A flag flies at half-staff

A flag flies at half-staff near Darrington, Washington March 30, 2014.


Ted S. Warren/Reuters

In 2013, author George Packer declared that the game was rigged against people who don't have access, don't have connections and don't know how to play the system.

Seems awfully prescient today, no? Packer, a New Yorker staff writer, wrote those lines for his book, "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America." But his crystallization of the woes of the mostly white, lower class demographic that elected Donald J. Trump, was ahead of its time.

Packer hasn’t stopped following that story, and in his pre-election New Yorker piece, "Hilary Clinton and the Popular Revolt," he explores Clinton’s inability to access the demographic that Trump’s success so thoroughly depended on. 

“What I saw was a sense of utter disconnection from power, from the people making decisions, whether in Washington or in New York, in the media, in business, technology, and especially government. And a resentment, a sense of you’ve forgotten about us, we don’t count anymore, our way of life doesn’t seem to matter,” Packer said “His emergence was not a surprise — his victory was.”

Packer traveled the country extensively to write his book, which is comprised of several individual profiles of Americans from various economic conditions, whose hometowns range from Youngstown, Ohio to Silicon Valley. “An epic retelling of American history, a kind of fantasia,” is how one critic described it, and it’s arguably more relevant now than when it won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2013.

“The Republicans were too pro-business and there was a lot of anger at corporations leaving the country, and the Democrats were too collectivist, too pro-government,” he said this morning, “so neither party had an answer and this year we’ve seen the establishment of each party repudiated. Trump represented a middle finger to the Republican establishment, and now Trump’s victory is an 'F you' to both party establishments.”

Packer says Trump’s truest strength — a mastery of political rhetoric — is what allowed him to tap into the energy of the electorate.   

But Packer also questions his own institution, the media, citing the lack of trust in journalism that has been a hallmark of the 2016 election. Institutions, whether media or government, he says, are no longer seen as sources of protection by the general public. And this trend goes back further than the 2016 election cycle.

According to a 2015 Gallup poll, which ranked confidence in institutions, “Only the military and small business are currently rated higher than their historical norms.” Confidence in the presidency is down to 33 percent, newspapers are down to 24 percent, and Congress is down to 8 percent, each lower than their historical average.

Packer draws focus to another institution, the Electoral College, by referring to it as “an odd, antiquated thing out of the constitution that doesn’t serve any purpose other than to deny the majority its will in a presidential election.” That particular institution has drawn withering criticism of late, with the New York Times connecting its creation to slavery, and Vice News pointing out Trump himself referring to it as a “sham” and a “travesty” in 2012, although it won him the election on Tuesday.

But the focus of the interview and the New Yorker piece remains soundly on the notion of understanding Trump’s supporters. “Most of his critics are too reasonable to fathom his fury-driven campaign. Many don’t know a single Trump supporter. But to fight Trump you have to understand his appeal,” Packer wrote in the nearly 13,000-word story.

When asked if the trust in institutions is restorable, Packer said he was torn. “I want there to be a revival of faith in democracy, but I don’t see how it can happen when it seems to keep spiraling downward.”

This story was first published by PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.

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