The big question: How should we treat Trump voters?
During the first week of my freshman year of college, I was an instant convert to the nuclear freeze movement. One night, I toiled into the wee hours in my dorm room stenciling a handmade poster (this was the 1980s) that said: “We’re not Communists and we’re not homosexuals…We just want to prevent a nuclear holocaust.” Permission to wince.
I succeeded in drawing a few dozen students to the meeting, after which a graduate student quietly took me aside and critiqued my poster’s expressions of homophobia and red-baiting, two concepts unfamiliar to me but that I immediately understood to be harmful, hurtful and strictly avoided. The grad student criticized me straightforwardly and casually—no shaming, no grandstanding, no righteous indignation. As a result, I took her advice to heart and became a lifelong progressive activist.
I could have withdrawn in shame, or worse, joined a conservative campus group that would lick the wounds inflicted by the politically correct police. But her skill in gently and non-judgmentally schooling me allowed me to make a graceful and necessary pivot.
Oh, if only we could clone that grad student.
If you’re a liberal or progressive who’s been obsessively consuming Trumpocalypse post-mortems for the past nine months, you know that voters (fewer than half of them!) voted for Trump for a handful of reasons. Trump’s base included rich Republicans protecting their wealth, as they do in every election, and white “middle Americans” poisoned by an overdose of economic backsliding and (often racist) “cultural” anxiety. Republican wealth preservation is a time-honored tradition that there’s very little we can do about. But if we’re going to win back disaffected working-class swing voters—and win some of them back we must—we brokenhearted lefties have to learn how to talk to them, and about them, in ways that don’t come across as insufferably superior.
November 9 had barely dawned before my contempt level began registering in the 90th percentile. As I binged on articles and blogs and Facebook rants, my contempt was validated a hundredfold: Who were These People, these crazy, racist, misogynist, gun-toting morons who voted for a self-aggrandizing monosyllabic, bilious, billionaire charlatan who would obviously stab them in the back while they sat in front of their TVs being lobotomized by Sean Hannity while swilling non-craft beer?
In fact, I knew nothing about These People, and at the same time, I knew all I needed to know—they were backwards, brainwashed rednecks who prefer cleavage to pantsuits and Ann Coulter’s vicious racism to Stephen Colbert’s satirical genius; people who eat a lot of meat but not because they’re following the Paleo diet, who spread margarine on their toast, the clueless throwbacks. And they deserve to go down with their titanic mistake.
Ouch. My classist caricature is only marginally less destructive than the lethal condemnation of the “underclass” by the high-born “Never Trump” conservatives of the National Review who lament Trump’s hijacking of the very decent and classy GOP:
“The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin… [T]he truth about these dysfunctional downscale communities is that they deserve to die.”
We expect such malice from old-school wealthy Republicans who’ve been waging class war against poor people for decades. But classism lurks in liberal circles as well.
One harangue in Mel Magazine was pretty typical of the post-11/9 era, though doubly painful because the writer pretends to try to reach across the aisle:
“I’m privileged enough to feel a little sad for you. Behind your back, political businessmen call you ‘low-information voters’ …They examined your aesthetic choices and gave you a cheap little hat to wear so you could feel like you belonged to a winning team.
“Maybe you’re on opiates or depressed or unemployed or some combination of the three. Most of the people that commit random acts of gun violence look like you. And ever since big media recognized the marketing power of targeting audiences of color, you’ve been sad to see less stories about yourself on TV. Years ago, Donald Trump pegged you as the group easiest to convince of anything.
“I want to have enough love for you to try to organize you, at least the young ones…
“I want to engage with you so you’re less likely to harm people who don’t look like us.”
Liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote about the “chumps” and “losers” who “shot themselves in the face” and “basically destroyed their own lives” by voting for someone who would take away their health insurance. New York Times readers chimed in to a Nicholas Kristof op-ed about Trump voters with comments similar to many that graced my Facebook feed: “I’m just going to say it, I hate these people. They are stupid and selfish. Screw them. Lose your jobs, sit home and die.”
Kristof criticized such sentiment, pointing out that Trump voters he interviewed had many motivations for choosing Trump, including being derided as “ignorant bumpkins” by Democrats. “The vilification of these voters is a gift to Trump,” Kristof concludes, then goes on to remind us what should be obvious: Denigrating Trump supporters as “despicable, bigoted imbeciles” is not likely to win them over. On the contrary, it’s what allows the right wing to mobilize resentment so effectively.
