Reaching the Reachable Trump Voters

[Note to readers: My new Verdict column was published today.  Rather than following my usual practice of writing a Dorf on Law post that extends the arguments in my Verdict column, I have decided to write today's post on a different topic.  Even so, I do hope that readers will take a look at that other piece.]

by Neil H. Buchanan

The big post-election consensus among pundits is that they failed to understand the anger in the states that tipped oh-so-slightly for Donald Trump.  Supposedly, these now-self-flagellating cultural elites were so busy looking down their noses at "real Americans" that they completely missed the story on the ground.

My day job is as an economist and a law professor, so I am not sure whether I count as a pundit.  But if I am to be included among that group, I certainly plead not guilty to the charge of contributing to any supposed misunderstanding of middle class Americans, as I will discuss below.

More importantly, these self-described liberal elites who are now proclaiming their culpability are not making things better for the Americans whom they think they have ignored for so long.  They are merely contributing to a new, condescending narrative that validates the idea that Republicans represent regular people, when nothing could be further from the truth.

There are, unfortunately, plenty of people who voted for Trump who do feel disrespected.  In response to my columns, I occasionally receive correspondence from readers.  Some of the negative responses are filled with bile and raging hatred, but a large number are written by people who want me to understand that they supported Trump for defensible reasons.

In the weeks since the election, the central message from that second group of readers has been simple: "I didn't do this because I'm a racist, and it hurts and alienates people like me to be called bigots."  Granted, some of those messages then veer into complaints about lazy welfare cheats, or the claim that President Obama is a "street fighter," or similar comments suggesting that some of these readers are actually quite comfortable with the Republicans' longstanding use of dog-whistle bigotry to foment resentment.

Still, I can say with absolute sincerity and conviction that I do not believe that the typical Trump voter is a bigot.  A year and a half ago, I characterized an apostate conservative's defense of conservatism as the argument that "one can be a good conservative without being a gay-baiting, racist, immigrant-bashing neanderthal."  That he even needed to offer that defense (though not in those words) was an indication of what was obviously wrong with the conservative movement.  But he was sincere.

In a followup column, I then distinguished between the false populists in the Republican Party who were exploiting people's insecurities for political gain and the people with genuine concerns who continued to vote Republican.  I concluded: "I would not call any of my conservative friends, family members, or colleagues neanderthals, and not just to be polite."

The most important reason for my conclusion is that "intent matters."  And again, I continue to believe that a huge swath of Trump voters do not intend to be bigoted or to support bigoted policies.

Although intent matters, however, it does not erase the essential related question: No matter how bad things are, how were so many voters able to compartmentalize the racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and so on that spewed from the mouth of the person who won their support?  I know that many Trump voters claim that they never took Trump seriously when he said those things, but that suggests a certain level of denial that itself cries out for an explanation.

In short, it is certainly possible to believe that any given Trump voter is not motivated by racism and is not in fact a bigot.  But if those voters want the rest of us to understand their inherent goodness, it is at least necessary to understand why that inherent goodness was not repulsed by the actual content of Trump's speeches and rallies.

The short answer to that question, of course, is economic insecurity.  I, along with many other commentators, have been writing for years about the political dangers that arise when an economy is weak and people feel that they have no hope.  Lashing out at others is still morally problematic -- and millions of economically vulnerable people did not vote for Trump -- but it is certainly predictable.

As Michael McQuarrie recently wrote in Newsweek: "Trump is president because of a regional revolt.  ... White people generally didn’t deliver the White House to Trump, however much they enabled him; the Rust Belt did."  This lends credence to the idea that it is not bigotry but economic fear that led to Trump's eye-of-the-needle Electoral College victory.

But here is where the argument becomes tangled.  When Thomas Frank published What's the Matter With Kansas? in 2004, he identified a conundrum that liberals had been wrestling with for decades.  Democrats were the party that favored policies that would be good for working people, while Republicans actively undermined wages, job safety, public schools, and on an on.  Why did "heartland" voters think of Republicans as their saviors?

