Political media and politicians themselves often generate clear, if not terribly accurate, stereotypes about a candidate’s supporters. In the case of Donald Trump, the mental image you often get of his fans is that of a middle-aged, high-school-educated, white man who has lost (or is in danger of losing) his manufacturing job. He blames foreigners, elites, and minorities for not playing by the rules he observes, and for the social pathologies he sees around him — even in his own struggling family and community. He used to be a Democrat, and he retains enough New Deal sympathies to reject the economic views of Establishment Republicans.
There are plenty of those kind of Trump supporters around, but there is another significant component of his peculiar coalition, and The Atlantic’s Molly Ball describes them well:
At Trump’s rallies across the country — not just in Florida, where the effect may be especially pronounced — it is common to find an abundance of the superannuated. In fact, senior citizens are his strongest demographic. In polls, voters over 65 tend to be the only age group he wins: In surveys conducted for The Atlantic by the Public Religion Research Institute, for example, Hillary Clinton led Trump in every age group under 65, but he beat her by a slight margin with those 65 or older.
In the primaries, too, Trump supporters were older, on average, than those of other Republican candidates. Despite the stereotype of the Trump supporter as a prime-aged working man, Trump’s campaign has actually been fueled primarily by support from the elderly.
In understanding what Ball calls “Trump’s graying army,” it is important to understand that a majority of today’s seniors came of age at a time when a college education really was not necessary for most jobs — in many cases even management-track jobs. And so, many of them had upwardly mobile careers and are now settled into relatively affluent retirements — the beneficiaries of that rapidly fading, once-dominant institution, the private pension. Slicing and dicing Americans according to educational attainments remains the best measure we have of class divisions, but at the top end of the age spectrum, calling people “white working class” because they don’t have a diploma can be misleading.
If you focus on Trump’s oldest cadre of support, his appeal looks a little different than for younger white voters. These are people who quite literally remember an America where not only was a college diploma unnecessary to live the good life, but also where white men still dominated most economic and cultural activities. Perhaps they look at phenomena like NAFTA or China’s emergence as a global power or Mexican immigration as part of the long downward slide of America away from its old greatness. But they are more fundamentally nostalgic for the America in which they were children: before the Civil Rights Act, the mass entry of women into the workforce, the sexual revolution, the riots of the mid-to-late 1960s, and the long upward rise of crime and divorce rates that began around that same time. As Ball puts it:
It isn’t just that Trump appeals to old people — it’s that he appeals to this particular cohort of old people, whose vision of America was shaped at a particular time. They speak of a last chance to save America, a country that will cease to exist if Trump doesn’t win.
From the perspective of these older Trump supporters, his movement is much more about culture, race, and perceptions of America’s global status than about economics, with one big exception: They are attracted by Trump’s hostility to “entitlement reform,” not out of some vestigial Democratic leanings or because they are economically insecure, but because they are the direct beneficiaries of Social Security and Medicare, which they view as earned benefits, not as “government programs” (much less welfare!). And to the extent that they are economic nationalists, many of them simply remember (perhaps erroneously) those long boom years of the 1950s and 1960s when American growth and rising living standards did not seem imperiled by or dependent on rapacious, crafty foreigners.
Ball offers a glimpse of some Trump supporters in a wealthy gated community in Florida that should be kept in mind alongside the usual images of angry, underemployed, blue-collar workers in Pennsylvania:
“Things are getting worse,” said 68-year-old Jim Leach, a Minnesotan who earned a good living on a high-school education and retired at 56 thanks to smart investing. “Black people are rioting because they want to riot, they don’t want to work. Politicians, they’re not normal people — they’ve never worked a day in their lives.”
Realizing how much of Trump’s following comes from voters in their golden years may not make much difference in predicting this election. But it does matter in projecting the future of Trumpism. Older Trump voters who see him as a last chance to go back to the 1950s will soon be gone. That doesn’t mean Trump’s kind of politics will go away — indeed, younger Trump voters not only exist, but are probably angrier and more open to radical and intolerant policies than old folks who just wish women and minorities would stay “in their place” and kids would mind their manners. After all, old white men remember a time when America worked — for them, at least. For many of their children and grandchildren, American “greatness” is more-or-less ancient history.