I ran into a kind of interesting blog post by a guy named James A. Lindsey at a site called Allthink. It was the headline that sucked me in: Liberals, Want Trump to Win? Keep Calling Him Racist.
I didn’t think I would be persuaded by any argument supporting that headline and I wasn’t persuaded by Lindsey’s, but I found that I was glad to have read it anyway because, although unevenly presented, he did paint some portraits of the right that are worth contemplating.
If you bother to take the time to look for yourself, be patient. The second half of the piece is significantly better than the first. In fact, I almost gave up on it too soon.
The core argument is certainly wrong, which is that Trump actually derives enough strength from being characterized as a misogynistic, racist, bigot that it’s counterproductive to hurl those labels at him. I don’t doubt that these labels endear him to his strongest supporters, but he’ll never have enough of those kind of people to be competitive in the general election. So, the primary premise of the piece is way off and isn’t even worth considering.
Yet, he does a much better job of giving us a modestly sympathetic presentation of the psychological disposition of the conservative mind. In particular, he describes what it’s like to have your core political views consistently portrayed as narrow-minded and hateful, when you don’t experience them that way yourself.
People left, right, and center – but especially on the right – are justifiably sick and tired of being called bigots and having almost everything in social politics reduced to smear campaigns about bigotry…
…Conservatives who support Trump hate political correctness, and it isn’t because they’re racists, sexists, misogynists, homophobes, and all the rest. Some of them are those things, and some of them aren’t. What they hate about political correctness is that someone who doesn’t know or understand them has the gall to tell them what they can and can’t (and should and shouldn’t) say or think. Worse, those busybodies feel it is perfectly appropriate to throw around socially stigmatizing labels of bigotry without even daring to listen to the more nuanced view that conservatives feel they hold on matters of identity politics.
It’s tempting to attack that “nuanced view” and ignore the rest. Often, the nuance is little more than an inability or even a refusal to understand the privileged position of being white in this country. What’s more boring than reading a white person’s complaints about how they can’t have a White History Month or found an organization devoted to the advancement of white (non-colored) people?
But people can be blinkered and misguided without having hate in their hearts, and there’s a reason that you’ll often hear conservatives appeal to Martin Luther King Jr.’s aspirational language about getting to a point where people aren’t judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. There’s a sense in which the conservative rejection of Identity Politics is an effort to embrace a society where race doesn’t matter. If Dr. King was right, then why should a black construction company get any preference in contracting? Why should a college admission board give a preference to a Latina over a white student? How can we get to the point where people don’t consider race when we have policies that insist on looking at race? How can a white person completely ignore race when they are sometimes disadvantaged by their race?
“Nuanced” is a generous term for this perspective, but it’s possible to have it with good intentions.
Conservatives as a rule also hate collectivism and that certain groups – usually not their own groups, it should be pointed out – are granted certain apparent unearned advantages, like affirmative action, apparently one-sided sexual harassment policies, and state benefits. (Note: I’m not saying that conservative cases against those efforts are right or wrong, or that they attend to the relevant details; I’m just saying what the conservatives I know don’t like about “liberal” thinking and policy.) These aspects of identity politics become intolerable to Trump’s brand of conservative once coupled with social speech codes that make speaking out against them (even carefully) into deviant behavior.
It’s even easier to see how it can be worse than frustrating to have your religious views disparaged as stupid and hateful, and how quickly the merits of “tolerance” can ring hollow when your beliefs are not tolerated. Conservative views about race and human sexuality are being marginalized in our society, and there’s a predictable psychological side effect to that.
Progressives often insist that there is great moral force in the fact that marginalized and oppressed communities cannot psychologically bear the oppression, and they’re right. Social progressives seem simultaneously completely unconcerned that conservatives may face similar psychological difficulty with accepting change more quickly than they are able. Because of the difference in civil liberties at hand, I don’t mean to suggest that there is complete parity between these circumstances; there’s not. Still, demanding that one group deal with more than they can bear at the behest of the rights of another is precisely what makes identity politics so divisive, and the blade cuts both ways.
It’s easy to mock this. Think of the guy who shows frustration that he keeps having to change how he refers to the descendants of African slaves in this country. “It used to be acceptable to call people colored, and why doesn’t the NAACP change their name if the term is so offensive?”
But there’s little doubt that resentment of this kind of political correctness is a massive factor in Trump’s popularity, just as it explained the appeal of Ben Carson. People love Trump because he flouts all the rules about what you can say and how you can say it. They love him for this even when they disagree with what he’s saying and how he’s saying it. Being politically incorrect is the important thing, because it really feels like Trump is trying to carve out some space so they can breath again and not feel like they’re walking on eggshells all the time.
To be fair, though, it’s not just the political correctness. Conservatives blame immigration and changing demographics for creating the political and social environment where their views are defined as stupid, bigoted, and hateful. So, Trump’s attacks on Mexican and Muslim immigration are part of the same message. Trump will halt and reverse this trend and make it safe for people just to be themselves again.
I think this is all a very charitable way of characterizing the mind of a Trump supporter, but it does help explain his appeal to people who aren’t white nationalists and who don’t harbor conscious race-hatred in their hearts.
And, of course there are other factors, like job loss and disillusionment with the performance of the Republican Establishment, that help explain Trump’s appeal.
Perhaps it would be wise to be a bit more charitable to these folks, a little more patient and understanding.
But their minority status is precisely why they’re feeling so anxious and angry, and there’s no reason to fear that they’ll somehow constitute an electoral majority (by themselves) in November. If calling Trump on his racism and misogyny makes these folks love him more, it’s not an electoral problem. Their views are on the margin as it is.
What’s problematic is how this affects our culture, and the fissures that are opening in our society are causing a gridlocked government where consensus on issues large and small has become illusive.
It might be healthier for our country if there were a little more space for alternative views before they get shut down as obviously racist and intolerant, but it’s hard to be gracious and patient with people who are trying beat you politically so that they can continue to discriminate against our nation’s most vulnerable people.
On the other hand, while it may be hard, it’s also part of the recipe for political and cultural success. When you meet firehoses and billy clubs with love and a shining humanity, you will eventually win. And, before too long, most of your oppressors will come to respect what you’ve done.
Why is it always on people of color and progressives to be the bigger person?
I don’t know. But there are real limits on how much you accomplish by meeting intolerance with intolerance. And it’s hard to be patient with angry people or to win them over with an attitude of moral superiority. That’s why love for your neighbor and setting the right examples are still the best answers.