Are Trumpists (Just) Dumb Racists?

Or, Why Economics Matters in the Rise of Demagoguery

Every ten days or so, the media settles comfortably into a new narrative to try to explain the puzzling rise and rise of Trumpism. This week’s is: Trumpists are just dumb ole racists. Sorry: I don’t think it’s that simple. And because its oversimplistic, I think it’s a particularly useless narrative.

If we’re to believe Trumpists are just dumb racists, we must also think it’s a coincidence that an authoritarian movement is going mainstream at precisely, exactly the moment that the American middle class suddenly became a minority — just like a fire alarm went off by sheer dumb luck at exactly 9AM. That’s a mighty big coincidence.

If you’re to believe Trumpists are just dumb racists, you must also believe that it’s just a coincidence that Trump’s support lines up almost perfectly geographically with the shattered ruins of a once thriving industrial economy. That’s another mighty big coincidence.

Finally, you must also believe the converse: that non-Trumpists aren’t just dumb racists. That it’s just yet another huge coincidence that people in rich and prosperous parts of the US — Washington, DC, Manhattan, Palo Alto, etc — aren’t Trumpists. After all, the cause is racism…not poverty and despair that fuel racism, right? Perhaps you’re already beginning to see what a poor narrative this is, and how it lets down our ability to make sense of the world.

There’s a subtler, and truer explanation for Trumpism. Poverty and decline are hothouses for rage and hatred. Nothing breeds extremism like economic stagnation and social decay. Trumpists are right about one very important fact: they have been failed by leaders, institutions, and the Dream has become a Nightmare.

America’s now a dynastic caste society. If you’re born in a one-horse post industrial wasteland, odds are, you’re never getting out. Your birth is your destiny, and if you have the misfortune to suffer the three Ps — if you’re born poor, post-industrial, and plebeian (read: not from a professional family), your birthright is a desperate life that’s more reminiscent of the third world than rich nations.

So many Trumpists are indeed racists. Yet in that, how different are they really from the well-heeled Manhattan or DC or San Francisco bourgeoisie that politely shrugs at a city full of starving homeless minorities? The difference is one of degree — but not of kind. So racism is a proximate cause, not an ultimate cause, of Trumpists’ newfound political ascendancy. The ultimate cause of American political extremism today is stagnation and decline — that is what allows us to better distinguish Trumpists from non-Trumpists.

To think otherwise is to believe yet again in the tired old myth of American exceptionalism. Extremism isn’t unique to America. It’s a rising global tide — and it’s found everywhere that middle classes are anxious, insecure, and afraid, from the UK to Turkey to Holland to France. Does that mean I’m excusing racism and xenophobia? Of course not. I’m pointing out that it’s not uniquely American, and thus unless you believe that all those people in the world suddenly magically turned racist simultaneously, oh sometime last year, there’s probably more to the story than that.

What do stagnation and decline do? They bring those ugly feelings to the surface, and make it easier for leaders to scapegoat minorities for the failures of their institutions. That is, it’s easy for a demagogue to say, during times of famine, “them!! they’re responsible for our empty bellies!!”, and for people to believe it.

So. When the media carefully constructs a narrative that extremists are just dumb hicks, flatulent racists, they’re also giving leaders a free pass for…everything…imploding the middle class, driving the poor into penury, losing an entire generation, and mismanaging the economy into oblivion. Because such a narrative implicitly suggests that the fault lies with the dumb, mean, bumpkins — not the leaders that failed them, and the broken institutions which shackle them. And so we never gain a truer and more sophisticated understanding of what went wrong in the first place, of how people’s buried resentments suddenly boil over into living rage and newborn hate.

Oversimplification, caricature, reductionism — those are precisely the problems with this narrative. You can’t fight authoritarianism merely by calling people stupid, terrible, or evil. It never works. You must at least try to understand what lies beneath their hate, and beyond their rage.

March 2016

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