How Hopelessness Helped Elect Donald Trump

The president-elect performed well in places with the highest rates of death from suicide and drug abuse.

Theo Anderson January 11, 2017

In the current U.S. context, the low bar for being on the “Left” is that you support public policy that actually works to treat the symptoms of structural problems. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Gun vio­lence and the opi­oid epi­dem­ic are good barom­e­ters of U.S. pol­i­tics. Hillary Clin­ton and Don­ald Trump spoke about both dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign. Trump even gave a speech and offered details of a plan to address the opi­oid cri­sis. All the talk hasn’t got­ten us very far, though. It’s most­ly been a shame­ful exer­cise in the pol­i­tics of hopelessness.

'In a lot of these places, good-paying jobs and the dignity that goes along with those good-paying jobs has been replaced by suffering and hopelessness and the belief that people in power don't really care about them or their communities.'

Gun vio­lence has long been a polit­i­cal issue, of course, but the mur­der count in Chica­go—762 last year, the high­est lev­el since the mid-1990s — has moved it to cen­ter stage again. That’s because the Chica­go angle allows the GOP to talk about some of its favorite themes: the fail­ure of lib­er­al­ism in urban Amer­i­ca, the gen­er­al chaos of big cities and the futil­i­ty of gun-con­trol laws.

Trump tweet­ed that if Chicago’s may­or can’t get the city under con­trol, he must ask for Fed­er­al help!” At Nation­al Review, edi­tor Rich Lowry blamed the vio­lence on the influ­ence of Black Lives Mat­ter and the ACLU, whose push­back against police vio­lence has, sup­pos­ed­ly, neutered law enforce­ment: Chica­go demon­strates that in swathes of inner-city Amer­i­ca, you can have a chas­tened, pas­sive police depart­ment, or a mod­icum of pub­lic order, but not both,” Lowry wrote. His solu­tion? Chica­go sim­ply needs to stop, arrest, and jail more dan­ger­ous people.”

Down­ward spiral

The recent spike in opi­oid-relat­ed deaths isn’t as divi­sive, polit­i­cal­ly, but it’s been about equal­ly dead­ly. The annu­al death toll from over­dos­ing quadru­pled between 1999 and 2015, accord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, which recent­ly report­ed that more than 33,000 peo­ple died of an over­dose in 2015. The same year, more than 35,000 peo­ple died from gun vio­lence, includ­ing 22,000 suicides.

After the elec­tion, a soci­ol­o­gist at Penn­syl­va­nia State Uni­ver­si­ty, Shan­non Mon­nat, stud­ied the returns and found that both epi­demics had a grim con­nec­tion to the out­come. Coun­ties where where Trump over-per­formed Mitt Rom­ney in 2012 also had a high­er-than-nor­mal rate of death from sui­cide and alco­hol and drug abuse.

Trump’s promise to be their voice” res­onat­ed pow­er­ful­ly with those com­mu­ni­ties. The find­ings are about down­ward mobil­i­ty and the dis­man­tling of the Amer­i­can dream at a larg­er com­mu­ni­ty lev­el,” Mon­nat told NPR. In a lot of these places, good-pay­ing jobs and the dig­ni­ty that goes along with those good-pay­ing jobs has been replaced by suf­fer­ing and hope­less­ness and the belief that peo­ple in pow­er don’t real­ly care about them or their communities.”

Treat­ing the symptom

You can look at solu­tions to these epi­demics in two ways: aim­ing to fix the root caus­es or aim­ing to treat the symptoms.

Get­ting to the root of things would mean think­ing about the fac­tors that lead peo­ple down cer­tain paths, about poli­cies that redis­trib­ute wealth and pow­er, and so on. It would mean tack­ling a range of ques­tions that our pol­i­tics and media aren’t equipped to deal with in a seri­ous way. That leaves us with treat­ing the symptoms.

One solu­tion to gun vio­lence is to put more cops on the street. The con­ser­v­a­tive ral­ly­ing cry has been that we need not only more cops but more aggres­sive cops. The great advan­tage of this solu­tion is its sim­plic­i­ty. It’s an easy, pop­ulist talk­ing point, which is why a recent 60 Min­utes piece focused on it in a seg­ment about the gun vio­lence in Chica­go. It spot­light­ed an agree­ment between the ACLU and the city of Chica­go that reduced the num­ber of street stops by cops, and blamed it for the rise in gun-relat­ed deaths over the past year.

The ACLU of Illi­nois not­ed in a response that there is, in fact, no rela­tion­ship between street stops and a reduc­tion in crime. In New York City, the rela­tion­ship was actu­al­ly the reverse: crime dropped when the num­ber of stops dropped. The most effec­tive way to address vio­lence in poor, black neigh­bor­hoods is to address eco­nom­ic dis­par­i­ty and improve edu­ca­tion and youth pro­grams,” the ACLU said.

