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Here’s what Trump is telling resentful Americans (and Sanders is not)

- March 15, 2016
Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump take photos of his plane as Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport in Vienna, Ohio. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)

John Kasich may be a favorite son in Ohio, but Donald Trump should still do well there today. Resentment in the Rust Belt is real, and Trump’s campaign capitalizes on that.

Changes in the economy mean that a broad swath of the electorate is working hard, but still struggling. Many people can’t live a stable and comfortable life doing the work their parents and grandparents did. And as I’ve found in the research described below, it bothers them.

The resentment is not just economic, however. Yes, they feel that they are not getting their fair share of this country’s money and economic growth. But they also believe they don’t get the attention and respect they deserve. And someone must be to blame.

Donald Trump bluntly tells voters that they are right: They are not getting what they deserve. And he has pointed his finger at numerous offenders, including the government, immigrants and Muslims, to name a few. He’s a master of the politics of resentment. This style of politics taps into voters’ sense of injustice and loss and mobilizes people by offering targets to blame.

Bernie Sanders doesn’t benefit from these resentments in the same way, despite how many pundits claim that voter anger benefits both Trump and Sanders. The politics of resentment favors candidates on the right.

That’s because it’s easier to mobilize resentment against the government, rather than for it.

Many people think government spending is why they are suffering

In the Rust Belt, many people believe in a common story line: Working hard no longer gets you what you deserve because of government spending.

I have heard how this works over and over in dozens of communities across Wisconsin for almost a decade. I have been studying public opinion there since 2007 by inviting myself into 39 groups gathering in coffee klatches, gas stations, diners, and churches in 27 communities across the state.

Even before the Great Recession, people told me that they were working hard to make ends meet, and their taxes continued to climb. Where was their money going? They didn’t believe it was coming back to them.

Here’s how they saw it: Working class whites told me that although they could not afford health insurance for their own families, they were nevertheless expected to pay taxes so that public employees could have health care. To add insult to injury, they told me, those folks did not even seem to work very hard. They sit at desks, rather than working with their hands. They shower before work, not afterward. And public school teachers and university faculty got summers off!

That resentment set the stage for enthusiastic support for a candidate who seeks to dismantle government and constrict the benefits going to public employees. And so Scott Walker became governor in 2010. That resentment is why he was able to quickly implement legislation that weakened public employee unions and required those employees to pay substantially higher contributions to their health care and pension benefits.

That controversial legislation resulted in massive rallies, a series of recall elections of state senators, and an attempted recall of Walker himself. But Walker survived that election and a reelection, and launched a presidential campaign. Walker may not have become the Republican nominee, but he demonstrated that tapping into resentment is an effective way for candidates who advocate limited government to gain power.

Trump is using Scott Walker’s strategies better than Walker did

What happened in Wisconsin is now happening nationwide.

Trump is capitalizing on that same resentment, and blaming others for voters’ sense of being dismissed, disrespected, and left behind. This is how Donald Trump will win the Rust Belt, and probably the Republican nomination. He is turning up the flame under resentment that has been simmering for years. The strategy will likely continue to work, despite the Republican Party’s attempts to put out the fire.

Katherine Cramer is a professor of political science and director of the Morgridge Center for Public Service at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, author of The Politics of Resentment (University of Chicago Press, 2016), and member of the Scholars Strategy Network.