I’ve spent much of the last seven years studying voter responses to Republican policies and positions in Southern and Midwestern states. Many of these policies upended government services and economic stability, leading to disastrous real-world effects for many people, including many GOP voters. Time and again, I found that support for GOP politicians deepened, even as the policies these politicians implemented made the lives of people in their own states — including those of their core supporters — dramatically more dire.
In Tennessee, for example, my colleagues and I held focus groups that included persons with chronic illnesses whose treatment suffered because state politicians repeatedly torpedoed Medicaid expansion linked to the Affordable Care Act. Many severely ill respondents who identified as Republicans backed their leaders’ efforts to undermine the ACA, even though such efforts undercut their own medical care and raised their doctor bills.
Democrats can’t expect Trump supporters to see the light simply because his policies negatively affect their lives.
In Kansas, I interviewed backers of Gov. Sam Brownback, whose tea party-fueled policies nearly bankrupted the state. Large tax cuts that he championed reduced revenue by about $687 million, or nearly 11% of the state budget, in the first year alone. Agencies such as Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s downgraded the state’s credit rating. Yet many of the governor’s core supporters told me they voted to reelect Brownback to a second term even after his tax cuts eliminated funding for schools that their own children attended.
In Missouri, I tracked the uptick in bloodshed that followed the loosening of longtime gun laws by GOP politicians, with encouragement from the NRA. Guns flooded into the state, and every category of gun-related injury and death rose as it became easier for people to buy and carry firearms. Yet Missouri GOP voters continued to back the politicians who sponsored such legislation.
Politics, of course, is often messy and confounding. People identify with particular politicians for reasons that don’t make sense to outsiders who don’t share their politics. Sometimes one priority overshadows another. Yet several themes emerged from my research.
One was an ability of GOP voters, especially those who mistrusted the government, to hold seemingly conflicting thoughts about government services. “I’d be dead without my Medicaid,” one man told our focus groups,” and next said, “The ACA is socialism in its most evil form.”
Ineffective government also played to long-held biases and anxieties about race. One white Kansas parent who identified as a GOP supporter insisted that school budget cuts were justified because “blacks just use school funds to rent party buses.” More frequent were vague concerns about ways that minorities or immigrants usurped undeserved resources, such as when one respondent claimed that, “the Mexicans, their food stamps, everything they want, we’re paying for it.”
Such concerns sometimes led to people standing on “principle” even when it harmed them. I’ll never forget how a man pulling an oxygen tank because of severe lung disease told me he would rather die (and soon did die) than receive benefits from the ACA because it used “my tax dollars” on “Mexicans and welfare queens.” Data that my research team amassed showed how these kinds of mortal trade-offs shortened lifespans, and sometimes disproportionately harmed white communities that form the core of GOP support.
To be sure, I encountered many GOP voters who simply believed in smaller and more effective governance, and whose political views were not driven by a sense that others were gaming the system. But such moderate voices were smaller in number among my research subjects, and they certainly haven’t held sway in recent elections.
It’s important for Democrats to understand why some Trump supporters back him even when they are hurt by his policies. With government shutdowns, stock market plunges, Cabinet defections, or presidential lies, Democrats can’t expect Trump supporters to see the light simply because his policies negatively affect their lives.
They should respond to events such as the shutdown with reasoned critiques and pose concrete alternatives. But they should also understand that the chaos Trump creates serves his larger political aims by tapping into deep American fault lines of race, class and ideology.
Jonathan M. Metzl directs the Center for Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt University and is author of the forthcoming book, Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland.