Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Hearts and minds of Trump voters

“Wherever there is injustice, there is anger, and anger is like gasoline; if you spray it around and somebody lights a matchstick, you have an inferno. But anger inside an engine is powerful: it can drive us forward and can get us through dreadful moments and give us power.” — Priscilla "Scilla" Elworthy, peace builder and founder of the Oxford Research Group

FRANK RICH is new to me. He’s an essayist and op-ed columnist who wrote for The New York Times in various capacities for 31 years and is now editor-at-large and 
an essayist for New York Magazine. He was mentioned in Stuff You Should Know, a podcast I listen to from time to time. I’m going to start following him. 

If you've read Hey Look since the election, you probably have an accurate sense that I'm not feeling what you'd call touchy-feely toward Trump voters. Then again, forgiveness isn't one of my strong suits. 

Frank's column from New York Magazine isn't light reading, but give it a go anyway.

No Sympathy for the Hillbilly
Democrats need to stop trying to feel everyone’s pain, and hold on to their own anger.

By Frank Rich

March 19, 2017

On the morning after, traumatized liberals set out hunting for answers as if Election Day were 9/11 all over again. The ubiquitous question of 15 years earlier — “Why do they hate us?” — was repurposed for Donald Trump’s demolition of the political order. Why did white working-class voters reject Hillary Clinton and the Democrats? Why did they fall for a billionaire con man? Why do they hate us?

There were, of course, many other culprits in the election’s outcome. Comey, the Kremlin, the cable-news networks that beamed Trump 24/7, Jill Stein, a Clinton campaign that (among other blunders) ignored frantic on-the-ground pleas for help in Wisconsin and Michigan, and the candidate herself have all come in for deserved public flogging. But the attitude among some liberals toward the actual voters who pulled the trigger on Election Day has been more indulgent, equivocal, and forgiving. 

Perhaps those white voters without a college degree who preferred Trump by 39 percentage points — the most lopsided margin in the sector pollsters define as “white working class” since the 1980 Ronald Reagan landslide — are not “deplorables” who “cling to guns and religion” after all. Perhaps, as Joe Biden enthused, “these are good people, man!” who “aren’t racist” and “aren’t sexist.” Perhaps, as Mark Lilla argued in an influential essay in the New York Times, they were turned off mostly by the Democrats’ identity politics and rightfully felt excluded from Clinton’s stump strategy of name-checking every ethnicity, race, and gender in the party’s coalition except garden-variety whites. Perhaps they should hate us.

While many, if not most, of those in #TheResistance of the Democratic base remain furious at these voters, the party’s political class and the liberal media Establishment are making a concerted effort to convert that rage into empathy. “Democrats Hold Lessons on How to Talk to Real People” was the headline of a Politico account of the postelection retreat of the party’s senators, who had convened in the pointedly un-Brooklyn redoubt of Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Democrats must heed the rural white enclaves, repeatedly instructs the former Pennsylvania governor and MSNBC regular Ed Rendell. 

Nicholas Kristof has pleaded with his readers to understand that “Trump voters are not the enemy,” a theme shared by the anti-Trump conservative David Brooks. “We’re Driving to the Inauguration With a Trump Supporter” was the “Kumbaya”-tinged teaser on the Times’ mobile app for a roundup of on-the-ground chronicles of these exotic folk invading Washington. Even before Trump’s victory, commentators were poring through fortuitously timed books like Nancy Isenberg’s sociocultural history White Trash and J. D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, seeking to comprehend and perhaps find common ground with the Trumpentariat. As measured by book sales and his appeal to much the same NPR-ish audience, Vance has become his people’s explainer-in-chief, the Ta-Nehisi Coates, if you will, of White Lives Matter.

The outbreak of Hillbilly Chic among liberals is an inverted bookend to Radical Chic, the indelible rubric attached by Tom Wolfe in 1970 (in this magazine) to white elites in Manhattan then fawning over black militants. In both cases, the spectacle of liberals doting on a hostile Other can come off like self-righteous slumming. But for those of us who want to bring down the curtain on the Trump era as quickly as possible, this pandering to his voters raises a more immediate and practical concern: Is it a worthwhile political tactic that will actually help reverse Republican rule? Or is it another counterproductive detour into liberal guilt, self-flagellation, and political correctness of the sort that helped blind Democrats to the gravity of the Trump threat in the first place? 

