How Trump exploited poverty-stricken Americans' patriotism for personal gain
President Donald Trump hugged the US flag as he arrived to speak at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. (AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM)

By many important measures the United States is not a democracy. It is an oligarchy.

The evidence is not hidden. Ninety percent of the wealth in the United States is held by 1 percent of households. Intergenerational class mobility has been stagnant for several decades. The racial wealth gap continues to persist. It is so extreme that economists and other experts predict that African-Americans as a group will have zero wealth by 2053. "Tax reform" has continued to divert money upward to the very rich and away from all other Americans. Political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page have shown that America's elected officials are almost wholly unresponsive to the political demands of the average American.

There can be no real democracy in a country where the courts have decided that money is speech. Such a power dynamic suppresses the political power of most citizens and grotesquely favors rich people and large corporations.

Despite these facts, poor and working-class Americans are extremely patriotic and nationalistic -- much more so than any other group in the country.

Why is this? How do poor and working-class Americans reconcile such enthusiastic support for a country that has in many ways failed them? Is this a form of false consciousness? What explains the power of cultural myths about meritocracy and individualism, in the face of ample evidence that they do not represent reality for most people? How was Donald Trump able to exploit the patriotism and nationalism of poor and working-class white Americans (and others) to win the White House?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with sociologist Francesco Duina. He is a professor of sociology at Bates College and the author of the award-winning new book "Broke and Patriotic: Why Poor Americans Love Their Country."

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How would you explain how Donald Trump was able to win the 2016 presidential election?

I think there are two or three reasons. One is nationalism. National identity is especially important to certain sections of the population, but I think that the Democratic Party has assumed a type of "global elite," East Coast-West Coast mentality.

In so doing, I think it has forgotten a bit about national identity. For those who feel like many other things in their lives have fallen by the wayside such a person could hear “Make America great again" and it would resonate. I also think that people who voted for Trump were as he said, "not interested in that P.C. stuff".

Sociologists and others would rephrase "political correctness" as "collective demands for equality." This is a way of saying that these collective identities --whether it’s blacks, gays, women, etc. -- demand things from the government as a matter of right. To be clear I would agree that those demands are legitimate.

In a way this is, historically speaking, a non-American thing. It goes against the tradition of individualism. You have certain basic rights as an individual, not as a group. I think the people who voted for Trump by and large could be characterized as more individualistic-oriented. They lack interest in the government providing things for them and are more interested in the government getting out of their way. His voters and other supporters also feel that the government is corrupt and catering to all sorts of people instead of them.

There is all this talk about the perils of "identity politics" among liberals and progressives who want to privilege discussions of class inequality over racism and racial inequality. You hear Bernie Sanders and others echoing this narrative: "We need to get away from identity politics if we’re going to win the next election." How do we respond with the fact that all politics is identity politics? White identity politics has dominated America since before the founding.

I think the Trump supporters were in a way reacting against identity politics.

By embracing white identity politics, white supremacy and white nationalism.

Correct, but that’s you and I saying that. His voters and other supporters wouldn't say that they are embracing white supremacy at all. They would say, "I’m embracing true American values that are values of individualism and civic nationalism based on certain principles." They would also say, like Trump, “I am not racist. I don’t hate anybody. I love women, I love gays and I love everybody."

Trump is also giving his supporters a sense of value and identity by railing against "the system." His use of the language and terms like "political correctness" is a way of channeling resentment against experts, the college-educated, nonwhites, bureaucrats and others who his voters feel are telling them what to do.

That goes back to this sense of individual self-determination. They feel that they are unable to determine their own future as hard-working individuals, which should be the key to success in America. They think to themselves, “Well we do work hard, yet we’re unable to be successful because the government has been helping 'special interests' but also corporate America," As you said, these people also don’t want to be told what to do.

Trump's white voters -- and white Americans as a group -- benefit a great deal from government benefits such as tax subsidies to educational opportunities not historically allowed to nonwhites. They say that other people are "skipping ahead in line," but they are the ultimate group that has "skipped ahead in line" in America. But you're not going to get anywhere talking to Trump's voters, and most other white people, about those facts.

