What the hell is going on with America’s voters?
That’s a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly over the last several months.
As a lifelong politics junkie and a political science major, the inquisitive mind in me has struggled to string together an academic explanation for the rise of Donald Trump.
I’ve managed well, all things considered. And I’ve even derived a few plausible, maybe probable, reasons for it based on my own background knowledge.
But like many of the poli sci brainiacs out there, I’ve often felt at a loss to explain how Trump can attack a war veteran or a fallen hero’s parents, and yet somehow keep his brief foray into politics alive.
What’s taken me some time to realize is that the answer to the Trump question doesn’t lie in those classrooms I sat in or those textbooks I read in college.
Rather, it lies a little further back than that, in those real world experiences of my childhood my undergraduate and graduate careers have insulated me from for five years.
It lies in the pastures the petrochemical plants and the ports I grew up around.
To understand why someone supports Trump, you have to understand the world he lives in, the experiences that have shaped his life and the way he thinks.
In other words, you have to understand how things are in a place like the one where I was raised – a place I had to spend seven weeks getting to know again while working an internship in my hometown this summer.
I grew up in the small town of Port Neches, Texas, best described as an industrial suburb of nearby Beaumont.
Although Jefferson County, which I spent my childhood referring to as “home,” went for Ted Cruz over Donald Trump in the March 1 Texas primary, Trump outperformed his state average by five points there.
His showing was more impressive in neighboring Hardin and Orange Counties, which along with Jefferson County form the Beaumont Metropolitan Statistical Area, colloquially referred to as the “Golden Triangle” because of the upside down, roughly equilateral triangle formed by the three most prominent cities in this part of the country: Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange.
The Golden Triangle is situated just south of nearby Sabine County, one of the only six counties in Texas where Trump defeated Cruz, and directly opposite a state line from neighboring Cameron Parish, Louisiana, where Trump defeated his competition on March 5 and with which the Triangle shares a close, symbiotic relationship on both cultural and economic terms.
Despite the area’s allegiance to its state’s junior senator during the primary, the Golden Triangle at first glance looks like prime Trump country heading into the general election.
While Orange and Hardin Counties have followed their sister counties in Texas to the Republican column since the 1990s, Jefferson County has remained one of the state’s last Democratic strongholds for years after the 1994 Republican Revolution.
That said, the same factors that have kept Jefferson County in the Democrat column may work against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016; the county’s Democratic allegiance is largely thanks to the influence of the numerous, powerful local chapters of unions like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the United Steelworkers, which are organizations chocked full of the exact kind of voter Trump’s anti-trade, anti-immigration rhetoric has appealed to throughout this election season.
Many native politicos, myself included, now expect that in 2016, Jefferson County will go red in a presidential election for the first time in its political history for that very reason.
Indeed, signs of the area’s growing support for Trump have already started popping up, literally.
Upon first returning to Port Neches this summer, the sight of a Trump sign positioned next to a confederate battle flag in a quaint, downtown storefront caught my attention, in part due to the shock of the sign’s presence so soon after Cruz won the county, and in part because of the shock of seeing a flag on prominent display that I could never recall seeing flown in my hometown before.
A few days after that, I found another surprise waiting for me in my Facebook newsfeed when a cousin posted a picture of a Trump campaign flag flying in his front yard.
The picture spurred numerous comments from distant family, friends and neighbors asking where they could purchase the flag.
As shocking as it may have been at the time, really, it shouldn’t have been shocking at all. The story of the Triangle over the last thirty years reads largely like what you would expect of a rust belt community in the upper Midwest, where Trump has found similar appeal.
The Triangle finds itself smack dab in the middle of what a character in Matthew McConaughey’s Bernie referred to as the “carcinogenic coast” – better described as one of the most industrialized sections of planet Earth.
And Beaumont is the reason the industry’s here to begin with; Spindletop, the infamous well where oil in Texas was first discovered in 1901 kicking off the Texas oil boom, was located on the outskirts of the city.
The largest oil refinery in the United States is located in Port Arthur, refining more than 600,000 barrels of oil per day – just over three out of every hundred barrels consumed in the entire country on a daily basis come from this single facility.
That plant, operated by Motiva, is one of dozens of similar petrochemical plants that dot the landscape, operated by everyone from Huntsman, to Texas Petrochemicals, to DuPont, to Air Liquide, to Shell, to Valero, to ExxonMobil, to Chevron, to Total, to BASF, to Goodyear, to Conoco-Phillips, to Firestone, to Invista.
The Triangle does have some alternative industry to offer.
Its location at the southern edge of the Big Thicket, the forest that dominates the East Texas landscape, provides abundant timber for local lumber and paper mills, the largest of which is located near Orange and operated by Austin-based Temple-Inland.