While the right is expert at channeling darker emotions like anger into ruthless political action, the Democrats’ default inclination is still to feel everyone’s pain, hang their hats on hope, and enter the fray in a softened state of unilateral disarmament. “Stronger Together,” the Clinton-campaign slogan, sounded more like an invitation to join a food co-op than a call to arms. After the debacle of 2016, might the time have at last come for Democrats to weaponize their anger instead of swallowing it? Instead of studying how to talk to “real people,” might they start talking like real people? No more reading from wimpy scripts concocted by consultants and focus groups. (Clinton couldn’t even bring herself to name a favorite ice-cream flavor at one campaign stop.) Say in public what you say in private, even at the risk of pissing people off, including those in your own party. Better late than never to learn the lessons of Trump’s triumphant primary campaign that the Clinton campaign foolishly ignored.

This is a separate matter from the substantive question of whether the party is overdue in addressing the needs of the 21st-century middle class, or what remains of it. The answer to that is yes, as a matter of morality, policy, and politics. Americans below the top of the heap, with or without college degrees and regardless of race, have been ill served by the axis of Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers, and the Davos-class donor base that during Bill Clinton’s presidency helped grease the skids for the 2008 economic collapse and allowed the culprits to escape from the wreckage unscathed during Barack Obama’s. 

That Hillary Clinton pocketed $21.6 million by speaking to banks and other corporate groups after leaving the State Department is just one hideous illustration of how the Democrats opened the door for Trump to posture as an anti-Establishment champion of “the forgotten men and women.” In the bargain, she gave unenthused Democrats a reason to turn to a third-party candidate or stay home.

But it’s one thing for the Democratic Party to drain its own swamp of special interests and another for it to waste time and energy chasing unreachable voters in the base of Trump’s electorate. For all her failings, Clinton received 3 million more votes than Trump and lost the Electoral College by the mere 77,744 votes that cost her the previously blue states of Michigan (which she lost by .2 of a percentage point), Wisconsin (.8 point), and Pennsylvania (.7 point). Of the 208 counties in America that voted for Obama twice and tipped to Trump in 2016, more than three-quarters were in states Clinton won anyway (some by a landslide, like New York) or states that have long been solidly red.

The centrist think tank Third Way is focusing on the Rust Belt in a $20 million campaign that its president, a former Clinton White House aide, says will address the question of how “you restore Democrats as a national party that can win everywhere.” 

Here is one answer that costs nothing: You can’t, and you don’t. The party is a wreck. Post-Obama-Clinton, its most admired national leaders (Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren) are of Social Security age. It rules no branch of federal government, holds only 16 governorships, and controls only 14 state legislatures. The Democrats must set priorities. In a presidential election, a revamped economic program and a new generation of un-Clinton leaders may well win back the genuine swing voters who voted for Trump, whether Democratic defectors in the Rust Belt or upscale suburbanites who just couldn’t abide Hillary. But that’s a small minority of Trump’s electorate. Otherwise, the Trump vote is overwhelmingly synonymous with the Republican Party as a whole.

That makes it all the more a fool’s errand for Democrats to fudge or abandon their own values to cater to the white-identity politics of the hard-core, often self-sabotaging Trump voters who helped drive the country into a ditch on Election Day. They will stick with him even though the numbers say that they will take a bigger financial hit than Clinton voters under the Republican health-care plan. As Trump himself has said, in a rare instance of accuracy, they won’t waver even if he stands in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoots somebody. While you can’t blame our new president for loving “the poorly educated” who gave him that blank check, the rest of us are entitled to abstain. If we are free to loathe Trump, we are free to loathe his most loyal voters, who have put the rest of us at risk.

