I recall a conversation I had in the fall of 1998 with a student after the bank management class I was teaching at Saginaw Valley State. The issue was the stagnation of middle-class wages and increasing wealth disparities in the last few decades.
The idea in my mind at the time is that "information-economy" jobs had benefited by the computers and shipping logistics (FedEx, container shipping, et al.) that helped define the last two decades of the 20th century. Information-workers could use those changes to leverage their abilities in ways that blue-collar workers dealing with things rather than ideas couldn't. In fact, blue-collar manufacturing jobs tended to be losers in the evolving economy, as cheaper shipping made using lower-cost foreign labor more doable, shrinking American jobs in the process.
That's only gotten more pronounced in the intervening 17.4 years. The Web was just starting to take off when I had that conversation; now three companies that wouldn't exist without the Web (Google/Alphabet, Facebook and Amazon) are among the eight biggest companies as of the end of 2015. Three other firms in that top 8 (Microsoft, Apple and insurance-centic Berkshire Hathaway) have few blue-collar jobs in the US, leaving only GE and Exxon-Mobil as companies that would actually do significant manufacturing in the US.
GDP has been tech-driven as of late, which helps the folks who are college-educated, but not so much the folks with lesser degrees of education.
That division can be seen in the political emergence of The Donald. The upscale punditry lives in a information-economy bubble and falls into the trap of saying "no one I know supports him." Rod Dreher has a nice piece on that effect.
Last summer, as my father lay dying, I sat by his hospital bed watching a Trump rally in Mobile with him and my mother. I listened to the things Trump was saying, and thought it was absurd, and surely the American people would wake up to the demagoguery. But my parents liked what he had to say. Trump’s words resonated with their own thoughts and experiences.
You know what? They might have been wrong in their political judgment. I believe they were. The point here is not that my parents were wrong and I was right. The point is that I could not grasp how anybody could believe what Trump was saying. Nobody I knew from my circle of intellectual conservatives could grasp it either. We assumed it would evaporate. And here we are, on the verge of the Iowa caucuses, with Trump poised to sweep to the nomination.
Neither party has much to offer old-school blue-collar folks. Democrats can play to class warfare or multicultural issues and Republicans can bash the liberal establishment's values, but neither hold much hope for making the economy better for mature blue-collar folks.
Trump appeals to an ethnocentric patriotism that strikes a chord with blue-collar whites, who are more adversely affected by both free trade and open immigration than the friends of the pundit class. Since there are few blue-collar pundits, only first-generation elites have ties to blue-collar folks who can remind them how the other half lives.
A generation ago, reporting and punditry had more folks with blue-collar roots. I recall Mike Royko trotting out his old-school altar ego, Slats Grobnik, to have a conversation about the issues of the day. Slats might well have been a Trump supporter. Alas, Royko has passed on, and the next generation of pundits are generally more removed from a blue-collar milieu.
My grandpa Kraenzlein, WWII vet, auto mechanic turned car salesman (when his back gave out) would have gotten along with Slats. My mom shares that blue-collar paleoconservative streak despite having a BA in teaching, so I have one Trump fan causing me to chew my food and bite my tongue at the same time at dinner.
I don't like Trump (I don't say that much of folks even if I disagree with them), but I understand his appeal.