The Futile and Condescending Pursuit of Trump's Remaining Supporters

by Neil H. Buchanan

There is a sub-genre of political punditry that relentlessly promotes the idea that the balance of future political power in the United States depends entirely on Democrats reconnecting with the people who voted for Donald Trump.  And to do that, Democrats supposedly need to "understand" and reach out to those voters.

I used scare quotes in that last sentence because the new conventional wisdom among these pundits is not simply that Democrats need to try to understand Trumpists in the sense of figuring out what common ground might exist between the issues they care about and what Democrats can honestly and honorably offer.  It is that Democrats apparently need to stop being snobby meanies who haughtily dismiss those voters' concerns.

As far as it goes, of course, that is the kind of political advice that only a writer with a superiority complex could offer with a straight face.  "Wow," we are apparently supposed to say in response.  "You mean we shouldn't gratuitously insult people whom we're trying to win over to our side?  Thanks for your brilliant insight!"

To be clear, the tut-tutting liberals probably do realize that their advice is obvious, which would explain why they are so exasperated at the very idea of reminding their supposedly wayward compatriots about basic etiquette.  The problem is that they seem to think that the only thing that Democrats need to do is simply be nice to these voters and everything will be fine.  Trump's voters are supposedly willing to switch back to the Democrats's side, and Democrats will apparently not lose any other voters by doing what is necessary to appeal to the white working class voters who were thrilled by Trump.

The bad news is that none of that is true.  The evidence is stronger than ever that Trump's remaining supporters are never coming back, and trying to get them to do so would seriously compromise the Democrats with other voters.  The good news is that Democrats can easily do everything they need to do to win without foolishly pursuing voters who are gone forever.

One of the leading voices of the "Democrats should stop insulting Trump voters" chorus -- and, to be clear, that is not what Democrats have actually been doing -- is Roger Cohen, a junior varsity columnist on the op-ed page of The New York Times.  On February 9, Cohen ran an entire column discussing one Trump voter whom Cohen clearly likes and admires, a military veteran who says things like, "Don’t take [Trump] at face value. If I thought he was a racist, I’d be off the train so fast you’d have to mail me my shadow."

Cohen draws this lesson: "The Democratic Party should listen to him, or risk losing in 2020."  Listen to him about what?  Cohen admits that he disagrees with his interviewee about every substantive issue, and he even makes it clear that the guy is a xenophobe.  ("'There are too many people running around who have no business being here.'")  More importantly, this voter claims to have no illusions about Trump, yet he insistently defends and deflects any criticisms of Trump.

So what should the Democrats learn?  Even basing their decision solely on what Cohen presents in his column, I would think that the lesson would be for Democrats to give up on this guy -- and, by extension, on Cohen and others who insist on wasting everyone's time in a futile attempt to reconstitute the old Democratic voting blocs.

Unsurprisingly, Cohen offers a different lesson: "The same old, same old (for example, Joe Biden) won’t work."  Bizarrely, this is followed with: "A whiff of got-the-system-rigged elitism from the Democrats will be fatal."  If Biden's brand means anything, however, he is exactly the kind of candidate with blue-collar roots that pundits like Cohen who demean "blue-state coastal America" think the Democrats must embrace.

I want to emphasize here that I am no fan of Biden.  He has proven to be a terrible candidate in the past, and as I wrote a few months ago, he would be an especially bad nominee in the #MeToo era.  My point is only that Cohen fails even to keep his bits of conventional wisdom straight when lecturing the Democrats about their purported habit of lecturing people.

And this is not Cohen's first foray into this nonsense.  Just as he described his new best friend in his February 9 column as "no 'deplorable,'" Cohen has previously embraced a blame-the-elitists approach to explaining American politics.  Last Spring, he quoted a writer from Montana -- Get it?  Not from a coast, so a real person! -- offering the homespun wisdom that "Nobody’s ever been convinced by being made to feel stupid."

The problem with Cohen's Montana aphorism is that it is also true that no man has ever been convinced by being coddled by people who were afraid to suggest to him that he was wrong.  As I wrote at the end of Trump's first week in office, too many liberals think that Trump's voters are snowflakes who cannot handle being told -- politely but clearly and convincingly -- that they made a bad choice.

This past December, The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin exposed the Cohen-style argument's poorly hidden condescension:
"The assumption that this part of America was somehow more 'real' or virtuous (recall 'New York City values'?) than any other stemmed from a mix of liberal guilt and white grievance-mongering.  (We've failed them! We should have let them keep the 'Christmas' party!)  The argument that they were not responsible for the rise of Trump — who was the fault of elites who did the working class wrong!  — was illogical and insulting.  Surely, these voters, like all voters, have agency and are accountable for their decisions, whether in their everyday lives or in their politics."
Indeed.  People who voted for Trump are grown-ups.  Some of them truly are deplorable (see, e.g., Stephen Moore and Steve Bannon), while others have already come to their senses.  Being clear about why more people must abandon their infatuation with Trump is the Democrats' only sensible path forward with that group of Americans.  (And to be clear, Democrats can win without them.)

We also need to be realistic.  Most of the people who love Trump are exulting in making liberals angry, and they are not going to be convinced to change their minds.  Sweet talk will not work any better than tough talk.  The Trump supporters I know are not fire-breathing racists, but they are also not willing to change their minds even in the face of the ever-growing mountain of evidence that Trump is a racist.  I do not have to hate them in order to conclude rationally that they are not worth being courted.

The Cohen approach is surprisingly resilient and widespread, but each time it returns it is even more at odds with the evidence.  Even the (now wealthy and coastal) creator of the TV show "Roseanne" decided that her re-booted show will portray its main character as a Trump supporter, reportedly saying matter-of-factly that "it's just realistic."

But for those of us who watched and admired that ground-breaking show, the idea that a working class feminist like Roseanne Conner would be a Trump supporter is beyond insane.  She railed against bosses for treating workers as disposable cogs, she confronted men who were abusive in both the workplace and the home, and she saw through the kind of trickle-down BS that Republicans have been shoveling for decades.  She certainly was no racist.

The idea that Roseanne in 2016 would not have bucked her neighbors' small-mindedness and called Trump the fraud that he is simply does not makes sense.  It is easy to imagine her flinging her trademark acidic put-downs at anyone who repeated sexist insults about Hillary Clinton.  Yet we see the creator of the character defaulting to the idea that her fictional self would be falling for all the lies.  Hollywood loves to tell a safe story, and this one could not be safer (or more condescending).

It is not as if there are no writers pushing back against the idea that "hillbillies" and white working-class voters are all infatuated by Trump.  One Appalachia-born Ohio Democrat wrote passionately in The Post that her upbringing in rural poverty is what inspired her to run for Congress.  The people who peddle the idea that rural whites are all in Trump's corner are wrong.  Those voters are not insulted by coastal condescension but by the Cohen-esque attempts to reduce them to stereotypes who do not -- and can never -- know any better.

Alexander Nazaryan noted in Newsweek last July that, in the middle of the Watergate controversy, a New York Times reporter had written that "middle Americans" did not care about the "remote controversy" that was soon to take down a president.  Nazaryan's point was that newspapers like The Times are again trying to prove their non-elitism by reporting on people who still like Trump, as if what so-called regular people think about the Russia investigation matters.

Attitudes about the Russia probe and other Trump scandals and outrages matter in the aggregate, but reporting on the distinct minority of people who cannot allow themselves to believe anything bad about Trump completely misses the point.  Democrats do not need to win 100 percent of the vote, and they never will.  What matters is that more and more people are seeing Trump for what he is, not that some core group of people refuses to do so.