If the root-prob­lem reme­dies invoked by the ACLU aren’t an option, nei­ther is the most obvi­ous mit­i­gat­ing solu­tion: gun con­trol. Repub­li­cans still claim that Chica­go has the strictest gun-con­trol laws in the nation, but courts long ago struck down the laws that once dis­tin­guished Chica­go from most of the nation: a ban on hand­guns, for exam­ple, and an Illi­nois ban on con­cealed carry.

Gun con­trol is an imper­fect solu­tion, at best, to the epi­dem­ic. But in a more ratio­nal polit­i­cal cul­ture, some basic reforms would be high on the agen­da of the GOP, the pro-life” par­ty. Last year, a con­tro­ver­sial study pub­lished in The Lancet found that pass­ing three gun-con­trol laws nation­wide — uni­ver­sal back­ground checks for both gun pur­chas­es and ammu­ni­tion, and an ID sys­tem mak­ing it eas­i­er to trace weapons — would low­er firearm fatal­i­ties by 90 per­cent. Crit­ics dis­put­ed the method­ol­o­gy of the study. But the idea that such mea­sures would reduce gun deaths isn’t real­ly in doubt. It’s just a mat­ter of how much.

Hope­less politics

Chicago’s rep­u­ta­tion as the Left’s city,” as one con­ser­v­a­tive writer recent­ly put it, is more myth than real­i­ty. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic polit­i­cal machine that runs Chica­go seems main­ly inter­est­ed in keep­ing its grip on pow­er. Tar­get­ing the city’s struc­tur­al inequal­i­ties isn’t high on the agen­da of many lead­ers, least of all that of the may­or, Rahm Emmanuel, who has bur­nished his neolib­er­al cre­den­tials across a range of issues, most notably by clos­ing dozens of pub­lic schools in the city’s poor­est neighborhoods.

But in the cur­rent U.S. con­text, the low bar for being on the Left” is that you sup­port pub­lic pol­i­cy that actu­al­ly works to treat the symp­toms of struc­tur­al prob­lems. Being on the Right” means sup­port­ing pol­i­cy that doesn’t work, or has a mod­est effect, but is an easy polit­i­cal sell. Cut­ting tax­es to increase rev­enue, for exam­ple, or unleash­ing more — and more aggres­sive — cops to low­er crime rates.

We may be mov­ing toward that kind of a split on the opi­oid epi­dem­ic. Dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign, Clin­ton offered a detailed plan for fight­ing drug addic­tion. One pri­or­i­ty was to ensure that every per­son suf­fer­ing from drug or alco­hol addic­tion can obtain the com­pre­hen­sive, ongo­ing treat­ment he or she needs, and stay in recovery.”

And Trump? In his speech about the cri­sis, he gave pri­or­i­ty to law enforce­ment and to keep­ing drugs out of the coun­try. He would pur­sue and pun­ish drug traf­fick­ers, he promised, and close loop­holes that allow Chi­na and oth­ers to send dan­ger­ous drugs across our bor­ders in the hands of our own postal ser­vice.” Trump also promised to give peo­ple strug­gling with addic­tion access to the help they need,” and not­ed that Con­gress had already tak­en the first step by pass­ing the Com­pre­hen­sive Addic­tion and Recov­ery Act.”

That law, approved by Con­gress last year, passed by a near­ly unan­i­mous vote — a rare moment of bipar­ti­san agree­ment on solu­tions. Will that uni­ty last? Maybe. But one of the dev­as­tat­ing effects of the GOP’s pledge to repeal Oba­macare is that it would strip treat­ment from peo­ple with addic­tion prob­lems. It’s also not like­ly that the GOP-con­trolled Con­gress will make addic­tion treat­ment a pri­or­i­ty, what­ev­er replace­ment for Oba­macare it comes up with. On the cam­paign trail, Trump claimed that his wall along the U.S.-Mexico bor­der would help stem the tide of opi­oid over­dos­es. And it’s easy to see that claim becom­ing the cen­ter­piece of the GOP’s strat­e­gy for deal­ing with the epi­dem­ic: tighter bor­ders and harsh­er sentencing.

It’s iron­ic and all too famil­iar: the hope­less­ness that helped elect Trump breeds even more despon­den­cy. When the Right’s solu­tions don’t work, the prob­lem inspires more dem­a­goguery. We throw up our hands and claim that noth­ing can be done, oth­er than more aggres­sive law enforce­ment. The pol­i­tics of hope­less­ness rolls on.

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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