Golis: What President Trump can teach us about the great American divide

President Donald Trump speaks during a rally Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017, in Huntington, W.Va. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)


For the presidency of Donald Trump, each week seems to bring a new series of big and small calamities — with most of the damage being self-inflicted.

Who else — in a period of days — compares himself favorably to Abraham Lincoln, urges police officers to rough-up suspects, calls the White House “a dump” and fires his chief of staff and his communications director?

During the same week, the president also spoke to a national gathering of Boy Scouts, delivering a rambling political speech that caused the Boy Scouts of America to apologize for what he said.

By any standard, this stuff is not normal, and the president’s approval ratings continue to deteriorate as a result.

Still, it is remarkable that a significant number of Americans remain loyal to the president. One composite of recent opinion polls placed his favorability rating at 37 percent.

Why are Trump supporters undeterred? One answer may be found in the bipartisan Democracy Fund’s research on what Americans think it means to be American. Trump voters, the survey found, are more likely to believe that being American means being born in America, being Christian and being of European ancestry.

If you think these are new and different attitudes, you would be wrong. The New York Times reported that this was the view of most Americans as recently as 2004.

In other words, Trump voters didn’t change their view of the role of immigration, religion and ethnicity in defining what it means to be American so much as other Americans changed their views.

We can draw two conclusions:

One, in a country in which increasing numbers of people are immigrants with different cultural and religious backgrounds, conflict becomes something close to inevitable.

Two, whatever else Trump does or says, his most loyal supporters may be prepared to look the other way so long as he plays to their vision of what they wish America would be.

We live in a world defined by change — and the various forms of resistance to those changes. Some wish the explosion of new technology would leave them alone. Many lament the offshoring of jobs to low-wage countries.

And some wish for an America not relying on immigrants to bolster its labor force. Those folks will be disappointed in the end, but that is their wish.

A majority of Trump voters, the survey found, say their economic circumstances have declined in recent years. The support for Trump in rust-belt cities and small towns left behind by the rush of globalization has been well chronicled.

A Washington Post- Kaiser Family Foundation survey in June found that 7 in 10 rural residents believe their views aren’t shared by the people who live in the big cities (which explains why Trump won the presidency, while losing virtually every large city in America).

The Washington Post summarized: “The political divide between rural and urban America is more cultural than it is economic, rooted in rural residents’ deep misgivings about the nation’s rapidly changing demographics, their sense that Christianity is under siege and their perception that the federal government caters most to the needs of people in big cities.”

Bridging these differences won’t be easy. The world is getting smaller and America is becoming more diverse, and new barriers to immigration will not stop those things from happening.

It would help if people who live in places like California and New York would stop being condescending toward the people who don’t. If the goal is to reduce the animosity, name calling isn’t useful.

People who lost their way of life when jobs moved to China, India or Malaysia should not be treated with indifference or scorn. As anyone would, they resent their declining circumstances — and that resentment carried Trump to the White House.

At the same time, Trump loyalists need to get comfortable with change. They have a lot more to fear from the nuclear ambitions of North Korea than they have to fear from an immigrant seeking a job as a construction worker or an engineer.

After a week of train wrecks that seem likely to lead to more train wrecks, it isn’t easy to identify the rewards of the Trump presidency, but there is this: His election compels Americans to talk candidly about a changing world and about the manifest failures of political leaders — Democrats and Republicans, too — to acknowledge these changes and help the country navigate them.

As a country, the hard part will come when we’re obliged to talk about our differences in a respectful way. You may have noticed we’re not very good at doing so.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at