Have I “Downplayed” The Horrors Of Trump? A Self-Assessment
Being tethered to social media 24/7 as I am, I receive a constant deluge of criticism. I’m actually grateful for this because I believe external criticism is needed to keep one’s views and predilections in check. One regular criticism, leveled frequently by trolls but also on occasion by people who are fair-minded and well-intentioned, is that I have been far too easy on Trump. They claim I’ve “downplayed” Trump’s heinousness, and that my vociferous criticism of the Clintons can be interpreted as a de facto, passive endorsement of Trump. I can see how this impression might arise. Not everyone who follows my work knows every facet of my worldview (why would they?). I’ve now declared on countless occasions that I oppose Trump, but still: people infer what they want to infer.
So in the interest of self-criticism and assessment, I thought it might be worth interrogating the source of this impression. What is it about Trump that repels me less than it might others? I find Trump an ignoramus and a petty authoritarian, but I don’t agree that he’s a “fascist,” and I do believe much anti-Trump anger over the past 1.5 years has been hysterical and overwrought.
As a point of comparison, I absolutely loathed Mitt Romney. I thought he was the consummate fake, phony, and fraud. He might’ve been more “polite” than Trump, but he capitalized on much the same right-wing forces that Trump has capitalized on, albeit more brashly and directly. And who were Romney’s most ardent supporters? Investment bankers, private equity mavens, Country Club Republican types — all the people who were so very impressed by Romney as a corporate leader. That was Romney’s most committed demographic: recall that he far out-raised Obama on the Wall Street circuit in 2012. This repulsed me. (Wall Street overwhelmingly favors Hillary this year.)
Contrast that with Trump — who are his most ardent supporters? Generally, poor whites in Appalachia. If you had to select a demographic that could be characterized as the most enthusiastic about Trump, that would probably be it — maybe you could broaden it out to poor whites in general. So, poor whites in Staten Island and poor whites in southwest Virginia are roughly equally enthusiastic about Trump. That’s his most enthused “base,” so to say. A majority of these people probably voted for Romney as well, but they weren’t enthused by him at all, and many of them actually did *not* vote for Romney based on my conversations over the past couple days in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.
So I think an aspect of why I find Trump less heinous than many others is something like class solidarity. Lower class GOP voters have been abused by their party leadership for decades. They’ve been hoodwinked into supporting an unvarnished, corporate “free trade” agenda by duplicitous GOP operatives who got them exercised about Culture War crusades over school prayer, gay marriage, flag burning, and stuff like that. But they never got any economic benefit from this arrangement, because those very same GOP operatives favored trade deals like the ones Trump opposes.
Romney typified the duplicitous GOP strategy of using poor whites for electoral advantage without ever giving them anything in return. It was historically Democrats who funded infrastructure projects in places like West Virginia, where huge federal government subsidy is required to keep society operating. Trump is the ideal candidate for West Virginia because he’s in tune with their cultural sensibilities but also in tune with their economic needs (to some degree), at least in the sense that he wants to subsidize their infrastructure just as much as an old-time Robert Byrd-style Democrat might. (Yes, I’m aware that Trump also promises a massive tax cut for the wealthy, so there’s some tension in this view.)
I hate, hate, hate the way that poor whites are demonized in the media. They are mocked and disdained by cultural elites; there’s simply no way to deny this. The same people who’d never dream of demonizing poor blacks eagerly crack nasty jokes about poor whites. In my view, neither should be mocked. Conservatives who mock poor blacks are equally despicable. Given that poor whites have gotten such a raw deal, and given that they are the most ardent demographic for Trump, I think this translates into my feeling a measure of nebulous class solidarity, which can partially explain why my revulsion to Trump is lesser than most.
Then there’s my frustration with the reticence to reckon with certain aspects of his candidacy. Take a look at this quote:
And this new ad:
And remember this exchange?
It’s fine to oppose Trump. More than fine: I oppose him too. There are good reasons to desire Trump’s loss, and to prefer a Hillary victory. But the utter refusal to grapple with certain elements of Trump’s candidacy, and this insistence that everyone focus solely on his crass personal comportment, is just absurd. If you can’t acknowledge that he’s leveling a critique of the current political/financial/military order in a way that Romney could never dream of doing, you’re just denying reality and thus failing to grasp the full significance of his candidacy. Purely from an analytical standpoint, you’re derelict. That the media has no interest whatsoever in elucidating these aspects of Trump’s program, and instead prefer to stay unwaveringly fixated on his personal traits, is just infuriating to me. Sure: cover the personal traits. They are significant. But all sense of proportion has been lost. (See my September article in the Daily Beast on the media’s blindspot in this regard.)
Then, there’s probably a personal component to this. I grew up in Northern New Jersey around working-to-middle class ethnic whites, many of whom are conservative. This would be Trump’s core demographic (along with the poor Appalachian whites mentioned above). So I intuitively know the type of guys who would be super pumped for Trump. They’re generally not bad guys — rough around the edges, sure, but not inherently evil. My own grandpa, a 95-year-old Italian-American in Northern New Jersey, strongly supports Trump. I do not remember him ever strongly supporting any politician (other than Franklin Roosevelt). This has to inform my views in some sense, even if only unconsciously.
Back to Romney for a moment — one thing that always bugged me about him was that he got the GOP nomination in 2012 by the most painfully traditional method: going around to all the correct interest groups and “influencers,” seeking the endorsement of banal operatives and politicians, raising a boatload of money from lobbyists, etc. The “invisible primary” was where Romney shined. Four years later, Trump blew up that entire corrupt process. He won the GOP primary as a populist insurgent. (You can debate the extent to which Trump can be deemed a “populist,” but it’s not debatable that he won the GOP primary by enlivening dormant populist sentiment — some ugly, some rooted in genuine grievance.) In winning the GOP primary Trump achieved something that we have never seen in the history of US politics. Nobody’s ever come close to pulling off what he did — seizing a major party nomination by such unconventional methods. Again, that’s not an endorsement of his tactics, it’s just an acknowledgment that he was a break from hoary old political structures as personified by Romney. (Hillary also personifies this — she attained the Democratic nomination by doing the same things Romney did in 2008/2012 — working the corrupt, behind-the-scenes machination game.)
So I think these are some reasons why I might be perceived as “downplaying” Trump. Maybe there are additional ones that will come to me later. In sum, I found Romney exceptionally more repugnant, and I think there are aspects of Trump that have been systematically “downplayed” by the predominant media narratives.