Where We Go From Here, Part 2: What Do We Owe the Victors?
The Sunday after the election, I was at a meeting with a group of highly educated, progressive Jews. We were working, but we were also still processing the unimaginable. Rather than letting the election hover like a dark cloud over our daylong session, we carved out time to address it head on.
Going around the circle, folks expressed their grief, their shock, their fear. But they also expressed a desire to understand The Other — the surely pained, forgotten voter for whom Trump’s message resonated. These voters were willing to put aside Trump’s xenophobia, his misogyny, his caricaturing of Black experience and his mocking of the disabled because, finally, someone was speaking to their feeling of being left behind. We should move forward with passion for equality, but we should also move forward with radical empathy. We must extend love to Trump voters — to understand them, and, someday, to win them over to our side.
Where was this empathy and understanding from GOP voters when Barack Obama won in 2008? Where is their empathy for trans youth, 50% of whom attempt suicide; for Black Lives Matter protestors, attempting to foreground the fear that Americans of color feel every day simply walking around in their own skin; for children of undocumented immigrants, whose families will be torn apart under the regime of Jeff Sessions and Kris Kobach; for the Muslim-Americans threatened with registration with Japanese internment cited as a precedent? Where is the empathy for victims of the election-driven surge in hate crimes?
(As Vox’s Matt Yglesias wrote in a what appears to be a now-deleted tweet: “I remember when Obama won twice and Republicans undertook a lot of soul-searching to be more understanding of liberal America.”)
I told the group I had no desire to be radically empathetic — I just wanted our side to win. Besides, there are more of us than there are of them: we don’t need to pander to voters who chose to embolden and empower hate and ignorance.
Sure, it’s good catharsis — but is it good strategy?
Why She Lost
If Trump’s victory were truly a referendum on the sometimes slow but lately steady expansion of rights and opportunity to Americans of all colors and sexes and creeds, then we might need a wholesale reevaluation of our message and our strategy. We’d have to dig deep to understand the legitimate grievances of the voters left behind and reformulate our politics to serve them better.
But it wasn’t. The white voters — well-off and well-educated — who powered Trump’s slim margins in the few key states that tipped the balance are not the ones left behind by global capitalism.
What these voters had in common was their distrust of Hillary Clinton — and, ultimately, a willingness to look past Trump’s lack of qualification or temperament in order to reject Her:
Among a book’s worth of remarkable results is the fact that a minority of voters, 38 percent, rated Trump as qualified to serve as president. (Fifty-two percent saw Clinton as qualified.) Indeed 23 percent of Trump’s own voters described him as unqualified…even among his own supporters, 20 percent saw him unfavorably; again, almost all of them saw Clinton unfavorably as well. Partisan hostility was almost unanimous: 95 percent of Clinton supporters saw Trump negatively, and 95 percent of Trump’s said the same of Clinton.
This thesis — that the election was more about Hillary Clinton (and the unique mix of misogyny and a media-enabled permission structure that allowed reasonable people to see her as equally bad as, or worse than, Trump) — is reinforced by new evidence. As Jennifer Granholm noted on Twitter, the number of straight-ticket Democratic voters in Michigan who left the top of the ticket blank was far greater than Trump’s margin of victory in the state:
They didn’t love Trump, they just hated Hillary. But all right, I’ve written enough about the marginal Republican-leaners and otherwise persuadable voters who ended up casting their ballots against Hillary.
What about the voters who enthusiastically — or at least neutrally-to-positively — voted for Trump? They saw something in him that they liked. If we can speak that language, too, then we can persuade them to our side.
This is the assumption that the liberal voices rejecting “identity politics” are working under. Democrats’ focus on the coalition of groups marginalized and disadvantaged in America (each marginalized and disadvantaged in different ways) is preventing us from speaking to the voters refreshed by Trump’s anti-PC message.
A less identity-focused, more populist message — like that favored by Mark Lilla and Bernie Sanders — could bring those voters back into our tent. Right?
Economic Anxiety — or Whitelash?
Voters who cared about the economy preferred Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly:
in 22 of those 27 states [that have exit polling] a majority of people said that the economy was the most important issue. And in 20 of those states, voters who said so preferred Hillary Clinton. In 17, in fact, a majority of those voters backed Clinton.
Meanwhile, voters who cared most about immigration or terrorism picked Trump, and by wider margins. (Hillary was also preferred by voters who picked “foreign policy” more generally as their key issue.)
These results resonate with broader social science findings and analysis about the Trump Coalition.
I already discussed how sexism was the primary predictor of Trump support in one study; in others, racial resentment was the powerful correlate: “Racial attitudes may play a larger role in opinions toward Trump than once thought. Economic concerns, on the other hand, don’t seem to have as much of an impact on support for Trump.”
As described by Philip Klinkner of Hamilton College, “those who express more resentment toward African Americans, those who think the word ‘violent’ describes Muslims well, and those who believe President Obama is a Muslim have much more positive views of Trump compared with Clinton.”
Meanwhile, a Pew survey found that the “biggest predictor of Trump support among Republican and Republican-leaning voters was a belief that ‘the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens U.S. values.’”
Trump didn’t refresh these voters with his “populism” (lately demonstrated by his cabinet of billionaires). He refreshed them with his revanchism.
Michelle Goldberg expanded on the social science studies in an incisive Slate piece on Trump’s mainstreaming of hate and his appeal to those who feel it:
The spasms of unchained bigotry we’ve seen post-election suggest that some Trump supporters were simply longing to howl NIGGER! KIKE! CUNT! FAGGOT! Among those I spoke to, however, some felt bullied for violating more arcane speech rules they neither assented to nor understood. Social media had forced them to submit to an alien set of norms; Trump liberated them.
