Republicans want to cut government spending? Not these Trump supporters
Retired cop Bruce Everitt displays a Confederate flag in his frontyard, patrols the neighborhood in a golf cart to watch for suspicious strangers and dons a “Make America Great Again” hat to proclaim his support for Donald Trump.
But while he’s conservative on most issues, Everitt doesn’t fit neatly into the traditional mold of a Republican Party stalwart, with a focus on smaller government and spending cuts.
He and his wife, Kathy, don’t hate the government. In fact, they rely on it. Since a stroke ended his police career, the Vietnam War veteran has collected federal disability and pension checks that allowed him to retire early. His wife drew extended unemployment benefits for two years after being laid off during the Great Recession.
They agree with Trump’s push to crack down on illegal immigration and worry about Islamic State terrorists infiltrating the country. But they are also drawn to Trump’s vow to get the government to stop wasting money on overseas aid and Middle East military campaigns, and to use that money to help people closer to home.
“There are Americans out there who need this money,” said Everitt, 64. What about slashing spending and deficits to balance the budget? “It’s not my top priority,” he said.
They heap much of the blame for their sense of a country headed in the wrong direction on President Obama, but are also angry with the Republican Party, which they believe no longer has their backs. And they dismiss the menu of think-tank policies and trickle-down economics offered by other GOP candidates as just the latest broken promises from Washington. Instead, they put their faith in Trump’s promises to create jobs and shore up the safety net for healthcare and retirement
Their sentiments are common among Trump backers.
“Being middle class is the worst to be,” said Courtney Miller, 23, a sheriff’s corrections officer, leaving a Trump rally Saturday at a gun store in McDonough, Ga. “You’re not low enough to get anything” in government assistance, she said, “but you’re not high enough to have what you need.”
Her friend Sam Britt, 24, a welder, complains about demands from Democrats for free college tuition and the rising reliance on social programs for the poor. “Everyone wants to go to college and sit behind a computer — America’s not built on that,” he said.
Some demographers and pollsters refer to people like these as “big government Republicans.” Though the people themselves would bristle at such a label, it sums up their support for government spending, so long as the money is directed at those they deem to be deserving.
Polls have long shown that many voters, particularly older whites, draw a sharp distinction between government programs that they view as earned, including Social Security, Medicare and disability benefits, and those that they see as welfare, such as Medicaid, food stamps and some forms of college tuition assistance.
Trump’s campaign — in contrast to the usual GOP orthodoxy about reducing government — provides a platform for those views. And backing from voters who support some elements of government spending has boosted his chances in Tuesday’s hotly contested primaries, particularly in the South.
Unlike the other GOP presidential candidates, Trump doesn’t talk about slashing Social Security or Medicare, or closing down government agencies. Instead he often speaks of expanding some programs, such as those for veterans’ benefits, and making sure that the government’s healthcare system prevents Americans from “dying in the street,” a line that has been one of his recent campaign mantras.
Trump insists his ideas get loud applause among conservative voters flocking to his rallies.
One crucial part of Trump’s appeal is that his support for government assistance focuses on programs that directly aid his mostly white, middle-class and working-class supporters, not on poor minorities and certainly not immigrants.
“Trump, his rhetoric, is just kind of tailor-made to explore anger and frustration and fear — about what all of this means, what’s to be done about it and who’s to blame,” said James C. Cobb, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Georgia.
“A lot of these anxieties are really snaking up the economic scale,” Cobb said. “We just had this whole idea, the American dream: People will rise from lowly circumstances with hard work, and with the irrepressible expansion of our economy, they will get a better education and a better stake in our society.... That’s just not the case anymore.”
Polling data from the early-voting states confirm that many of Trump’s supporters complain they are falling behind financially. A plurality of Trump voters so far stopped their education at high school, limiting the job prospects.
Economic conditions in the Southern states, which have lost manufacturing jobs at a steady clip, have been particularly difficult as workplaces change and begin to demand higher skills and education levels.
In South Carolina, where voters handed Trump an easy victory last month, new technology-rich automotive manufacturing plants have replaced shuttered textile mills. But the median household income, $44,929, still hasn’t caught up with its inflation-adjusted, pre-recession high of $50,484, set in 2006.
Tennessee, which, like Georgia, is expecting record voter turnout on Tuesday, saw its median income last peak in 1999, at $51,910, adjusted for inflation; today it is $43,716.
Despite the economic powerhouse of Atlanta and its sprawling suburbs, Georgia still has stubborn pockets of white poverty, including around Valdosta near the Florida border, where Trump held a rally Monday night.
As Trump tries to chart a course as a new kind of Republican leader, some of the most conservative voters are not on board. In South Carolina, exit polls suggested that “very conservative” voters backed Sen. Ted Cruz, while Trump did best with those who considered themselves “somewhat conservative” and “moderate.”
Although Trump’s hard line against immigrants has chart-popping support, economic and national security issues remain the top concerns among most Republican voters. Reducing government spending has trailed as a priority despite Washington’s fixation on budget battles.
That helps explain why Trump is even drawing votes from people who got their start in the tea party movement that swept politicians like Rubio and Cruz into office with promises to cut spending.
Steve Ramey, an Atlanta tea party organizer raised in Buford, Ga., is backing Trump mostly because he thinks the Republican Party no longer represents the principles that made the country a beacon of economic strength and military might.
“They’re no longer concerned about the citizens,” said Ramey, 66, who went to college for a few years on the GI bill after serving in Vietnam. “We’re mourning for the country we used to have that doesn’t exist anymore.”
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