2016 DNC Convention
Credit: Mike D/Flickr

As my colleague David Atkins pointed out, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg got some heat for suggesting that the message of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign was that America was already great, while Trump tapped into the “economic anxiety” of white working class voters. Buttigieg himself has responded to the pushback.

The mayor suggests that voters in the industrial midwest perceived that Democrats were saying “everything is just fine.” I suspect he is correct in that observation. But it raises the question of where they would get that idea given the breadth of issues Clinton talked about. He then describes those voters as people who knew Trump wasn’t a great character, but supported him because they just wanted to “burn the house down.”

To the extent that that is true, the question becomes: how should Democrats respond to voters who want to burn the house down? We often hear that it is important to view the world through the eyes of voters like that. Here’s Buttigieg basically making that argument.

There are some folks I encounter here who seem to have trouble believing that things like Trump voters actually exist. And so I feel sometimes like I’m an emissary from the middle of the country, just pointing out that things look a little bit different in rural communities, industrial communities like mine, and that we really need to find ways to knit this picture back together into one America.

The truth is that the divide in this country will not be breached simply by Democrats being empathetic. If that was the only response, we’d simply be fanning the flames as the entire structure of our democratic republic was burnt to the ground.

As an example, that is what Representative Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) suggested when she recounted an exchange with a constituent on Real Time with Bill Maher.

I literally had an auto worker say this to me in my district, “My life has been going downhill from George HW Bush down through the presidents. So I’m going the wrong direction and Trump is like my ‘hail Mary pass.’ Right? It may not work. It may score a touchdown, it may do really well, it may not. But he’s the only guy talking about making my life better.”

Instead of burning down the house, Slotkin’s constituent threw a “hail Mary pass” because in his mind, Donald Trump was the only candidate talking about making his life better.

It is significant that this voter is an auto worker in Michigan, given that he probably has a job because President Obama bucked the political winds and bailed out the auto industry. Here is what Donald Trump said about those jobs while campaigning in Michigan after the auto companies had paid back the U.S. treasury and it was reported that the bailout saved 1.5 million jobs.

Last August, [Trump] suggested that the key to preventing auto companies from shipping jobs overseas is to instead move production to states with lower wages than Michigan—in an effort to drive down the cost of labor. “You can go to different parts of the United States and then ultimately you’d do full-circle,” Trump told the Detroit News. “You’ll come back to Michigan because those guys are going to want their jobs back even if it is less.”

Slotkin’s constituent, who thought Trump was the only guy talking about how to make his life better, voted for someone who campaigned on the idea of busting unions by sending Michigan’s auto industry jobs to states with lower wages.

That’s just one example of the kind of Trump voters Buttigieg was referring to. It is hard to hear that kind of thing and not find it mind-boggling, much less respond without sounding condescending. The problem is that those voters have completely swallowed right wing talking points and lies.

Recently Abby Huntsman threw some of those right wing talking points at Stacey Abrams.

Abrams points out that identity politics means being able to understand how access to health care plays out differently for voters in rural America where we don’t invest in it, as compared to black women who are more likely to die while giving birth. She says that what she is looking for in this Democratic primary are conversations that say, “we see all of you.”

If that kind of conversation reaches some Trump voters, then it is worth pursuing. But empathizing with right wing lies while affirming someone’s desire to “burn the house down” lines up perfectly with the kind of destruction and havoc being unleashed by the current occupant of the White House. Democrats should wholeheartedly reject that approach.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.