…The Friday after the election, I was a guest on the Brian Lehrer radio show, speaking to women who voted for Trump. One caller, a mother from Connecticut who’d worked in automotive and construction management, insisted: “Most women that have to deal with households vote for the economy. It’s economic issues that drive us.” But when pressed on Trump’s economic policies, she shifted to a denunciation of oversensitive college students who needed time off to process the election results. “It grieves me that these college students are all being given passes out of classes for an election,” she said, the heat in her voice rising.
Trump voters don’t care that he eats frog legs at the 21 Club, but they hate that the cast of Hamilton can ask for tolerance from Mike Pence after the curtain call.
This revanchism makes sense as a “whitelash” to Obama’s ascension — the last gasp of a white-majority America. This was Carol Anderson’s conclusion in Time:
White rage got us here. While the economic anxiety of Trump supporters is often touted as the driving force behind the mogul’s electoral college victory, that rationale is just a ruse, a clever red herring. The median income of a Trump supporter is more than $70,000 per year, which is well above the national average, and a 2016 study noted that it would take African Americans 228 years to equal the wealth of whites in the U.S. Clearly, Trump’s pathway into the Oval Office is not really about white economic angst. Rather, Barack Obama’s election — and its powerful symbolism of black advancement — was the major trigger for the policy backlash that led to Donald Trump, and which has now put America’s national security at risk.
Or as American Dad! once aptly noted, many voters miss when white men had all of the power instead of just most of it.
It’s exhausting. By now the jokes about the “economic anxiety” that must be plaguing the perpetrators of hate crimes — and the Republican politicians moving to restrict the rights of people of color, women, and LGBT Americans — is so worn out that we’re commenting on the staleness of the genre while asking Republicans to repudiate literal American Nazis.
Can We Change Our Discourse?
But maybe Trump voters’ resentment is driven by elite discourse that focuses on bathrooms and black lives? Surely we can focus less on our differences and more on our common class-based concerns, if that will serve to capture these fragile-ego-ed white voters?
Many progressive thinkers have responded to the call to trade in intersectionality for populism (click through for the full threads):
A shared thread of these threads (Twitter humor!) is that “identity politics” is an invention of whites and the GOP — it is the decision to disadvantage and disenfranchise groups that aren’t straight white cis-men that is the original sin of identity politics. Our job is to fight against those deprivations, different for each group in our coalition.
Nikole Hannah Jones captures this in a thread excerpted in a Vox piece on the difference between “identity politics” and tokenism:
And Lindy West slayed with her post to this point on Facebook:
Or as Sally Kohn wrote in response to Lilla:
Liberalism’s success in America is the story of expanding rights to systematically disenfranchised and disadvantaged groups as a central part of broadening access to opportunity for all. When women come into the workforce and get paid equally and are supported when they have kids, when gays and lesbians can get married and live and work and serve openly, when black families can access the same housing and healthcare and lives free from constant fear of police violence, everyone wins.
The problem is the perception amongst so many straight white men (and women) that these gains are their losses. They are not reacting to the “rhetoric” of progress — they are reacting to the progress.
Moira Weigel dismantles the myth of “political correctness” in The Guardian, confirming that this rhetorical boogeyman is merely a straw man for the right to rebel against — a stand-in for the expansion of power to typically disempowered groups.
Where’s the evidence that rejecting the intersectionality will undo racial resentment and sexism amongst people with $70,000 incomes? All it will do is screw over the base and staunchest warriors of the progressive movement.
Back Back to Empathy
Not all Trump voters are misogynists and racists, surely. Even if we acknowledge that those base instincts were more powerful predictors of his support than broadly economic concerns, and even if we decide to stick with an intersectional understanding of politics, calling out Trump voters for empowering authoritarian hate may only retrench them further away from our electoral grasp.
Jamelle Bouie nails why I don’t care:
Whether Trump’s election reveals an “inherent malice” in his voters is irrelevant. What is relevant are the practical outcomes of a Trump presidency. Trump campaigned on state repression of disfavored minorities. He gives every sign that he plans to deliver that repression. This will mean disadvantage, immiseration, and violence for real people, people whose “inner pain and fear” were not reckoned worthy of many-thousand-word magazine feature stories. If you voted for Trump, you voted for this, regardless of what you believe about the groups in question. That you have black friends or Latino colleagues, that you think yourself to be tolerant and decent, doesn’t change the fact that you voted for racist policy that may affect, change, or harm their lives. And on that score, your frustration at being labeled a racist doesn’t justify or mitigate the moral weight of your political choice.
…Hate and racism have always been the province of “good people.” To treat Trump voters as presumptively innocent — even as they hand power to a demagogic movement of ignorance and racism — is to clear them of moral responsibility for whatever happens next, even if it’s violence against communities of color. Even if, despite the patina of law, it is essentially criminal. It is to absolve Trump’s supporters of any blame or any fault. Yes, they put a white nationalist in power. But the consequences? Well, it’s not what they wanted.
We owe Trump voters no empathy until Trump and his party repay us with theirs.
In the meantime, our mission must be to push back the forces of hate and revanchism and to protect our progress. And this starts with recognizing the true factors that drove Hillary’s loss (such as it was) and Trump’s popularity (such as it is).
We must not privilege the few who see the American values of equality, opportunity, and tolerance as un-American, or to operate as if straight white male identity is the default state of things.
There are more of us than there are of them. Let’s be louder. Let’s fight harder. And let’s save our empathy for those who need it most.