White liberals’ contempt for “despicable, bigoted imbeciles” is not purely a function of our intolerance of bigotry—if that were the case, “despicable bigot” would have sufficed. The addition of “imbecile” speaks volumes.
Expressing contempt feels pretty darn good in the moment, the way cramming a cupcake into your mouth feels good and then later not so good and before long you want another cupcake. Contempt is junk food for the soul, and, for lefties whose souls have been battered daily for nearly a full year now, it’s an irresistible treat.
This highly addictive contempt fix compels otherwise fair and just-minded liberals to disrespect white-trash rednecks in flyover states, a habit that went into overdrive in the run-up to the 2016 election. I believe that this contempt, joined at the hip with neo-liberal policy incantations that throw blue-collar tradespeople of all ethnicities under the bus, is the reason white working-class conservatives resent us, call us “liberal elites,” “snowflakes” and “lib-tards.” It’s why they purchase T-shirts classifying blue states as “Dumbfuckistan” and circulate internet memes like this one:
They hate us, but they like the cartoon plutocrat Trump. How can this be?
Much has been made of the false and nativist promises Trump made to These People—the jobs he would create, so many jobs, the wall, such a huge and beautiful wall—and there is little doubt in my mind that many of These People are racists whose attachment to white supremacy was profoundly threatened by eight years of a black man in the White House. In addition, I think one of the reasons many traditionally Democratic Rust Belt swing voters picked Trump over Clinton was because Trump makes them feel like they’re okay (i.e., not deplorable)—their lifestyles, their fears, their bigotry, their news sources, the hours they spend watching TV instead of jogging and the gas-guzzling vehicles they drive instead of Priuses, their “Life’s a Bitch, Don’t Vote for One” and (most tellingly) “Deplorable Lives Matter” T-shirts, all of it the perfectly fine behavior that makes America great.
When Trump said, “I love the poorly educated,” some were flattered, not offended, and the feeling was mutual. Thirty-six percent of white working-class voters said, in an October 2016 survey, that they believed Trump understood the challenges they face compared to 22 percent for Clinton (stunningly low percentages for both candidates, which suggests a huge opening for a more down-to-earth candidate).
They’re willing to overlook the gold-plated spoon in the so-called populist billionaire’s mouth because the words coming out of that mouth do not judge, insult and shame them. They’ll take a billionaire kleptocrat who echoes their fears and grievances (some legitimate, others racist) and pretends to respect them over a millionaire corporatist (Clinton) who calls them deplorable and insists that “America is already great”—notwithstanding economist Thomas Piketty’s hockey stick graph chart illustration of skyrocketing inequality, and let’s be honest, notwithstanding racist white people’s subjectively genuine fear of being overtaken by non-whites.
Trump isn’t the first Republican class warrior with a counterintuitive appeal to blue-collar voters. George W. Bush, with his trademark malapropisms (mercilessly mocked by liberal pencilheads), appealed to These People, whereas the more polished Romney was less able to paper over his patrician soul. Reagan, too, effected a folksy persona that made short work of the more technocratic Mondale (who, not coincidentally, moved sharply away from economic populism in his 1984 campaign but still had a far better record than Reagan).
At this point, plutocracy is the only entrée on the menu, and the choice is whether it comes with or without a side of scorn. Faced with such choices, droves of working-class voters increasingly stay home, a crucially important and largely overlooked democratic dysfunction.
As irrational as it may be for non-rich folks to vote Republican, I see it as a deeply racist backlash against Obama, as Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates has made plain, and also blowback against liberal indifference and snobbery (real, perceived and/or exaggerated by right-wing manipulators). So does Trae Crowder, the self-described “liberal redneck” who after the election, told Bill Maher he was “struck by how much they [liberals] fundamentally don’t understand and don’t care to understand so many of these people. I feel like a lot of this is a backlash from those people against that.”
Crowder went on to note that “rednecks” have a strong sense of pride that has been wounded. The theme of wounded pride is manifest in Katherine Cramer’s detailed interviews with rural Wisconsinites that form the basis for her path-breaking book, The Politics of Resentment. Over and over, her subjects complain that urbanites (by which they mean Madison!) disregard commonsense wisdom and practical, hands-on skills and look down on and don’t understand or care to understand cherished rural values and ways of life. When Obama became the breakout candidate in 2008, they preferred him over Hillary because they saw him as “down-to-earth” (a perception that wore off over time).