Liberals now looking to commune with the Trump base should check out the conscientious effort to do exactly that by the Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild. As we learn in her election-year best seller, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, she poured her compassion, her anthropological sensibility, and five years of her life into “a journey to the heart of the American right.” Determined to burst out of her own “political bubble,” Hochschild uprooted herself to the red enclave of Lake Charles, Louisiana, where, as she reports, there are no color-coded recycling bins or gluten-free restaurant entrées. There she befriended and chronicled tea-party members who would all end up voting for Trump. Hochschild liked the people she met, who in turn reciprocated with a “teasing, good-hearted acceptance of a stranger from Berkeley.” And lest liberal readers fear that she was making nice with bigots in the thrall of their notorious neighbor David Duke, she offers reassurances that her tea-partyers “were generally silent about blacks.” (Around her, anyway.)

Hochschild’s mission was inspired by Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? She wanted “to scale the empathy wall” and “unlock the door to the Great Paradox” of why working-class voters cast ballots for politicians actively opposed to their interests. Louisiana is America’s ground zero for industrial pollution and toxic waste; the stretch of oil and petrochemical plants along the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is not known as “cancer alley” for nothing. 

Nonetheless, the kindly natives befriended by Hochschild not only turned out for Trump but have consistently voted for local politicians like Steve Scalise (No. 3 in Paul Ryan’s current House leadership), former senator David Vitter, and former governor Bobby Jindal, who rewarded poison-spewing corporations with tax breaks and deregulation even as Louisiana’s starved public institutions struggled to elevate the health and education of a populace that ranks near the bottom in both among the 50 states. 

Hochschild’s newfound friends, some of them in dire health, have no explanation for this paradox, only lame, don’t–wanna–rock–Big Oil’s–tanker excuses. Similarly unpersuasive is their rationale for hating the federal government, given that it foots the bill for 44 percent of their state’s budget. Everyone who takes these handouts is a freeloader except them, it seems; the government should stop favoring those other moochers (none dare call them black) who, in their view, “cut the line.” Never mind that these white voters who complain about “line cutters” are themselves guilty of cutting the most important line of all — the polling-place line — since they are not subjected to the voter-suppression efforts being inflicted on minorities by GOP state legislatures, the Roberts Supreme Court, and now the Jeff Sessions–led Department of Justice.

In “What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class,” a postelection postmortem published to much op-ed attention by the Harvard Business Review (and soon to be published in expanded form as what will undoubtedly be another best-selling book), the University of California law professor Joan C. Williams proposes that other liberals do in essence what Hochschild did. 

“The best advice I’ve seen so far for Democrats is the recommendation that hipsters move to Iowa,” Williams writes — or to any other location in the American plains where “shockingly high numbers of working-class men are unemployed or on disability, fueling a wave of despair deaths in the form of the opioid epidemic.” She further urges liberals to discard “the dorky arrogance and smugness of the professional elite” (epitomized in her view by Hillary Clinton) that leads them to condescend to disaffected working-class whites and “write off blue-collar resentment as racism.”

Hochschild anticipated that Williams directive, too. She’s never smug. But for all her fond acceptance of her new Louisiana pals, and for all her generosity in portraying them as virtually untainted by racism, it’s not clear what such noble efforts yielded beyond a book, many happy memories of cultural tourism, and confirmation that nothing will change anytime soon. Her Louisianans will keep voting for candidates who will sabotage their health and their children’s education; they will not be deterred by an empathic Berkeley visitor, let alone Democratic politicians.


  1. We cannot fix this by sharing a cafe au lait with people who know how to play nice with tourists. People to whom you'd be "that yankee" for generations to come cannot be changed by what you say. They will smilingly take your money and show you their "company" face. We must replace The Fairness Doctrine. We must make FCC licenses require truth on programs that call themselves News. Editorials must be marked as such.

  2. When you actually live in a place like Iowa, you will hear the racist comments and the urge to have "change", meaning- no more black presidents. It's there. If they still think he's great, they are TTB, True Trump Believers, and there is no reason to spend any time "making nice" with them. Move along, Ma'am, nothing to see here.

  3. Hmmm... what I think I'm seeing here is a thought that outsiders can't communicate with locals. Not true. Take the time to build relationships and they will come. This administration's actions (can't call them policies) will hurt. We need to be there to hear their hurt.