BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.
MAN: This is becoming violent. There is pushing and shoving going on inside this arena. People are throwing objects. Supporters, protesters, media, it was simply rocking back and forth.
BOB GARFIELD: This week after violent clashes between supporters and protesters forced the cancellation of a Trump rally in Chicago, the GOP frontrunner’s delicate lead continued to grow, and the media continued to wonder, who are the people supporting him?
MAN: We saw a Confederate battle flag poster at another Trump rally.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s a question, a curiosity that’s long been dogging coverage.
MAN: The mainstream media attaching “The Donald” and anyone who votes for him, like the New York Daily News picturing Trump as a clown and calling his supporters “mindless zombies.”
MAN: Close to 20 percent of voters who support Donald Trump don't support the Emancipation Proclamation. They think Abraham Lincoln’s decision to free enslaved Africans during the Civil War was the wrong thing to do.
BOB GARFIELD: So are they a mob of ignorant racists? No!
WOMAN: One of the things fueling Trump support is a feeling by a lot of white working class Americans that things have changed too fast; they don’t recognize this country anymore.
BOB GARFIELD: So they’re the disaffected working class, squeezed out of the economy by globalism and increasingly marginalized by an influx of nonwhite immigrants. Wait, no.
TONY: Almost everyone we’ve talked who switched over, who crossed over, they said Trump, Trump, Trump – they want a change, they’re tired of politics as usual, Brian.
BRIAN: All right, Tony. Something tells me you’re on top of a big story there.
BOB GARFIELD: So there, an astute political cohort that has run out of patience with the political class, tainted by money, biased toward privilege and political media have spent months trying to suss out the Trump insurgency. The Atlantic’s James Fallows has not only crossed the country but also sifted forensically through email and the ever-changing media narrative seeking an answer.
JAMES FALLOWS: On Monday of a certain week, the dominant tone will be that the Trump supporters are all big racists and on Wednesday it will be, no, they’re not racists, they’re actually the dispossessed and squeezed out, and on Thursday evening it will be, well actually, they’re pretty racist and on Saturday it will be something else again. And I think that reflects both the way in which contrarianism to whatever is the belief dominates our business but also the fact that this appears to be a genuinely complex and contradictory movement, and our political press is not ideally suited for conveying complexity.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the methods that the press seems to have employed to take the pulse of the Trump base is to read their T-shirts and ball caps. [LAUGHS] You’ve taken the odd approach of actually being in communication with some of his supporters to, you know, try to get a little more nuanced view. What’s your experience been?
JAMES FALLOWS: Over the years, I've, I’ve [ ? ] to the Atlantic site, getting a lot of mail from, from our readers, and it's been interesting to publish some of the range of materials to come back about Trump. Some of it has been just completely vile. Some of it is from people saying, you, poohbahs in the media, you have no idea what's going on in the real America. I don’t fall over for that criticism as much as some other people might just because I’ve spent the last couple of years in the actual rest of the country interviewing people about their situations.
But then there's also a sympathetic criticism from people who are not Trump supporters. They say they can understand where he came from, they can understand why his criticisms have landed with such force and they wonder where this is all going to go.
BOB GARFIELD: Were there surprises there for you, you know, that didn’t fall into the obvious categories that the press has identified ‘til now?
JAMES FALLOWS: The one that was surprising, I think, is from people who I would view as otherwise, quote, “normal," unquote. That is, I'm thinking of a longtime Army officer, a guy, an American living in Switzerland, some guy in New York, a woman in Seattle, another woman in Kansas, who have written saying they normally vote either Democratic or sort of mainstream Republican, but they just are so fed up that they think the applecart needs to be overturned in some way.
I don't know whether these are people who might have voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary but their theme has been even though they’re not normally creatures of the extreme they, number one, like Trump's brashness and, number two, are not that afraid of what he would actually do in office.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you have any other theories that you've been exchanging with your correspondents?
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes, my other theory is that the main media narrative about the Trump movement and what it represents is that it says something about the movement, that we’re seeing something about racial tensions and economic exclusion and impatience with politics by the vehemence of the support for Trump. I think that is partly so but what is mainly so is that this is mainly about Trump himself, that were it not for the unique kind of performance skills and background and whatever psychological disposition he has, the same objective tensions within the society would not have expressed themselves the way that they have with Trump.
BOB GARFIELD: So with that as the context, how in the world would you advise your colleagues to approach these questions of the Trump base? What sort of reporting would you encourage and where would you say, just don't spin your wheels?
JAMES FALLOWS: I guess the negative advice would be, it's just too easy to go to these rallies and find some crazy person there. In a country of 300 million people plus, there are always going to be a couple of million nuts. And if you’re going to look for somebody with a bad T-shirt or looking like a modern Klansman or whatever, you’re – you’re going to find that person, instead, to try to, as best we can, recognize, number one, that this is a complicated fast-moving situation we aren't going to understand in real time, number two, to draw out as much as we can, what are the economic realities, who's been displaced and who has not, what are the racial dimensions here, where do we see support for Trump or not, and just try to do as much explanatory work on the hydraulics of America 2016, less rally coverage, more talking about the country that is making the decision and the person about whom they are choosing.
BOB GARFIELD: To me, the most shocking piece of journalism I've seen that addressed the Trump followers was not where you would have expected it to show up; it wasn’t in some bastion of the elitist liberal media. It was in the National Review, and it dismissed the Trump base in terms that I would have called starkly racist and very familiar, except for the fact that they were talking about working class white Americans, that they have sucked on the teat of society and got nowhere, except OxyContin- addicted, they deserve their fate and we should just let them go because they’re human effluvia. Wow.
JAMES FALLOWS: Wow, indeed. If there's anything that's going to signal the fracture of the Republican Party as we’ve known it for the last 150 years, it would be that piece by Kevin Williamson in the National Review because the tone of just withering dismissal of an inferior subhuman group in that article, to have it applied by a conservative organ to working-class whites shows that the alliance of the modern Republican Party between essentially economic loyalists, if you will, in Franklin Roosevelt's term, and the culturally conservative who are having religious or racial resentments of one kind or another, this was a sign of a fracturing of that alliance.
BOB GARFIELD: And it might also prove that the central gripe of the Trump base of being disdained and dismissed and uncounted by the political elites of both parties is true.
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes, America has always been both egalitarian and snobbish, and this was an actually, to me, shocking manifestation of somebody being willing to express this form of looking down on the poor whites/white trash losers of America. And if you were saying Trump expresses the views of those who feel the object of that scorn, then that would be true.
BOB GARFIELD: Jim, as always, thank you very, very much.
JAMES FALLOWS: My pleasure, thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: James Fallows is national correspondent for The Atlantic.