Not long ago, I wrote about the fact that 2020 appears to be headed for a repeat of 2016 — only worse this time. As I have described elsewhere, the failure to foresee this scenario is rooted in a denialism that has overtaken our society.

Thus far, my commentary on denialism has primarily addressed a relatively short-term version of this disease: our denial of our country’s current authoritarian path, and our denial that we may now be headed toward mass atrocity.

However, this denialism has much deeper roots.

In fact, the denialism stretches back many years, beginning with the progressive movement’s denial of the existence and legitimacy of a large swath of the country.

As this denialism persists, it only continues to exacerbate our country’s divisions.

More recently, as many progressives basked in the glory of the Democratic National Convention, the denialism reached a peak. Cheering on Joe Biden’s speech as the best of his career, many Democrats continued to ignore the fact that about forty percent of the country holds the polar opposite views.

As this denialism persists, it only continues to exacerbate our country’s divisions.

In the shocked aftermath of the 2016 election, the core lesson was about the existence of a major group within the country that had received relatively little policy attention despite having legitimate and unaddressed grievances.

A related interpretation was that Trump’s victory represented a backlash against our society’s “political correctness,” which to some citizens had gone off the rails.

In the two to four weeks following the election, the white working class population catapulted into a subject of anthropological curiosity across media outlets. Before long, however, the curiosity died out, and progressives somehow decided that this population was not a force to be reckoned with — or, worse, was a population simply to be outnumbered and to be dismissed as morally inferior.

It is difficult to fathom how the progressive movement could logically reach this conclusion after this bloc of voters led to its defeat in the election.

Somehow, we have been in denial over the existence of this group for many years now.

Somehow, we have not learned that this group cannot be glossed over again as it was in 2016.

Somehow, we have never accepted that many members of this group voted for Trump in spite of, not because of, his bad character — speaking volumes to their level of disillusionment with the political system.

Somehow, for the past four years, we have chosen to repeatedly write off members of this group — many of whom voted for Obama before they voted for Trump — as “stupid,” “deplorable,” “racist,” and “xenophobic.”

If members of this group were not already hardened when they cast their 2016 votes, the rhetoric directed toward these individuals has probably only made them increasingly hardened, especially as it has heightened over the course of Trump’s term.

While labels such as “racist” and “xenophobic” may be factually accurate in certain circumstances, labels like “stupid” and “deplorable” certainly are not.

Indeed, at a primal level, I am unwilling to believe that forty percent of our country is stupid. These citizens may be misguided and manipulated — but they are not stupid.

To reduce an individual’s humanity down to a single derogatory word is to deny the legitimacy of their existence — the very form of dehumanization that progressives claim to be fighting.

All told, the oversimplified and at times vitriolic name-calling and labeling toward this group has ignored the complexity of its members’ lives, including their present-day suffering.

To reduce an individual’s humanity down to a single derogatory word is to deny the legitimacy of their existence — the very form of dehumanization that progressives claim to be fighting.

The one-word labels likely come into use because progressives have trouble appreciating the life experiences of Trump supporters — since their stereotypical representative, the white male, represents the very oppression that created our country and that continues to persist in maintaining many of its injustices.

However, when we focus on the human experience of those who support Trump, we hear a troubling story. This story is perhaps best illustrated by our country’s health trends.

Alarmingly, recent data show that life expectancy for the entire U.S. population stagnated in 2010 and then decreased for three consecutive years starting in 2014 — a trend which has been driven by a rising number of deaths in the 25–64 age range [1].

Even more alarming, the less educated and rural populations have experienced the largest relative increases in death within this midlife age bracket [1].

Geographically, the spike in deaths has been concentrated in the industrial Midwest and Appalachia — both, remarkably enough, strongholds for Trump supporters. In the 2010–2017 period, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Florida recorded the highest levels of excess deaths, with states such as Michigan and Wisconsin not far behind [1].

These disturbing developments have been a long time in the making: many of the patterns date all the way back to the 1980s and began to grow increasingly severe in the 1990s [1].

Although social scientists do not yet understand all of the underlying causes behind these trends, the declines in health have been associated with major economic decline, including the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, a shrinking middle class, wage stagnation, and reduced social mobility.

As much of the excess mortality is due to drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis, some scholars have used the term “deaths of despair,” hypothesizing that physiological distress is the responsible cause.

While researchers will continue to work through the complexity behind these developments, the main point seems clear: America is currently in a major state of distress, with particular regions and sub-populations getting hit the hardest.

This distress is as real as human suffering gets. Yet, while the findings set off alarm bells within the academic community, public discourse on these social developments, especially by the progressive movement, has been limited. This ignorance of human suffering is troubling, to say the least.

Amidst these realities, rather than dismissing away the lives of Trump voters, we must listen to their legitimate grievances.

Indeed, anyone who pays a visit to rural America and talks with fellow citizens there will find out that they have many stories to share. In addition, the mere fact that many citizens who voted for Trump also voted for Obama points to deeper socioeconomic dynamics. The dot that connects Obama and Trump is that both were fundamentally change candidates — albeit of very different types — reflecting the disillusionment of many citizens.

Overall, the animosity toward Trump supporters has been part of a broader pattern of classism in our country.

Classism — a persistent and under-recognized form of prejudice in our nation that has demanded urgent attention for decades — is perhaps the last major form of discrimination to be addressed in the U.S.

Classism is perhaps the last major form of discrimination to be addressed in the U.S.

Yet, the progressive movement has failed to forcefully speak out against classism, even though the fight against classism should bind together multiple oppressed groups in our society for the purpose of a common cause. Instead, we have allowed classism to lay the foundation for Trumpism.

Works Cited:

  1. Woolf, Steven H., and Heidi Schoomaker. 2019. “Life Expectancy and Mortality Rates in the United States, 1959–2017.” Journal of the American Medical Association 322 (20): 1996–2016.

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Josh Greenberg

Josh Greenberg

Human, activist, scholar. Physician-Economist-in-training @UMich. CEO @proghealth. @FulbrightPrgrm Awardee. I work on anything that matters, locally & globally.