Cramer visited with 27 groups of rural Wisconsinites multiple times over five years. What she learned from these hundreds of “listening sessions” was that, for rural Wisconsinites, the “haves” are not necessarily rich—they’re cultural elitists who believe their values to be superior and ignore the needs of rural folk. Cramer documented evidence of a fair amount of racism and, at the same time, she is adamant that rural pride and racist white pride are not one and the same.
Clinton lost Wisconsin by 22,748 votes after failing to stage a single campaign event there after the primary. Trump, meanwhile, made six stops in the Badger State between July and Election Day, culminating in a November 1 Eau Claire rally where he blasted NAFTA, the loss of manufacturing jobs and the fact that “we’re being treated (by the likes of the Clintons) like we’re stupid people.”
Just as we are not endeared to right-wingers who insult us as humorless, politically correct snowflakes, neither do These People feel warm and fuzzy when we refer to the places they live as “flyover states” (a term with literal significance for Clinton’s campaign) and ignore the ways in which they’ve been hollowed out by factory closures. What used to be respected, revered even, as the “heartland,” where decent folk harvested the food on our tables and built the cars in our garages, is now a pathetic wasteland where no self-respecting bi-coastal liberal would even condescend to touch down for a stopover, much less try to make a life there.
Such scorn has provoked a glowing orange nuclear backlash.
Not to worry, says Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who explicitly wrote off These People a few months before the election: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia—and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” Oops.
While corporate Democrats like Schumer remain fixated on centrist suburbanites, Democratic and third-party progressives are taking a page from Martin Luther King Jr., who toward the end of his life, brought together people of color and poor whites into the Poor People’s Campaign against “the three evils of society” (racism, militarism and poverty). Many believe it was the ability of civil rights leaders like King and Fred Hampton (who called racism a “byproduct” of capitalism) to unite poor whites in the struggle for equality and dignity that made them targets for assassination.
An effective multi-racial economic liberation movement threatens the capitalist order or, at the very least, would win every election by a landslide). I’ve written before about this opportunity/necessity (which Democratic leaders continue to shun), as have many others, including Thomas Frank, Gary Younge, Gary Younge again, Sarah Jaffe, John Nichols, Paul Street, Stephanie Coontz, Glenn Greenwald, and Michael Moore, the one person in the world who predicted Trump’s victory.
We can either invite These People to unite, or we can write them off, invest in frantic swing-state polling every four years and pray that enough of them will recognize our goodness as we fly by 30,000 feet overhead chatting amongst ourselves about how stupid and gullible they are.
So who are These People anyway? Seven in 10 Trump voters don’t have college degrees, making them only somewhat less educated than the electorate as a whole (six in 10 Americans don’t have a college degree). They skew richer than average, but include middle- and low-income voters, though not very many of the poorest of the poor. Many live in counties experiencing sharp declines in health indicators such as diabetes and heavy drinking. Four out of five people who say their financial situation is “worse today” went for Trump. White working-class voters (defined as lacking a college degree or a salaried job) went two to one for Trump. Many, like Cramer’s subjects, have strong rural identities and mourn the decrepitude of their once vital small towns. (Sixty-two percent of rural voters backed Trump, though some are already souring on him.) And many are Christian evangelicals counting on Trump to appoint anti-abortion Supreme Court justices.
The extent to which non-evangelical Trump voters were motivated by “cultural anxiety” (which, from everything I’ve read, seems to be a euphemism for bigotry) versus economic anxiety is the subject of considerable controversy. Suffice to say that there are substantial numbers in both camps and that the camps overlap.
Most Trump supporters have views that liberals loathe, often for good reason. The trouble comes when we go beyond criticizing the views to denouncing and “othering” the people themselves, the “deplorables” who are afflicted not only with contemptible belief systems but with bad taste, low intelligence and gullibility. We treat them like cardboard cutouts of stereotypical redneck bigots and ignore whatever redeeming qualities they may have. This is our bad, not Trump’s, not Breitbart’s, not Jerry Falwell Junior’s, not the Koch brothers’ (though all of these right-wing forces exaggerate and exploit it to the hilt). Our bad, professional white liberals’ bad, and ours to remedy.
