Forty-two-year old Lee was ambling out of the National Rifle Association leadership forum, where he’d just watched president Donald Trump dazzle the crowd by blasting sanctuary cities and pledging to arm teachers.
Lee told me that he got why the President is controversial. But also, “I truly believe in this country and taking care of our own people so that’s the reason why I voted for the guy,” he politely said, looking not at all worried that he’d just expressed a deeply nativist opinion to a member of the dreaded liberal media.
An older friend or relative walking beside him grumbled that during President Barack Obama’s era, no one was allowed to say anything bad about the president, but during President Donald Trump’s era, no one was allowed to say anything good about the president (he did not make clear who is enforcing this law).
Lee told me that Trump had not been his first choice during the GOP primary, but that he liked what the president had done so far.
This story reflects the argument in a recent Paul Waldman article, in which the columnist argued that virtue signaling respect for Trump voters is not a winning electoral strategy for Democrats.
While it’s a politician’s job to feign deep interest in the concerns of all potential voters, at this point, an entire media and political machine exists to stoke the paranoia of right-wing voters that some liberal behemoth based in New York or California is smugly looking down on them.
Democrats can’t overcome that, Waldman noted, no matter how many times they pretend to love hunting. It’s just a waste of time in a world dominated by Fox News.
The obsession with the political desires of a conservative white common man has had other unjust consequences.
First, it erases the long history of progressivism in the South and other rural parts of the country. Heather Heyser, who was murdered by a Nazi, was a white working-class woman who died for her progressive ideals.
The idea that “Real Americans” are right-wing also steamrolls over the history of progressivism in traditionally conservative cultural spaces such as the country music industry. Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash arguably sang about prison reform decades before Bill Clinton signed legislation that filled America’s prisons with nonviolent drug offenders.
Johnny Cash’s daughter, Roseanne, recently wrote a stirring op-ed in the New York Times urging the country music industry to disavow the NRA.
Waldman pointed out that Democrats have tried to pay respect to white, rural America before, to no avail. He noted that after his “guns, god and religion” flub, President Obama spent the rest of his Presidency trying to politely earn the respect of the white common man.
Yet, the ‘guns, god and religion” frame’ appears stuck to him in perpetuity, thanks in part to tea party legislators and conservative media who stoke the resentment and paranoia of their followers.
“I look forward to being made fun of,” a woman I spoke with drily said when I told her I was a reporter. We’d just bonded over the hell that constitutes ‘health care’ in this country and I agreed with her that the system sucks.
Another woman and I agreed that young people seem less committed to protecting the First Amendment than they should be. “When you let them take away your rights they don’t give them back so easily,” she told me.
A man I met at a dive bar sheepishly told me that although he hadn’t voted for Trump, his hatred of Hillary Clinton kept him away from the polls.
Some Democrats, like Sen. Kamala Harris from California or New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo have staked out radically anti-Trump stances in an effort to shore up their constituencies (although Cuomo has his own troubles in Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging the governor from the left).
Other Democrats, with more rural constituencies, are fighting for their lives as they continue to pander to conservatives on issues like abortion. It’s not yet clear what the best 2020 strategy will be for the democratic party—although Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren remain some of the most popular politicians in America.
Back at the Texas dive bar, a slightly tipsy older woman told me that she loves Donald Trump and doesn’t care who knows it. “He’s really making the country great again,” she concluded.