The hot, humid local climate, marshy mud known as “Beaumont clay” (colloquially referred to as “gumbo” due to its thick, wet texture) and ample prairie land separating the forest from the marsh on the coastline have given rise to a robust rice industry and some cattle grazing.
A single steel mill in Beaumont adds to the area’s petroleum-based manufacturing, all of which works in tandem with the Triangle’s coastal location to foster significant port traffic – the fourth most of any port in the country, to be precise.
The port also hosts a significant fishing and shrimping industry.
But, each of these sectors of economic activity pale in comparison to the petrochemical industry’s utter domination of the Golden Triangle.
Oil is the lifeblood of Southeast Texas.
For all of its industrial strength, though, the Triangle’s economy has been far from prosperous, and for a very long time.
In keeping with the rust belt analogy, the industry has been in decline for decades, and other sectors of the economy haven’t grown with the pace necessary to make up for its losses.
In light of the recent slump in oil prices, economists, energy analysts, historians and all those connected to the oil industry are often quick to recall the oil bust of the early 1980s, which sent the Texas economy spiraling into a recession that it took the better part of a decade to recover from.
Across the state, drilling rigs ground to a halt, pink slips were handed out thousands at a time and millions of hardworking men and women who had until that point held stable jobs were suddenly headed for the unemployment line.
Texas, and the Golden Triangle with it, fell into a statewide recession that would make 2009 look like one bad day for the suits at a stock exchange.
Growing up, I can remember hearing stories about plants in the Triangle laying off two thirds of their workforce in a matter of days.
I heard them because they were repeated every time those layoffs recurred, albeit in smaller form, every few years like clockwork.
Believe it or not, as many plants as there might be in the Triangle now, there were more when I was a kid; one by one, they’ve been shut down, torn down or reduced to lesser status as the companies that run them have traded them off to each other in favor of opening new chemical plants in east Asia.
I had many friends growing up whose fathers bore the brunt of those losses.
Some of them fell into poverty, others moved off to other parts of the country as their parents sought new economic opportunities.
I was scared my own family would fall into that category a few times.
I can remember numerous occasions, every few years like clockwork, when a rumor would make the rounds at the plant my father worked in about an impending closure or a sale, and each time, it would cause a modicum of anxiety, leaving all of us wondering if the next morning would bring the end of our livelihoods.
Normally, the rumors were only half-true.
Part of the plant was sold, but not all of it.
Nobody was laid off, but everyone had their hours and their benefits cut.
After just over 35 years with the same company, the pension my father was promised the day he went to work in July of 1981 has all but ceased to exist.
The portion of his healthcare costs that he bears out of his own paycheck is multiples of what it was a decade ago.
While it was always hard to take, we always found some relief in knowing that it could have been worse.
But, I type this having learned from my father just a few days ago that those rumors have started making their way around the plant again.
The 1981 recession spurred a series of policy initiatives spanning generational and partisan divides among Texas leaders, from Ann Richards, Bob Bullock and Bill Hobby on the one hand to George W. Bush, Rick Perry and David Dewhurst on the other, all of which were aimed at making sure the ‘80s never happened again.
Others, like the Texas Rainy Day Fund, focused on socking away surplus cash during economically prosperous years to avoid deficits during hard times.
Other parts of the state embraced those course corrections enthusiastically.
Houston and Dallas have developed corporate sectors that would make cities of comparable size like Chicago and Atlanta blush; largely due to these two cities, Texas now plays host to the headquarters of more Fortune 500 companies than any other state save New York, which only leads the Lone Star State by a single tally mark.
Austin is nestled in the center of the “Silicon Hills,” a rebranding of the Texas Hill Country that reflects the number of tech companies that have set up shop in the state’s capitol city.
Although San Antonio has benefited from its little sister to the north’s tech boom, the home of the Alamo has chosen to focus more on attracting manufacturers, and has seen success; local economic development efforts successfully attracted Toyota, which opened a 2.2 million square foot manufacturing facility that produces all of the company’s Tundra model trucks in 2003.
After a prolonged period of economic decline capped off on both ends by two of the worst hurricanes in US history, Galveston has remade itself in the image of a college town, beach paradise and tourist hub.
But whatever the case may be for the rest of the state, Beaumont has, if anything, gone in the other direction.
Here, most of the concerted efforts to grow the area’s economy have reflected a dogmatic dedication to the same industry that’s always been here.
You’ll find no car factories, no tech companies and no corporate headquarters.
Instead, local economic expansion has come in the form of refinery expansion; although no new plants have been constructed, many of those already in existence went through a string of expansions roughly a decade ago, when oil prices were at their height.