They don’t feel it. Another way of thinking about it that I find useful is to differentiate between the nation and the state. I think that Trump ran a campaign that was based on the nation, not the state. The state was made the culprit, almost. It was a partner in crime. It’s a swamp. The state has not done its job. It has, over the decades, done the wrong things -- gone against the fundamental American values of individual self-determination and colorblindness and all of these things.

On the other hand, I think Trump has said we need to go back to the nation. The nation is good. We need to rescue it. He played the "nation card," and it worked fantastically.

We also need to define terms. The nation is the fundamental social contract, which in every country is a bit different. In the American case, it is civic individualism, based on certain civic values such as self-determination and freedom and the like. That’s what is celebrated.

That’s the key to how Trump won. That’s why it doesn’t matter what you throw at him and his supporters. It can be logic, it can be fact. It doesn’t matter whether Trump contradicts himself one moment or the other because that’s not what they’re listening to. He is just a provocateur, as a revolutionary agent against the status quo.

What was the genesis of your book?

Symbols of patriotism are everywhere in America. National anthems at major sport events, the Pledge of Allegiance in schools, flags everywhere. Then you see those flags outside of homes which are not well kept, but somebody with barely any means has a flag pole with a big American flag.

Over the years I started wondering about that: It just doesn’t make sense to me. The poor in America are actually worse off by most measures than the poor in other advanced countries. Whether it’s the number of hours worked, the social safety net, intergenerational mobility, you name it. But by most measures the American poor are the most patriotic, compared to the poor elsewhere, and certainly relative to rich Americans.

I wanted to talk to these people and ask, "Why do you love this country so much? Why is it such a prominent aspect of your life?"

Americans do not like to talk about class. The old truism holds that everyone is middle-class in America. What was your approach to finding people to speak with?

I spent time at places like bus stations, laundromats and homeless shelters. I went to Montana and Alabama. I would begin general conversations with people. Those are places where people usually have a lot of time on their hands.

I would start talking to people, waiting for a moment. Maybe there was a basketball game on or something. The American flag shows up and I would say, "Hey, listen, I’m kind of curious: Are you patriotic? Do you like the American flag?" They would start talking to me. Then I would probe a little deeper and then eventually I would say, “Listen, I’m traveling across the country. I would like to talk to you, if you want to, for about a half hour or 45 minutes of your time. I’ll give you a little bit of money, I have some funding. Can we talk? "

I think it was rather smooth. I never had any trouble that way. People were very happy to talk. Many of the conversations became very emotional for them, and for me actually, once I got into their life stories and what happened to them over time. These are very poor people, working-class people, who had difficult lives. They really were hanging on to their America that deeply. It was very meaningful for me and for them. I also made sure to ensure variety by traveling to urban and rural areas, men and women, people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Why would poor and working-class people be so patriotic? This country has failed them. Is this a form of false consciousness?

What is a puzzle for you and me is actually not a puzzle for them at all. It is in fact the opposite. It is precisely because so many things have gone wrong for them that they get so much mileage out of being an American, which still happens to be a very prestigious national identity. One could argue that in a way it gives them a sense of identity like nothing else. They’re hanging on to it precisely because they have nothing else to hang on to.

Saying they are possessed by false consciousness is actually a condescending take. Because when you talk to these people they are quite knowledgeable about American history. They are quite knowledgeable about the American social contract.

They don’t have their history wrong. I think they’re being too harsh on themselves. They also differentiate between themselves and the government and say, “What happened to me is my responsibility.” In the end, they hang onto this idea. They feel motivated to continue and to do better the next morning. Many of them said that.

I would push back and ask, "Have you reconciled what happened to you with your love of country? Didn’t you get screwed?" They would respond, “No, what happened to me is my thing.” This is not false consciousness. This is a true sense of dignity that they get from the social contract as they perceive it.

In America, aren't we brainwashed by capitalism through these myths about meritocracy and individualism? Every society has to reproduce itself.

I largely agree. But I must ask, who’s not brainwashed? I lived in Denmark for a year and I go to Denmark quite often. I love the society and it’s very humane and has done great in many ways. It’s a different society and an "almost perfect society," as they describe it. But they are equally collectively hypnotized around their nation and what they call themselves: "the Tribe." There are plenty of myths about themselves and plenty of stories they tell themselves about who they are. Citizens of Denmark are so homogeneous and so collectively oriented they’re just as brainwashed as anybody else.

