Grappling With Hard Questions

As the world tries to grapple with what happened on Tuesday, the media is filled with an overwhelming array of talk that is an attempt to answer the question of how this country elected Donald Trump to be our next president. As I try to sift through all of the information and data, I am reminded of something that happened to me years ago.

I was living in an apartment with a friend and we had one garage stall. Sometimes I parked my car in it and sometimes I parked on the street. One morning when I got up to go to work, I went to get in my car – which I had parked on the street – and it wasn’t there. My response was to think, “oh, I must have parked it in the garage.” But it wasn’t there either. I wondered to myself, “where did I park my car?” It literally took me about 20 minutes to admit to myself that it had been stolen.

Today, as I try to sort through all of the pronouncements about what happened on Election Day, I keep having the sense that I’m wondering where I parked my car when – in fact – it’s been stolen. Let me say loud and clear, I am NOT suggesting that the election was stolen. What I’m saying is that when something bad happens that is outside the norm of how you expect things to go in the world, our minds tend to keep using old assumptions to explain events. As a result, we all need to approach our attempts to understand what happened with a large dose of uncertainty and ask a lot of hard questions.

Going forward, the same question that was raised throughout the Democratic primary and the general election is still in play: was the anger of Trump supporters animated by economic anxiety or xenophobia? Jamelle Bouie made a strong argument for the former while David Atkins has consistently argued for the latter. I found myself learning a lot from reading what Nathan Robinson wrote about that yesterday. He starts off by being dismissive about the kind of case made by Bouie because he thinks urban liberals don’t understand white exurban and rural Trump supporters. And then says this:

This was a campaign of mockery: Trump voters were treated with disdain. Hillary Clinton dismissed huge swaths of them as a “basket of deplorables.” To be a Trump supporter was to be dumb, a redneck, a misogynist.

Frankly, my head spun when I read that. The idea that it was liberals who engaged in a campaign of disdain and mockery was incomprehensible to someone who watched Trump and his supporters regularly demonstrate disdain for large swaths of the American public. I don’t need to recount all of the examples of that, do I? That is not an attempt to excuse it when it goes in the other direction. But to suggest that liberals shouldn’t call out “deplorable” behavior is to ask them to be silent in the face of attacks. That is not an answer – it is capitulation of the worst kind.

But then Robinson goes on to say something important.

Here’s the problem: if Democrats had actually spent time with Trump voters, as opposed to judging them by polls, they would have found this theory incomplete. They missed the fact that many Trump voters had a kind of undirected dissatisfaction and anger at the Establishment. For some, the source of this was most likely economics. For many, immigration. For others, it was probably simply an existential despair at the hopelessness of modern life, such as we all feel. But many of them simply didn’t know what they were angry at. They just knew they were angry. Trump came along and gave them a convenient narrative: the source of this anguish was ISIS, Mexicans, and Hillary Clinton. This was very powerful.

In essence, what both sides of the economic anxiety vs xenophobia argument do is project their own very real experiences onto the Trump supporter – which is what the candidate did in creating a narrative that fueled and directed the anger. That is exactly what the white elite in this country (and don’t fool yourself, Trump is clearly a member of the white elite) has been doing for decades to divide and conquer the majority. If you doubt that, take a few minutes to listen to how Tim Wise summarized the history that has unfolded in this country.

Robinson then goes on to describe what is probably the essence of the matter.

It’s important to recognize the extent to which the Trump vote was an undirected repudiation of the Establishment rather than an affirmative vote for anything. Liberals didn’t understand why none of Trump’s scandals (the fraud, the tax evasion, the sexual assaults) seemed to dim his support. They didn’t realize that Trump was a bomb being thrown at the elite, which meant that (in some sense) the worse he was, the more people liked him. A vote for Trump is a Molotov cocktail. It is not nuanced. It is designed to do as much damage as possible. Pointing out that the Molotov cocktail does not share the thrower’s values, or cheats on its taxes, is not an effective rhetorical strategy. Because a vote for Trump is an attempt to blow up the government, it doesn’t matter at all whether Trump is a sleaze, sex predator, or vulgarian. He pisses off the right people, and that is what matters.

That is perhaps the best explanation of why Trump’s supporters actually voted for someone who will make their economic situation worse rather than better. It was an anger that simply wanted expression and was untethered to actual policies or facts. That’s why Trump could say or do anything – including a complete reversal of what he had said previously – and it didn’t matter.

The question is: what do we do about that? Catherine Rampell has a suggestion:

Fortunately, I retain faith in another powerful tool: democracy. By which I mean democracy as defined by H.L. Mencken: “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

Maybe the only way for Americans to really, truly understand how toxic, wrong-headed and futile Trump’s policies are is to let him provide proof of concept.

That is, to give us Trumpism, good and hard.

But then she recognizes the costs of that approach.

Most disturbing, while the public is busy formulating its own first-person, expert-free verdict on his policy experiments, those experiments could do a lot of harm. They could put people’s lives at risk, both here and abroad, if he carries out his intentions to punish political enemies, double down on torture and other human rights violations, scale back civil liberties and encourage despots to roam (and bomb) freely.

Yesterday Martin proposed the beginning of a Democratic response. While I agree with his suggestion completely, it assumes that Trump supporters will actually be convinced by a policy proposal. On the heels of gaining a victory for their anger, perhaps that is something that will eventually happen. We’ll have to wait and see. But I think that one of the reasons why the economic insecurity side of the argument is more comfortable for a lot of liberals is that it points to the possibility of a solution, whereas if the anger is rooted in racism and xenophobia, people feel disempowered to do anything about it. Here is how Robinson expresses that sentiment:

If you adopt this theory, [that racism and xenophobia are the cause] then you reach a somewhat fatalistic conclusion about Trump supporters. You can’t persuade them, because they’re racists, and racism is an irrational feeling. Instead, you fight them, by mocking them, and trying to turn out your own base. By treating Trump’s support as largely the product of racism, one gives up on any attempt to actually appeal to Trump voters’ concerns and interests, since racism is not an interest worth appealing to.

The problem with that analysis is that it assumes that the only way to fight them is to mock them. I am reminded of something Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote just after the 2008 election of Barack Obama.

Here is where Barack Obama and the civil rights leaders of old are joined — in a shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity, something that subsequent generations lost. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. may have led African Americans out of segregation, and he may have cured incalculable numbers of white racists, but more than all that, he believed that the lion’s share of the population of this country would not support the rights of thugs to pummel people who just wanted to cross a bridge. King believed in white people, and when I was a younger, more callow man, that belief made me suck my teeth. I saw it as weakness and cowardice, a lack of faith in his own. But it was the opposite. King’s belief in white people was the ultimate show of strength: He was willing to give his life on a bet that they were no different from the people who lived next door.

No one would ever suggest that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t fight racism. But a review of his record would show that he did so while maintaining that “shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity.” I have to admit that the election of Donald Trump has made me question that kind of faith. But I also know that to give up on it means that we lose everything. That’s perhaps the most profound question I’m grappling with today.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.