Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers recently defined the Democratic Party of today as “a coalition of the cosmopolitan élite and diversity.” In other words: New York City, minus the white working class.
New York City’s blue collar and working class whites are concentrated in neighborhoods in South Brooklyn, outer Queens, and Staten Island, the same places that are home to most of the city’s conservative voters. Donald Trump won a strong majority—64 percent—of the city’s Republican voters in the State primary, and was particularly successful in white working class neighborhoods.
In Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, a largely conservative part of South Brooklyn, Trump swept Republican voters, while Bernie Sanders, similarly popular among the working and middle class, soundly beat Hillary Clinton. Many believe white working class voters in key states across the country will decide the election on Tuesday.
To attempt to understand Trump’s appeal in these communities, I spoke with a handful of New Yorkers, several from Bay Ridge, all of whom were born and raised in the city. I asked the people I spoke with what issues matter most to them in this election and why they think Trump is the answer. I got a range of responses, but they consistently centered around the idea that America needs to be preserved and protected and the only way to do that is to abandon political correctness and restore law and order.
Othering in a City of Others
Nearly every Trump supporter I spoke with put immigration and border security at the top of their list of concerns. Most believe that a Trump administration would end illegal immigration and keep dangerous refugees out of the country—and that Clinton would do the exact opposite.
George B., a 27-year-old app developer and son of immigrants from Eastern Europe and South America, told me that an influx of illegal immigrants and refugees would fuel domestic terrorism and fundamentally alter the social fabric of American society. “We don’t know who’s dangerous and who’s not, or who wants to change our culture when they come in,” he said. “Hillary doesn’t care, she’ll bring the refugees in.”
While cities like New York, and the liberals who call them home, celebrate their multiculturalism, George sees non-assimilation as a threat. “We have entire sections of the country where people speak more Spanish than English and 20 years down the line they may want to create their own government institutions, maybe want more autonomy of some sort,” George said. He suggested that diversity is un-American, “a made-up term” that does not appear in the Constitution.
With extreme immigration policies at the center of Trump’s campaign, it may come as a surprise that more than half of New York City’s Republican Latinx voted for Trump in the primary.
Amy and Lyndsey Martinez, native Brooklynites who now live on Staten Island, count themselves among this group. While they both distanced themselves from Trump’s deportation and border wall plans—“we don’t agree with everything he says, verbatim”—they feel strongly that American borders need to be more secure. They fear a Clinton administration would usher in the kind of “liberalism” that has led to the “destruction” of Western Europe by refugees.
“The president wanted to let thousands and thousands of Syrians in. Look what happened in France. We need to learn from what’s happening around the world,” Lyndsey Martinez said. “If we’re lenient, we’re going to face those same issues as well.”
Many on the left write this off as an exaggerated fear. But the fear, Amy Martinez said, is rooted in her experience as a New Yorker who witnessed 9/11. “As a country, we’ve suffered our fair share. I don’t think there’s a single person that you’re going to speak to that doesn’t hurt still from 9/11.”
Others see the issue of immigration in terms of resources. Jimmy Hollorin, a Queens-born construction safety coordinator who lives in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, believes that the government has an obligation to take care of vulnerable Americans before it allows immigrants and refugees into the country. “Close the borders, stay the hell out of our country, let us take care of ourselves,” he said, “When we’re all done, then we’ll help out, if we have anything left.”
A Celebration of 'Authenticity'
The Trump voters I talked with are not among the belligerent crowds shouting racist, sexist epithets or beating up protesters at rallies. But while some may distance themselves from this behavior, the majority accepts the bigotry Trump encourages as either an authentic expression of grievance or simply par for the course.
Jenny B., who I met at New Corner Restaurant in Bay Ridge, told me Trump’s comments about Mexicans, Muslims, and women are simply a reflection of widespread sentiment. “Let’s be real, in this country, as you’re riding the subway, you hear people talking that way,” she said.
George B. believes Trump has the right to say about women what he pleases—as long as he says it in private. “Fifty percent of guys have said this kind of stuff in private conversation,” he said. “It’s certainly something you shouldn’t be saying in public, but this should not be such a major issue.”
A woman I met at Omonia Cafe in Bay Ridge, a reluctant Trump supporter who wished to remain anonymous, believes Trump is simply unpracticed in the sanitized language of political discourse. “He doesn’t have the social graces that are usually associated with politicians, but I don’t hold that against him,” she said. “I believe that in his heart he wants to do the right thing.”
The sense that Trump is an honest, straight shooting political outsider was pervasive. Amy Martinez said the candidate’s “realness” is one of his most attractive qualities. “He’s never pretended to be anybody but himself,” she said. “His authenticity, as rough around the edges as it may be, is very welcomed.”
Trump voters see this authenticity as relief from the dishonesty and corruption of the political elite. As Hollorin told me, “all of Congress, all the Senators are all bullshit, they’re all full of shit. At least Trump has the working people on his side.”
Almost everyone I spoke with held up Trump’s rejection of political correctness as a sign of his willingness to name and fix problems. Several argued that, while not all Muslims are terrorists, liberals are failing to solve the problem of terrorism because they fear labeling it a religious or racial issue. Others argued political correctness unfairly protects minorities and punishes whites.
“If a cop does something, [Obama] won’t stop and think that the cop is in harm’s way and will blame the cop automatically and then we’ll find out that the cop was in the right,” Jenny said. “If somebody of Middle Eastern descent does something, it’s always some other problem.”
Dismantling the Clinton Machine
Like so many Democratic voters, the Trump supporters I spoke with were much quicker to express distaste for the opposition than admiration for their candidate. Whether due to the Benghazi allegations, decades of dislike of Bill Clinton, or the lack of transparency surrounding her emails and the Clinton Foundation, Clinton is deeply hated by many. Hollorin called her “a cheater, liar, and murderer” who “robbed this country blind” with her husband’s help in the 1990s. “Everybody that talks bad about her ends up dead.”
As the woman at Omonia Cafe said, “The Clinton machine—it has to go down.”
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