The future promises more of the same.
The closest thing to a divestiture from oil and an investment in renewable energy has come in the form of liquefied natural gas; two LNG terminals, Golden Pass and Cheniere, were built on either side of Sabine Pass, at the Triangle’s southernmost tip.
Tourism was briefly opened up for public debate in the mid-2000s when city leaders in my hometown, Port Neches, purchased an abandoned refinery on the Neches River, cleared the property and made plans to convert it into a boardwalk style, riverfront commercial district similar to Kemah just southeast of Houston.
This fell through, though, thanks to the recession.
The results of this approach?
For March of 2016, the Beaumont-Port Arthur Metropolitan Area posted an unemployment rate of 6.4%, well above both the Texas unemployment rate of 4.2% and the national rate of 5.0% for the same month.
Where the Texas unemployment rate topped out at 8.4% in 2010 and the national rate topped out at 10% before both began a steady decline to their current levels, the Beaumont-Port Arthur rate hit 11.5% that year and kept going, topping out at 11.9% in 2011 before finally starting to come down in 2012.
The median household income in the Triangle finds itself more than $10,000 below both the state and national averages, and, when adjusted for inflation, has shown decline in recent years, versus state and national growth.
Of the 25 metropolitan areas designated by the Census Bureau in the State of Texas, Beaumont ranked dead last in population growth from 1980 to 2010 with an anemic 3.5% growth rate; the state average for metropolitan areas was 88.2%.
Although there are other factors that have culminated in this state of constant local recession, the most obvious is the striking difference in the economic development of the area post-oil bust versus the rest of the state.
The bottom line is, when Texas diversified, Beaumont didn’t. The results speak for themselves.
When you get away from economic indicators, the situation doesn’t get much better.
The area’s educational outlook is at best bleak, and at worst terrifying.
A 2013 study determined that the Triangle is the least educated metropolitan area in the country based on nine key factors, most notably the highest level of education attained on average.
The largest public school district in the area, the Beaumont Independent School District, is mired in controversies arising from severe fiscal mismanagement, immeasurable corruption and academic underperformance born out of a background of pervasive, systemic racial divisions spanning decades after the Civil Rights Movement, all of which climaxed with raids conducted on various district administrative offices by the FBI in 2013 and a dramatic takeover by state officials in 2014.
And that kind of corruption has reverberated through the Triangle’s city offices and state courts.
The area’s also gained a reputation for high crime; the FBI’s most recent uniform crime report listed the Triangle as the fifth most dangerous metropolitan area in the state overall, with the state’s highest rates of murder (by a wide margin) and burglary, specifically.
Another report placed Beaumont #210 out of 217 Texas cities ranked from safest to most dangerous.
The numbers make the reality of the situation apparent: the birthplace of the Texas energy economy has been left behind by its in-state brethren.
These days, the Golden Triangle looks a little less golden; an area that once billed itself as a place of boundless opportunity and gave birth to an economic golden age is now mired in a persistent loop of economic, social and political stagnation.
And it’s here, against this backdrop of dire economic hardship, political quagmire, horrifically mismanaged schools and rusting refinery towers that the angry message of the egomaniacal Donald Trump falls on receptive ears.
To the intellectuals in our society, it’s hard to understand how someone could rationally support Trump; indeed, Stephen Hawking, the ultimate of the world’s brainiacs, opined exactly that in an interview with a morning news program in Britain.
Political pundits on national news networks have pontificated that Trump’s popularity finds its origin in the deep anger of the white, working class electorate that he’s tapped into.
To be sure, they’re right, but they typically halt their analyses there, never really getting into the specifics of why that anger exists or how Trump has tapped into it.
To do so, one has to step outside of his own skin and put on that of Trump’s voters – that of your average, run-of-the-mill Southeast Texan living in this kind of environment.
It’s easy to rebuke opponents to free trade on intellectual grounds when you’re not the one who’s lost a good paying job to overseas competition.
It’s easy to talk about the economy as merely a collection of statistics and stock prices when you’re not struggling to find work in the same plants that your father and grandfather made their livelihoods in and that your great-grandfather helped to build – a position many of my childhood classmates have found themselves in.
It’s easy to support establishment political factions when you don’t have real problems to deal with right here in your hometown like falling wages, rising crime and pervasive corruption, that national political figures ignore in favor of arguing over who can go into what bathroom every time you turn on the nightly news.
Where “Make America Great Again” may sound like a generic, meaningless slogan to the country’s intellectual progeny, to the people in Port Neches and Beaumont and other cities like them, who are faced with this kind of reality every day and have to find a way to survive, it reflects the very real question as to whether America is still a great nation, and a very serious feeling that it’s not.