Who are we to judge? Who am I to judge the person in Montana who tells me, “Yeah, I love the United States. I can own guns and that way I can feed my family.” Of course I can say, “Look, I can go to Canada and do the same thing.” But who am I to judge their logic?

How did the people you spoke to narrate the stories of their own lives?

I was talking to people who were prostitutes, former drug addicts and current drug addicts. Many were homeless. They would say several things in common. One was that they felt free to come and go and do the things they wanted and also to do and think whatever they wanted. In Montana, I met a young white person in the library who was homeless. I asked him, “Why are you homeless?” He said to me, “I’m homeless because it’s basically a sabbatical from life for me. I’m working on an app.” I thought, that cannot possibly be true. He then said, “In other countries, they would probably force me into a shelter. Whereas here, I can stay homeless and nobody bothers me for it.” I thought to myself that is amazing.

A type of radical autonomy.

Certainly. Many of them felt very autonomous. Many of these people would also say fantastical things to me like, “Look, I’ve turned a corner a month ago" or "I found God six months ago. Now I’m in good standing before God I don’t drink anymore. On Monday I have a job lined up." I don’t know if that was true or not.

The God thing, I should say, was also very prevalent. This sense that they’re walking with God and that America is God’s country. God loves America more than he loves other countries. This sense, still, of walking with God in God’s country, trying to do the right thing.

What were some of the conversations and life stories that really moved you?

One person I spoke with was a white woman struggling with brain cancer. She was young. She had three kids. We chatted at a bus station in Colorado but she was from Alabama. She was talking to me about her life. It was very important to her to have her kids read the Pledge of Allegiance, recite it at home. She was struggling to teach them the right values before she dies.

There was an African-American I met in Alabama. She was studying at a community college or the like to be a chef. She said to me, “Life out of country, life out of me.” She was saying: If you take the country away from me, you take the life away from myself; I have to have that. She was in her late 30s or early 40s.

I also met this couple who were living out of a very old Saab. I met them at laundromat in Billings, Montana. He was probably 20 years older than she was. He was probably in his 40s. She was in her early 20s. She had served in the military. He hadn’t.

She was expecting. We had an amazing conversation. They were very articulate and very thoughtful. It was him who said, “We have to be patriotic. You have to have a shred of dignity. Yeah, the system is corrupt, the police are corrupt, we’re being watched by everybody." Mind you, this is Montana, so they were very libertarian.

Does a person believe that the system is fair because to accept the truth of how unfair and biased it is would be too devastating?

Why don’t the poor rise up and rebel in America? Well, I think I discovered that part of the reason is that they still believe in the nation. Not necessarily the state, but the nation. They still believe in it.

Well, if they do, then they’re not going to ask for a major rewrite of the social contract. Maybe, if you want to be cynical about it, it is a way of perpetuating the inequality and the status quo. At the same time, I felt enormous power and self-determination and hope and knowledge.

How did the poor and working-class people you spoke with feel about the rich?

I asked that question many times. I would wait for the right moment when for example a big Mercedes would drive by. In almost all cases, what I heard was, "They earned it and they made it on their own. Just like my failures and my faults, their successes are their successes." Now I would challenge that and say, "Come on, you were probably born in a certain context that was not helpful to you. They were probably born in well-to-do families."

I have these quotes in my head. One fellow said to me, "It’s got to be choices. It’s got be bad choices or good choices, but it’s got to be choices. It comes down to choices." But this same man had just told me how his father had beaten him up all his life. He was 14 years old and homeless; he ran away. Those are not choices. It was very difficult to get them away from that type of thinking. They thought that the rich essentially deserved it. The rich were generous. They get a lot of things as a result of that. These poor and working-class people actually told me that.

Now, I also spoke to a few people -- out of the 90 total, three or four -- who were not so patriotic. They would talk about feeling that the system has duped us. They want to rip up the American flag. We are invaders of other countries. There’s imperialism. The rich don’t care for us. The government doesn’t care for us. One guy told me that American nationalism and the American flag reminded him of a bunch of preppy boys at a fraternity party at some university.

But no matter how you measure it, the poor in America are very patriotic.