COLUMN: Two solitudes (or why people support Trump)

Columnist ML Burke tries to wrap her head around the ongoing popularity of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Admittedly, I am obsessed with trying to understand why so many people still want to blindly follow Donald Trump. I attended the Vancouver Writers Festival event State of the Union which featured a panel of five respected American journalists discussing their election and recently consumed an excellent podcast by CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition titled “Anger and Mourning on the American Right.”

We cannot just dismiss Trump’s supporters as being a bunch of uneducated southern white God-fearing conservatives, though of course some are. As I write this, his poll numbers are at 46 per cent. Even reducing that to 33 per cent still leaves 100 million angry folks who will believe he lost because of a rigged election.

It’s no wonder there are legitimate concerns of intimidation and violence occurring around voting stations on Nov. 8 that could continue for decades after the election.

An American ex-pat friend who immigrated to Canada in the 1970s said it reminded her of our own national crisis, when Quebec voted 49 per cent in favour of separating. The rest of Canada was shocked that so many francophones wanted to leave.

Hugh McClellend’s book The Two Solitudes draws some parallels between that moment in history and what is occurring in the U.S. Just as the English conquered the French on the Plains of Abraham, the Yankees prevailed in the American Civil War and many Confederates have not forgotten. Trump has simply turned the heat up on this simmering pot, which is now boiling over.

The majority of his supporters are white but not WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), which the Oxford dictionary defines as “an upper or middle-class American white Protestant, considered to be a member of the most powerful group in society.”

The working class whites, especially in the southern states, feel left out, ignored, laughed at by northerners. Their jobs are going to immigrants, refugees are getting more help than U.S. citizens, Obama killed the coal industry, government is bad, etc.

In CBC’s podcast, Arlie Russell Hochschild said Louisiana, or the “super south,” is a contradiction wherein the northern elitists are the enemy yet they love Donald Trump, the worst elitist of all. Forty-four per cent of the state uses government services, but they are largely anti-government. They feel like strangers in their own land and believe they are becoming a marginalized minority.

Another theory is that Trump supporters just don’t get around very much. They stay within the safety of their own mono-cultures and are unfamiliar with other races, religions and traditions. They tend to be more rural or small town folk, and they fear the unknown. (City dwellers, by contrast, are presumably more accepting of other cultures simply because of their exposure to different people.)

The cure for this widening class-gap between rich and poor is a combination of better education and practicing empathy and understanding by leaving our own comfort zones to engage with people from other cultures. Doing this will help to start the healing, but it will take time. After all, it took Canada’s “two solitudes” 50 years to heal.

Thanks to Donald Trump, America has been given a big wake-up call. Diversity of cultures is a good thing, so long as we are not afraid.

ML Burke retired from the health sector to work on issues such as affordable housing. She sits on the Delta Seniors Planning Team and the BC Seniors Advocate’s Council of Advisors.