I can’t put it any better than poet and racial justice activist Theo E.J. Wilson: “It is time that we start seeing people as people and not simply the ideas that we project onto them or react to… There is no way out of each other. Stop trying to find one.” In his viral Ted Talk, Wilson goes on to castigate liberals for having “wide acceptance for everybody except for those who have honestly held conservative viewpoints.”
This is not to say that liberal rejection of working-class conservatives is the only bad, nor that working-class whites have more moral weight or importance than any other segment of the population. What they do have, due largely to the deeply flawed Electoral College, is disproportionate strategic importance to the outcome of presidential elections, evidence of which has been mounting since 1980. As long as the Electoral College remains in place, campaigns will rise and fall on the hopes and fears of swingable white working- and middle-class voters.
Counterintuitively (and alarmingly), young white working-class voters identify more strongly as Republicans than seniors do. This problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Winning their support requires that we approach them respectfully and that we counter Trumpist proto-fascism with a compelling alternative that lifts up all people who are struggling or fear slipping into a more precarious financial position. The two go hand in hand, and it’s unlikely if not impossible that a truly progressive/revolutionary left movement can catch fire so long as its proponents are still casting a contemptuous glare upon These People. This entire article could be reduced to one sentence, written by Edward Luce in The Retreat of Western Liberalism: “If we write off half of society as deplorable we forfeit claims on their attention.”
But wait, of course we have contempt toward bigots. How can we not try to shame them out of their stereotypes and misdirected resentment (toward people of color instead of oligarchs)? Isn’t that what white anti-racists are duty-bound to do? (I address my commentary to whites, because as a white, it’s not my place to tell black and brown people whether and how to interact with white nationalists.)
Our duty is not to inflict shame but to do whatever it takes to dismantle racist and patriarchal belief systems. And while lambasting and attacking bigots may feel right and good, it doesn’t work. If you were getting feedback from a co-worker, would you be more receptive if the feedback was served with or without a dash of condescension and annoyance? Trump supporters, racist or not, feel the same way (hurray, you finally agree on something)!
The electoral autopsies reveal that most Trump supporters really do look down on people of color or, at a minimum, nurse grievances against people they imagine are receiving preferential treatment. A startling number admit to being white nationalists. It’s natural to feel that, if we don’t rant and rave, we’re somehow condoning bigotry and coddling its perpetrators. But when people are put on the defensive, they tend to dig in their heels and double-down on their beliefs. When our defenses go up, we lose our ability to reason and absorb new ideas and information. What we interpret as a person’s stupidity may well be a function not of low intelligence but of a brain addled by defensiveness. Insult their intelligence, and they get even more defensive and so it goes.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates so often and astutely reminds us, our collective well-being requires that whites surrender their privilege. To that, I would add that they shouldn’t and cannot lose their dignity in the process. Depriving them of their dignity is not only rhetorically ineffective; it is a recipe for a race war.
If we continue to denigrate These People—if we continue, to the delight of the Sean Hannitys and Stephen Millers of the world, to play the role of liberal or “cosmopolitan” elites they’ve scripted for us—we will continue driving white working-class swing voters into the welcoming arms of fascists who affirm the white working class as the real Americans who should be respected and protected from the liberal elites who want to give their jobs to immigrants and allow Muslims to gun them down. Fascism provides emotional solace (in the form of vengeance against the Other) to cast-offs who feel betrayed by the indifference of liberals and the anemic substance of their policy prescriptions. Fascism takes resentment and mutates it into vengefulness.
It’s hard not to feel contempt well up in us when confronted with beliefs and behaviors we find abhorrent. When you feel it, go ahead and revel in it, express it to a fellow liberal if you must, and then… get over it. By the time you’re talking to a Trump supporter, posting on Facebook or penning your next blog post, try to keep a lid on it.
See if you can understand where the other person is coming from and then share your own views without righteousness, judgment or urgency. Be genuinely open to learning something, including redeeming qualities the person may have that could provide common ground for constructive dialogue. Understanding why people believe what they do and what’s important to them does not mean condoning or agreeing, and to fail to recognize this is to be imprisoned within Trump’s authoritarian “us/winners versus them/losers” worldview in which dialogue and empathy reflect weakness, and intellectual curiosity is a vice.
Take it from journalist Ashton Pittman, a right-wing evangelical who underwent a transformation in college:
“My opinions changed because liberal friends gave me space to figure out what I thought on my own. My opinions changed because, rather than writing me off as a bad person when I said ignorant and even offensive things (the thought of which now make me want to faceplant in embarrassment), liberal friends challenged me honestly rather than writing me off as a person of bad faith or character.”
