Tribalism run amok: Now Donald Trump voters are worried he might take their Obamacare away

Rural whites should have figured out that the GOP will slash their benefits -- now they'll find out the hard way

Published December 15, 2016 9:59AM (EST)

 (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Sarah Kliff had a fascinating story in Vox on Tuesday about Donald Trump voters in Kentucky who are very concerned to learn that the president-elect plans to  follow through on his campaign promise to repeal Obamacare. Wait, you are probably screaming right now as you wipe coffee off your computer screen, these voters didn’t think he would really repeal Obamacare?

Well, no, they apparently did not.

Kliff spent a few days in southeastern Kentucky talking to Trump voters who have been able to sign up for health insurance under Obamacare. Along the way she drops some great informational nuggets, such as that the uninsured rate in Whitley County dropped from 25 percent in 2013 to 10 percent now, and that overall Kentucky is tied with West Virginia for the largest drop in the uninsured rate among all 50 states. Such facts seem designed to drive anyone mad who wonders why rural dwellers voted “against their own interests” by pulling the lever in large numbers for the carrot-colored menace. (Trump won 82 percent of the vote in that same Whitley County.)

Seen through the eyes of the people Kliff highlights, though, voting for Trump seems almost rational. These voters all had multiple reasons for supporting the Republican candidate, some of which had to do with Obamacare and some of which did not.

There was an assumption that Trump was lying about repealing the healthcare law, because so many politicians make promises they have no intention of keeping. There was a belief that he would never get rid a program that had genuinely helped them. There was anger at the high premiums and huge deductibles of their plans and an assumption that Trump, with his business background, would figure out how to fix them. And there were those who figured a change at the top was needed to help their little strip of Kentucky, which has been battered by recession and the closing of coal mines, rebound economically.

That last reason seems to have allowed voters to rationalize away the gnawing doubts about the possibility that Trump really meant what he said about repealing Obamacare. Call it selective hearing. It reminded me a bit of the reaction by some on the left to President Obama’s call early in his administration to send additional troops to Afghanistan. Though he had explicitly promised before the election of 2008 to up the troop levels in that country to the tune of at least two additional combat brigades, some of his supporters who had heard him call Iraq “a dumb war” and assumed he meant that about all wars reacted with horror.

It was yet another lesson for voters that applies to life in general: When someone tells you who they are, believe them.

But what struck me about Kliff’s piece was that it spent no time looking at some of the other political players who will help Trump repeal Obamacare. Or have already started doing so.

For example, the article never mentions Kentucky governor Matt Bevin. One of Bevin’s campaign promises in 2015 was that he would demolish Kynect, the state Obamacare exchange built under the administration of previous governor Steve Beshear, and force residents onto the federal exchange. He also promised to reverse the Medicaid expansion, which had been part of the Affordable Care Act. In the year since his election, he has followed through on shutting down Kynect. He did, however, have to back off somewhat on his promise to roll back the Medicaid expansion, after some of the 440,000 voters Kentuckians who benefited from that program realized he was actually serious about reversing it. Which one might think would have made them a tad more cautious when it came to Trump’s promises on Obamacare.

The article also makes no mention of Kentucky’s two senators, Rand Paul and the execrable Mitch McConnell. This is particularly egregious in the case of McConnell, who led the GOP’s resistance to passing the ACA in the Senate in 2009 and 2010 and has been promising to repeal it ever since. He eventually rode that promise to the job of Senate majority leader when Republicans recaptured the chamber in the 2014 midterm elections. During his re-election campaign that same year, McConnell called for the full repeal of Obamacare. He won 75 percent of the vote in Whitley County.

Paul also has called for full repeal, particularly when he rode into the Senate in 2010 on a Tea Party wave that was driven in part by anger over the law’s passage. He continued calling for a repealing during his brief run for the presidential nomination this year, and then again during his successful re-election campaign this fall. He also won about 75 percent of the vote in Whitley County.

It’s true, as Matt Yglesias said, that even if the individual voters in Kliff’s piece had voted for Hillary Clinton, the Democrat still would not have been competitive in Kentucky. But well before Trump appeared on the scene, Kentucky voters had spent the entire Obama administration overwhelmingly voting to send the ACA’s sworn enemies to Congress to kill it, even as they themselves were benefiting from the law. It apparently never occurred to them that they might be seeding the ground for repeal. As long as they stuck it to the big-government coastal elites of the Democratic Party, not much else mattered.

It is hard to recall a more obvious case of voters prizing tribal identity over rational, transactional policy priorities. It has left some on the left angry and frustrated and others furious at that anger and frustration. What it has not done is present any coherent strategy to counter voting behavior that seems irrational. With the level of partisan polarization this country is experiencing, to accompany a real weakening of democratic institutions in the Age of Trump, it is hard to imagine any. That's the ultimate frustration, and we will be living with it for the foreseeable future.

By Gary Legum

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