Salon has an article out recently under the title, “The Alarming Link between the Increase in ‘Despair Deaths’ and Counties that Voted for Donald Trump.” The author points to a recent study finding that “despair deaths” — those resulting from drug overdose, alcoholism, and suicide — are more common in counties that voted for Donald Trump. According to this study, “counties that had a net percentage increase of those who voted for the winning 2016 presidential candidate had a 15 percent higher 2015 age-adjusted death rate than those counties with a net increase in Democratic voters. The rise in deaths caused by alcohol, drugs and suicide was 2.5 times higher in 2016 those counties, too” [sic].
Supposedly, this is a problem for “men and women previous politicians have seemingly left behind.” This is rank nonsense.
This study is consistent with other findings of an increase in mortality among white people with less than a college education, a phenomenon that attracted considerable attention in 2016. .
The obvious problem with the Salon article is that it ignores the recent body of work showing that racial resentment, not economic anxiety, motivated a lot of Trump voters.
The idea that “previous politicians have…left behind” these voters is a vat of historical silliness. Actually, FDR and the New Deal tried mightily to alleviate “economic anxiety” in the population generally. Social Security is the most obvious example of this effort. It applied only very narrowly at first, but subsequent legislation has expanded its operation substantially. Less obvious are the various measures aimed, quite successfully, at dampening the decennial problem of bank panics and resulting recessions, which the Republicans have attacked since their inception, such as the Glass Steagall Act and the Securities Exchange Commission. FDR’s staff recognized that poverty in the U.S. was worst in Appalachia and the south more generally. The most visible result of this emphasis was the Tennessee Valley Authority, a huge project that provided economic development and electricity to a large swath of the deep south.
Later, Lyndon Johnson oversaw the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the vast majority of which benefited the ancestors of the people whom politicians have supposedly “left behind.” Johnson knew what he was doing when he queered the whole deal by getting passed other major legislation that benefited everyone in the country, but that too many modern Republican voters resent rather than appreciating — the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
Ensuring some measure of legal equality for African Americans was the right thing to do and it helped the whole nation because it added to the national talent pool a group, consisting of roughly 13% of the population, that our society had essentially wasted until that point by defining them, foolishly, as incapable of holding certain jobs. By including “sex” as a protected category, the Civil Rights Act actually operated much more broadly, since the white men who ran the country unchallenged before 1964 also wasted, in this sense, the talents of women as well as African Americans.
Jimmy Carter noticed and tried to remedy the significant poverty that remained among African Americans during his term in the late 1970s. Bill Clinton famously signed Republican bills that reversed some of the gains his Democratic predecessors had achieved. He is still very popular with African American votes even as many people criticize him for doing more harm than good.
Barack Obama, famously the nation’s first African American president, finally signed legislation enacting a Democratic goal since the days of Harry Truman — an attempt to reduce significantly the number of people in the nation who lack access to health care. Obama’s law, the Affordable Care Act, is still a matter of considerable contention, but it was the biggest domestic policy reform of the twenty-first century to date.
It is entirely possible for both claims to be true — Trump voters may have felt both racial resentment and economic anxiety, albeit perhaps misplaced. Recent studies show that Trump voters were likely to be employed and unlikely to be low income — less likely than people who voted for Hillary Clinton.
But racial resentment is all about perception. People who resent the relative equality and success of African Americans likely also see civil rights and other benefits of living in the United States in zero sum terms — any benefit for any other group must come at a cost to them.
Republicans, of course, have been only too happy to play to this ridiculous misperception since at least Nixon, who ran on behalf of the “silent majority,” who are the parents of younger Trump voters. Nixon was a master at dog whistle racism. This “silent majority” was all of those good Americans who were at home, watching their televisions, not out protesting anything at all, whether the Vietnam War, or racial injustice, or anything else. While Obama was president, we saw this impulse in Republicans when Newt Gingrich coined the term, “foodstamp president,” and Rick Santorum spilled the beans when he said that he did not want to make black people’s lives better by giving them other people’s money.
The entire Republican Party line since Nixon has been this noxious, divisive, false idea that federal benefits primarily accrue to African Americans at the expense of hard working white people. Numerically, this is a ridiculous claim on its face. African Americans make up roughly 13% of the population. Even if they are over represented among the population that receives federal benefits, still the majority of beneficiaries must be white people, by simple arithmetic. Republicans have systematically distracted large numbers of white voters by playing to their latent racism and giving lip service to opposition to abortion rights and supposed oppression of Christians and exclusion of them from public life. During the period, they got a gift of the new issue of LGBT civil rights, opposition to which serves as a psychologically satisfying proxy for people who oppose African American civil rights but know they can’t say so publicly, even as they genuinely oppose equality for LGBT people.
No one wishes death on anyone. That the political descendants of these people are now suffering an increase in “despair deaths” is a sad development. They have only themselves to blame, however. Elected officials have tried since the New Deal to help them. They were happy with the help until it included equality for African Americans. Democrat Lyndon Johnson’s essential leadership in passing major civil rights legislation was the primary factor explaining the wholesale shift in the solid south from being solidly Democratic to being solidly Republican — the Party that resisted implementation of the Affordable Care Act for absurd, purely ideological reasons and is now striving mightily to eliminate, or at least badly damage, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, for no good reason. Trump, his voters, and his Republican hallelujah chorus are the distillation of this perverse belief that improvements for African Americans come at the expense of everyone else, which is the inverse of the claim that the United States only exists as such because of its history of racism. This is regrettably true in some non trivial sense, but it is a fact that we can redeem and change.
To do that, we first have to reject Donald Trump and his noxious politics.