Conservative author David Blankenhorn, acclaimed for shifting his stance on marriage equality, has spent the past year talking to Trump supporters, and said in an interview:
“The tendency of people to dig in on tribal grounds is so strong, and it’s just as strong on the left. I’ve seen this with lots of Trump voters who voted for him reluctantly, holding their nose, but now when they see a lot of the stuff that’s being said about them, it makes them more sympathetic to Trump because they are so offended being called all these names… If you tell people that voting for Trump makes them a racist or xenophobe, it infuriates them, and it might make them more likely to engage in the behavior.”
Then there’s Derek Black, the zealous white supremacist godson of David Duke who disavowed his racist past after an Orthodox Jewish student befriended him and invited him to multi-racial Shabbat dinners. Black publicly renounced white nationalism and apologized for the hurt he caused people of color and Jews.
Former neo-Nazi Christian Picciolini tells a similar story—he renounced white supremacy and went on to found the group Life After Hate after being shown compassion by gays, blacks and Jews. Had Derek Black or Christian Picciolini attended my college in the 1980s, we would have bird-dogged him with “SHAME!” signs, patted ourselves on the back and accomplished nothing.
Shame is an unbearable emotion, and people defend against it with rage, contempt, blame and resentment. When white racists are attacked and ridiculed, they don’t get woke, they get resentful, and the last thing we need is more white resentment.
I hear a lot of criticism among leftists at the notion of “coddling” racists, but I’m more concerned about inflaming and provoking them. Shamed racists are apt to resent the politically correct ‘lib-tard’ who called them out or find a person of color to resent or even attack. The one thing they won’t do is critically examine their beliefs. It doesn’t matter that our superiority as anti-racists feels wholly justified, it will still backfire every time.
Setting aside our superiority isn’t easy, whether it concerns an inconsequential matter like our preference for single-origin coffee or life and death matters like xenophobia and climate denial. Even now, I’m suppressing the urge to feel superior about my espousal of the importance of not acting superior.
It’s vital that we banish superiority across the board, because if we allow it to leak out when it comes to, say, pro-wrestling, then we poison the well before we even get to transphobia and fracking and police brutality. And if we let on that we see ourselves as smarter, savvier, more logical, better-informed or in any way superior, they will reciprocate our snobbish disdain in the voting booth, throwing down for candidates they should be throwing up on or, in a fit of frustration and despair, sitting the election out.
When I catch myself feeling superior, I re-read this hilarious satire in The Onion and then ask myself the following:
1. Is it true? Am I truly more intelligent than all Trump supporters or have I just had more training in critical thinking and more exposure to progressive analyses?
2. Does it make me superior? If I’m better-informed because I watch John Oliver instead of Tucker Carlson, does that make me a better person?
3. Does the Trump supporter shine in areas where I don’t? Does she volunteer at the senior center or take in rescue animals? Do her contributions make her superior to me? (If not, why do my progressive political beliefs or participation in the Trump resistance make me superior to her?)
4. How did we get here? If I consider my critical thinking skills to be superior to Trump supporters’, why is it that they lack such skills? Are they victims of public or parochial schools that rendered them gullible to the right-wing media machine’s alt-facts and scapegoating?
5. Does feeling or asserting my superiority serve me? In other words, what’s to be gained by indulging my sense of superiority and is that more important than the downsides enumerated in this essay?
I’ve found much to recommend in the practice of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication, a method of defusing hostility and stating our beliefs authentically and non-judgmentally. PNDC workshops are being organized by resistance groups around the country, because people who desperately want to dump Trump and challenge white supremacy are recognizing the need to learn to engage in more productive political dialogue with swing voters and racists.
That many of us are beginning to recognize our part in facilitating Trump’s rise gives me hope. We’re discovering that there is in most of us a dash of The Donald that smugly divides and deprecates Others. Let us banish our inner Donald—and welcome back heartland voters—by channeling the grace of my grad student mentor who treated a deplorable young student like the up-and-coming human liberation activist she was.
The author’s participation in Powerful Non-Defensive Communication workshops provided the intellectual scaffolding for this article. Grateful acknowledgment is made to PNDC creator (and unsung genius) Sharon Strand Ellison.