Thomas Frank is dangerously wrong.
It’s a profound shame that a man as brilliant as the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? has chosen to downplay the very real bigotry that animates supporters of Donald Trump. By doing so, Frank has, sadly, become an apologist for anarchy.
Frank’s thesis is that economic anxiety among white working-class voters–and the Democratic Party’s alleged failure to respond to such anxiety–is the real driver of Trump’s support:
I have no special reason to doubt the suspicion that Donald Trump is a racist. Either he is one, or (as the comedian John Oliver puts it) he is pretending to be one, which amounts to the same thing.
But there is another way to interpret the Trump phenomenon. A map of his support may coordinate with racist Google searches, but it coordinates even better with deindustrialization and despair, with the zones of economic misery that 30 years of Washington’s free-market consensus have brought the rest of America…
Many of Trump’s followers are bigots, no doubt, but many more are probably excited by the prospect of a president who seems to mean it when he denounces our trade agreements and promises to bring the hammer down on the CEO that fired you and wrecked your town, unlike Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Here is the most salient supporting fact: when people talk to white, working-class Trump supporters, instead of simply imagining what they might say, they find that what most concerns these people is the economy and their place in it. I am referring to a study just published by Working America, a political-action auxiliary of the AFL-CIO, which interviewed some 1,600 white working-class voters in the suburbs of Cleveland and Pittsburgh in December and January.
Support for Donald Trump, the group found, ran strong among these people, even among self-identified Democrats, but not because they are all pining for a racist in the White House. Their favorite aspect of Trump was his “attitude,” the blunt and forthright way he talks. As far as issues are concerned, “immigration” placed third among the matters such voters care about, far behind their number one concern: “good jobs / the economy.”
“People are much more frightened than they are bigoted,” is how the findings were described to me by Karen Nussbaum, the executive director of Working America. The survey “confirmed what we heard all the time: people are fed up, people are hurting, they are very distressed about the fact that their kids don’t have a future” and that “there still hasn’t been a recovery from the recession, that every family still suffers from it in one way or another.”
Tom Lewandowski, the president of the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council in Fort Wayne, puts it even more bluntly when I asked him about working-class Trump fans. “These people aren’t racist, not any more than anybody else is,” he says of Trump supporters he knows. “When Trump talks about trade, we think about the Clinton administration, first with Nafta and then with [Permanent Normal Trade Relations] China, and here in Northeast Indiana, we hemorrhaged jobs.”
“They look at that, and here’s Trump talking about trade, in a ham-handed way, but at least he’s representing emotionally. We’ve had all the political establishment standing behind every trade deal, and we endorsed some of these people, and then we’ve had to fight them to get them to represent us.”
Now, let us stop and smell the perversity. Left parties the world over were founded to advance the fortunes of working people. But our left party in America – one of our two monopoly parties – chose long ago to turn its back on these people’s concerns, making itself instead into the tribune of the enlightened professional class, a “creative class” that makes innovative things like derivative securities and smartphone apps. The working people that the party used to care about, Democrats figured, had nowhere else to go, in the famous Clinton-era expression. The party just didn’t need to listen to them any longer…
We cannot admit that we liberals bear some of the blame for its emergence, for the frustration of the working-class millions, for their blighted cities and their downward spiraling lives. So much easier to scold them for their twisted racist souls, to close our eyes to the obvious reality of which Trumpism is just a crude and ugly expression: that neoliberalism has well and truly failed.
This is absolute nonsense, and Frank ought to be ashamed of himself for peddling it. Trump’s crazed cheerleaders would be supporting malevolence against Mexicans and Muslims even in times of abundant prosperity. Was Pat Buchanan primarily tapping into “economic anxiety” in his second run for the Presidency twenty years ago, during the thriving Clinton years? Of course not–he was tapping into the same raw racism and pathetic prejudice that powered his first White House campaign in 1992.
It seems as though Frank cannot come to terms with the fact that yes, there are that many racists out there. After all, the slogan “Make America Great Again” implies that somewhere along the line, America lost its virtue and its valor. In the minds of Trump’s supporters, America began to decline when the Supreme Court integrated the public schools…when President Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act…when the Supreme Court declared that blacks and whites could marry each other…when diversity began to dominate American popular culture.
Democrats bear no responsibility for the strength of the Trump campaign. Progressives bear no responsibility for the strength of the Trump campaign. Hate bears all responsibility for the strength of the Trump campaign–and Frank’s failure to fully acknowledge that reality is morally irresponsible.