And for the people in this position, turning on the television to hear social activists who make it sound like the way they’ve lived their lives is somehow wrong in every way imaginable – pundits who throw out terms like “white privilege” as though these industrial, working class members of our society, who have worked hard their entire lives and are fighting desperately to keep what they’ve earned amid shrinking paychecks and rising prices, are the benefactors of racial entitlement who don’t actually deserve any of it – adds a slap-in-the-face insult to an already throbbing injury.
To them, statements like “clinging to their guns and their Bibles” and “you didn’t build that” carry wholly different meanings than what they’re intended to convey.
These are the real reasons why people are angry – the real reasons I’ve heard statements like “I no longer say the pledge of allegiance” from the same people who, in my childhood, urged the importance of national pride to myself and my peers more times than I can count.
These are people who not only feel the pinch of a changing world, but who feel like they’ve been forgotten, ignored, rebuked and rejected after years of being productive, responsible, contributing citizens.
I have a hard time believing anyone else wouldn’t be angry in that position, too.
Enter Trump, a bombastic figure who makes no bones about showing his anger on national television, and they find someone who they can identify with.
For the first time, they see a candidate for the nation’s highest office that they can relate to.
For the first time, they see a candidate who they believe is angry for the same reasons they are.
For the first time, they think they’ve found a candidate that sees things the way they do and cares about the things they care about.
For some, it isn’t all anger.
Indeed, many of Trump’s own supporters don’t like his attitude, the way he conducts himself or the things he says.
Some don’t even like a good bit of whatever policy positions he chooses to adopt on a particular day.
For them, though, not voting for Trump – allowing Hillary to win – is voting to continue the policies of a frustrating eight years that, for much of America, hasn’t been a recovery so much as a moderately slowed decline.
Their support is begrudging, but it’s something they feel they have no choice to give.
To them, gambling on the unknown is better than accepting things the way they are.
Like it or not, through the absolute worst of methods, Donald Trump has found a way to relate to Middle America that few would have ever thought of.
This isn’t meant as an admonition of Trump.
In my opinion, Trump is a salesman by trade and by nature, and his political tirades are in reality sales pitches tailored to his supporters.
Like any cheesy salesman, it’s doubtful that Trump actually cares what happens to his customers after the deal is struck.
His behavior throughout his campaign, from his numerous racist and sexist statements to his mockery of a disabled reporter through his encouragement of violence at his rallies, has been absolutely disgusting.
Trump’s campaign has been run so poorly and so questionably that it raises a legitimate question as to whether he really wants to be president at all, or to run a scam selling a meaningless brand to a group of voters who seem apt to continue buying in long after November.
Trump the candidate is, in every way, the American body politic at its absolute worst.
I say that as a lifelong Republican.
Regardless of how understandable the plight of Trump’s supporters might be, they have no excuse when they let their frustration carry them over into violence.
I might be empathetic, but I am not enabling.
Lastly, this certainly isn’t meant to justify supporting Trump.
In terms of policy, Trump’s lack of consistency makes him almost impossible to rate.
On temperament, experience and virtually every other objective factor, Trump is, in my opinion at least, the worst candidate for the presidency proffered by the Republican Party in its 150 year history.
He has utterly failed to display any semblance of a moral compass.
Truly, Trump offers the people who support him nothing of any worth or substance.
Were it not for the ambient anger in the electorate and all the other factors previously outlined, I doubt any reasonable voter would take him seriously, and I firmly believe there will come a day when many of his supporters regret their current allegiance.
History will not be kind to the memory of Donald Trump.
This is meant only to say two things.
In the first place, it’s meant to establish for those struggling to understand Trump’s explosive rise through the ranks that not all of Trump’s supporters are violent vagrants and racists.
Although there are certainly a few Trump supporters who deserve those labels, many of the people that turned out in record breaking numbers to vote for Trump in GOP primaries are good, hard-working people facing tough times who are tired of feeling like the world’s out to get them, tired of wondering if their next paycheck will ever come and tired of hoping their children can find a way to make it in a world they don’t recognize.
It’s meant to explain, for those who can’t relate, how otherwise rational, hard working, good natured people can, under the right conditions, find themselves lending support to a demagogue.
More importantly, the second thing this column is meant to do is to serve as a reminder that in the real world, things aren’t so great, and people are suffering.
Reality can be ugly, and it can cause good people to do ugly things.
When you forget about those people or, worse yet, ignore, demonize, ridicule and trivialize them as so many have done for so long, they will eventually react, and that reaction will probably be ugly.
As ugly, you might say, as a cheap spray-tan, a bad toupee and a tie made in China.
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Cover Photo Credit: Dano/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)