, they may quote their cartoon namesake: “D’oh!”
Keir Semmens was born in Melbourne and lives in Texas. He is writing a book on American government triumphs.