The dismissive answer from the right was that Democrats did not understand that people are not merely economic automatons, that dollars and sense do not matter as much as "values."  These voters were willing, according to this argument, to accept bad pay and dangerous working conditions as a necessary price to pay to make abortion illegal, to hold back gay rights, and so on.

The complaint from the right could thus be described as saying that liberals do not understand that middle-class Republican voters are engaged in what we now call "identity politics."  That is why it is especially rich for right-wingers like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat -- whose entire political view is driven by his religious identity -- to jump on the new vogue idea that it is liberals who are too engaged in identity politics.

So, we are told both that Democrats cannot expect people to vote on the basis of economics because they care more about social issues, but Democrats are wrong to focus on social issues that matter to millions of voters.  But when people vote for an openly bigoted candidate, it is not because they are bigoted but because they are economically vulnerable.

Perhaps, however, the big issue is the much-ballyhooed "condescension" that some Trump voters say bothers them.  Supposedly, coastal elites (including professors like me) have sneered at Real Americans one too many times, and our comeuppance finally arrived.

Again, I cannot speak for anyone but myself, but the times that I have said negative things about voting for Trump or other Republicans, I have been saying that I do not understand why those voters think that Trump or his party is going to do them any good at all.  Saying, "Don't you see that they are the ones who do Wall Street's bidding, who keep your wages down and medical care too expensive?" is not condescension.  It is simple disagreement and a desire to change minds.

People might not like to be told that they are wrong, but that is part of what politics is about.  "Don't vote for those guys, vote for us, because it will be better for you."

As I sit here sipping my soy latte, however, I wonder whether the complaint is that people like me are simply socially disconnected from swing voters.  Sure, I grew up in Ohio in a middle-class town where two-thirds of my public school classmates did not go to college.  Yes, my father was a Presbyterian minister and my mother the choir director.  True, I am an overly devoted Big 10 football fan who prefers beer to wine and Bruce Springsteen to Beethoven.

But maybe I am still not American enough to really get it.

It is true that people like me do not talk to unemployed workers every day, although we do support the labor organizations that continue to fight like crazy to get working people a fairer deal.  But if the complaint is that working class voters in the upper Midwest do not feel connected to people like me, how in the world do they feel connected to Republicans?

It would be condescending to say that these voters are easy marks for panderers, but Republicans certainly seem to think that they are.  The first President Bush infamously tried to reject his Connecticut Yankee roots by claiming to love pork rinds while mocking his opponent Michael Dukakis for being part of the Harvard Boutique.  (That Bush went to Yale, and that his son went to both Yale and Harvard before becoming president, was a minor detail.)

And Trump?  Raised rich, inherited a huge fortune, his failing businesses bailed out by his father.  He decided that the rules never applied to him -- not in business (just try collecting on a contract from him), and certainly not when dealing with women.  He is the opposite of a working-class hero, and it was obvious that he was never going to carry through on the pro-worker promises that he tossed around so freely.  Everything that we have seen since November 8 only proves that.

When people like me ask non-bigoted Trump voters, "What were you thinking?" it is not because we do not understand their economic pain.  We sympathize with their worries about shorter life expectancy, as well as the challenges facing all of the towns very much like the place where I grew up.  And it is certainly not because of any disdain for regular Americans.

It is because I wonder how it is possible for someone to feel economic insecurity but vote for the candidate and the party that are committed to preventing working people's lives from getting better -- the same candidate and party who are the true elitists and who are using people's economic insecurities to seize power.

My faith in political discussion in a democracy is based entirely on the idea that working people are not easy marks, that they should not be disdained, and that everyone deserves a better deal than they have been getting ever since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980.

I am glad that political commentators are trying to understand why Trump was able to assemble razor-thin majorities in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.  Economic policy matters, and Republicans have perversely been able to reap the benefits of the voter unrest that the Republicans' own misguided policy views have unleashed.

Democrats are not going to do themselves any good by rejecting their commitment to social progress.  They can only continue to try to advance economic progress as well, and to connect with voters who are hurting.  Democrats have always had the more popular policies.  Now they need to find a way to make their vision resonate with voters.