Those Biden ‘Gaffes’? Some Key Voters Actually Like Them

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Some of the working-class voters Biden must appeal to are sometimes enthralled by President Trump’s transgressions.

Ms. Muravchik and Mr. Shields are the authors of the forthcoming “Trump’s Democrats.”

Sept. 16, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET
Credit...Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

If Joe Biden is going to rebuild the Democrats’ “blue wall” and win states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, and claim the White House, he will need to appeal to the working-class Democratic communities that put Donald Trump over the top in 2016. They include more than 200 counties that supported Barack Obama twice before voting for Mr. Trump.

Many of these places had long records of unbroken support for Democratic presidential candidates, some even stretching back to before the New Deal.

Mr. Biden needs to tune in to their cultural sensibilities if he’s going to bring at least some of these pivotal blue strongholds back into the Democratic fold. He is one of the few Democrats, as a child of working-class Scranton, Pa., capable of doing so.

We spent the past few years hanging out in bars, churches and town council meetings with these voters — whom we call “Trump’s Democrats.” We interviewed nearly 100 people in three formerly blue strongholds that voted for Mr. Trump: Johnston, R.I., a suburb of Providence; Ottumwa, Iowa, a small industrial city and an inspiration for the setting of the Roseanne Barr show; and Elliott County, a tiny Appalachian community in northeastern Kentucky.

Despite their geographic diversity, these places have much in common with one another and with the many Democratic communities that swung for Mr. Trump in critical Midwest battleground states. They are overwhelmingly white and working class. They care about patriotism and serving their country and are especially attached to the places they live, with strong, place-based loyalties.

Their honor culture is common throughout the world and in many American communities that are not dominated by the professional managerial class.

As part of that, they share what we would call a Trumpian political culture.

In the communities we visited, some of their most beloved Democratic politicians have a Trumpian sensibility: They are macho, quick to engage in political conflict and relentless counterpunchers. One is Ottumwa’s Jerry Parker, a former mayor and a current county supervisor. He supported Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primaries; during one local primary meeting, he threatened to take a conflict with a Bernie Sanders supporter “outside.”

Similarly, Mayor Joe Polisena of Johnston is popular even though he is a self-described political “streetfighter.” Mr. Polisena doesn’t hesitate to verbally rough up citizens who openly criticize his rule — during town council meetings, for example, he calls them “malcontents” and “misfits.”

People in these communities admire the president because he seems familiar. As someone in Johnston told us, Mr. Trump seems “more human, more like us, the working person.” Mr. Trump’s incessant counterpunching, called a sign of a thin skin by many observers in professional circles, is often interpreted as common in many working-class communities.

Survey data back these reports. The American National Election Survey reveals that Trump voters — especially those who previously voted for Mr. Obama — were particularly likely to admire Mr. Trump as a “strong leader.”

Honor cultures provide clear rules for deterring aggression and determining social status. A citizen, especially a man, must not tolerate insults and must show his readiness to respond with violence if necessary. He may dislike the expectations of honor culture, but he is not free to ignore them. In a context where ignoring a challenge is always interpreted as cowardice rather than magnanimity, to protect oneself, a person must respond in the prescribed way. A social reputation for toughness is everything. It must always be defended and maintained.

So to “go high,” as Michelle Obama once advised, is often read as a sign of cowardice in this culture. As Mr. Polisena told us, if you are high-minded, it can suggest “weakness,” and “then they’ll just roll over you.”

Mr. Biden has often followed this code of honor when campaigning in their world. In New Hampton, Iowa, when a man accused Mr. Biden of being too old and abusing his political power, Mr. Biden shot back, “You’re a damned liar.” He also challenged him to a push-up contest.

Critics in the media reported on the exchange as another Biden gaffe. But that’s not how many people there in New Hampton read it: They gave Mr. Biden a spirited round of applause.

Even so, Mr. Biden must walk a difficult cultural tightrope. An alumnus of the genteel Senate, he is running for president to defend our national political culture, which depends on softer, more deliberative norms. These norms have been badly frayed by Mr. Trump.

But in many places, the honor culture persists. In fact, it’s enjoying a revival. Mr. Trump was the first modern presidential candidate to respect this culture of honor — and in 2016 that created a collision between these Democrats’ partisan loyalties and their class-based ones.

So Mr. Biden must be a custodian of our embattled national political culture while also appealing to voters who are sometimes enthralled by a president who relentlessly attacks that same culture.

The good news is that Democrats have nominated someone capable of walking that tightrope. In the first presidential debate and on the hustings, Mr. Biden must appeal to these cultural sensibilities without going low, as Ms. Obama put it.

As he attempts this delicate balance, observers should consider the possibility that Mr. Biden’s next “gaffe” is not necessarily another sign of his clumsiness — it just might be evidence of his cultural finesse.

Stephanie Muravchik, an associate fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, and Jon A. Shields, associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, are the authors of the forthcoming “Trump’s Democrats.”

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