If you asked me what I thought I was going to do at my summer job, typing up pro-Trump op-eds for homeless people would not have made my list of expectations. And yet, there I was, mid July, doing exactly that. The nonprofit where I worked is a “street paper” about poverty and homelessness, where a majority of the paper’s content is written by homeless and formerly homeless individuals in Washington, D.C. They write, we help them publish their work and they sell the final product. Each story caught me in one way or another, but it was the conservative outliers in the opinion section that gave me a window into what it looks like when unlikely voters lean Republican.
When I asked one person about why he supported Trump, he said that it was less about Trump, and more about the Democratic Party, which he once belonged to, but had since made him feel disenfranchised. As the party moves further left and becomes more progressive, he argued, it alienated him and people like him, intellectualizing their problems without making tangible strides towards solving them. The intensely adverse circumstances faced by the homeless ground their political opinions in a unique authority; one that can only be informed by experience. Because policies that regard things like shelters and Medicaid affect them directly, they understand these policies — and their many intricacies — better and more personally than the average American, including some of the politicians who write them.
It would have been easy to dismiss homeless Trump supporters as those who don’t understand their own best interests. It also would have been a huge loss, because their rationale was powerful, and indicative of a broader trend. Trump — who has been quoted calling poor people “morons” historically disparaged the black community and made comments about the low education levels of his supporters — seemed to be striking out in so many categories that I thought would be important to them. But for them, choosing a candidate wasn’t as simple as checking (or not checking) boxes.
We don’t talk about this faction in my political science classes — and I guess that makes sense. They are anomalies. Homeless Trump supporters are probably about as abundant as warm January days in Ithaca. But their party affiliations are also such a fascinating product of the shift in ideology, both from the left and from the right. They represent people who feel that they have been disenfranchised from the Democratic party, even though the party’s advertised goal is to level the playing field for them.
This phenomenon of what might be perceived as counterintuitive voting isn’t exclusive to homeless Trump supporters. Some of the most conservative and reliably Republican states are also some of the poorest in the country. Mississippi, for instance, consistently votes red. Given the average per capita income of $43,500, one would expect many voters to chose the Democrats due to their policies that support more generous public funding and more robust public support for healthcare, education, housing and food. However, personal financial gain is just one small component in the calculus of choosing a candidate or party to support.
The people I worked with knew that Trump had his faults, and even called him “crazy” in some of the same articles they wrote to endorse him. But it was in spite of those faults that they supported him. I guess if you can get past the racism, the bromance with Putin and the flagrant Islamophobia — which I would not recommend overlooking — Trump’s remaining message is similar to Sanders’ in that it strikes a populist tone that appeals to many of those struggling in or disenfranchised by modern society. And when you feel that you are someone who has been cast aside by society, or when you look to the government to help you survive, a candidate’s likability becomes a superfluous consideration if he or she has convinced you that they can truly help.
I don’t think that Trump should be president. I think his policies would be harmful to the average American, the average world citizen and especially to the people I worked with this summer. But it’s not my job to decide for them what is in their best interest. Sometimes when progressives reach out to help, I think the effort can be slightly patronizing, and movements can ignore the voices of the very people they aim to mobilize. The people who condescend to and mock Trump supporters are ironically some of the same people who create them. There is value in listening to the members of the homeless community who support Trump — not because I agree with them, and not because I think he could help them as a candidate but because, as a democrat, I think it’s very important to understand what about my own party has driven them and millions of other Americans to turn to such a radical alternative.
Jacqueline Groskaufmanis is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Dissent appears alternate Mondays this semester.