Trump's Snowflake Voters (A Dorf on Law Classic)

Note to readers: This is the first of this year's "classic" columns, i.e., an opportunity for Dorf on Law to take a break for the holidays while giving interested readers an opportunity to read some of our favorite recent columns.  This piece was first published on January 27, 2017, a week into Donald Trump's presidency.  Although I believe that it holds up rather well, I will note that the sixth paragraph includes this: "More to the point, those of us who oppose Trump are optimistic enough to believe that a large number of his current supporters are not permanently in his camp."  Hmmm.  How well has that optimistic belief held up?  In any case, enjoy!

 by Neil H. Buchanan

There is now a received wisdom about the 2016 election that goes something like this: Trump was inevitably going to win, and the reason no one saw it coming was that journalists live in liberal bubbles in coastal cities and do not know any Trump voters.

If only these journalists had "gotten out there" and interviewed Real Americans, rather than holding them in contempt, they would have felt -- really felt -- the pain of these voters.  This story then holds that those angry voters naturally voted for Trump because he is the ultimate outsider, and they felt in their guts that his solutions were just what is needed to reverse the pain in their lives.  Sticking it to those annoying elitists was an added bonus.

But what if that received wisdom is wrong?  More importantly, what if this new conventional wisdom is actually more condescending to voters -- more the result of the liberal bubble inhabitants' biases and groupthink than of actually applying logic to evidence -- than the supposedly arrogant narrative that it replaced?

I offered an initial assessment of this already-established narrative back on December 1, quoting one analyst who wrote: "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."

As that quote implies, everyone is trying very hard only to talk about the Trump voters who are not racists or otherwise bigoted.  For obvious reasons, the question of race in the election is a sensitive one, as I have explored recently.  (See here and here.)

More to the point, those of us who oppose Trump are optimistic enough to believe that a large number of his current supporters are not permanently in his camp.  Yes, Trump has undeniably brought some ugliness into the mainstream, not all of which will go away any time soon.  But we need to believe that most people are inherently good.

The instant consensus noted above -- that liberal journalists missed the real story -- relies in large part on the idea that Trump won his sliver-thin margins in several now-post-industrial states by flipping formerly Democratic voters to his side.  If that really is the story, then the last two and a half months of hand wringing about those white working class voters is obviously a necessary step in Democrats' efforts to return to political prominence.

The problem is that the data never quite told the story that everyone now thinks is true.  The same day that I wrote about "reaching the reachable Trump voters," in fact, two scholars published a piece in Slate in which they looked at voting data from what they called the Rust Belt 5 -- Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  The story they tell is quite interesting and surprising.

As everyone should know by now, three of those states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) provided the Electoral College edge for Trump.  As I calculated recently, if fewer than 54,000 Trump voters in those three states had flipped to Clinton, we would not currently be scratching our heads about "alternative facts" or worrying about trade wars (and shooting wars).

The authors of the Slate piece, Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr, point out that the data support a distinctly different story from the "angry white working class voters flocked to Trump" narrative.  It is not that the raw vote totals are wrong, so it does remain true that the equivalent of the population of Elyria, Ohio swung the election for Trump.  That by itself remains an astonishing fact.

Kilibarda and Roithmayr, however, describe the so-called Rust Belt revolt as a myth because "[t]he real story—the one the pundits missed—is that voters who fled the Democrats in the Rust Belt 5 were twice as likely either to vote for a third party or to stay at home than to embrace Trump."

Overall, more than a half million under-$50,000 voters who had voted for Obama in 2012 did not vote at all in 2016.  Furthermore, fewer than two-thirds of the white voters who had voted for Obama in 2012 voted for Trump last year, and those who stayed home or who voted for a third party totaled 220,000 -- more than enough to swing the election for Clinton.

So even if we are looking only for data to support the angry-working-class-whites narrative, we end up with a chunk of those voters who never embraced Clinton but who certainly could not join their angry friends at Trump rallies.

In addition, the Republicans picked up as many voters in those states whose incomes are above $100,000 annually as they did among voters who earn less than $50,000.  It was not really a working class revolt after all.

More shockingly, Democrats also lost 400,000 votes among the "black, indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) vote," compared to 2012.  One third of those voters, for reasons known only to them, voted for Trump in 2016.  Put another way, more than 260,000 Democratic voters of color fell away in 2016 by not voting or by voting for a third-party candidate.

Therefore, the notion that down-on-their-luck white voters flipped to Trump is not exactly wrong -- enough such voters did so to make up the deficit that Clinton needed, many times over -- but only motivated thinking by pundits could have turned this into the dominant theme of the post-election discussion.

In some ways, this distorted pundit-led discussion is an example of what can usefully be called an insta-consensus.  On election night, shocked analysts were casting about for a story to tell, and Trump's bigoted campaign rhetoric all but begged for that story to be about angry white voters.  Everyone was being sensitive not to call the white Trump voters themselves bigots, so this had to be spun as a story about misunderstood downscale white people.

This kind of distorted insta-consensus is actually all too common.  Perhaps the most dramatic example is the completely false narrative that emerged after the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999.  The entire story that was told about that horrific event -- a "trench-coat" mafia of goth-obsessed kids wreaking revenge on the popular jocks who had tormented them -- turned out to be utterly false.  Yes, I was surprised, too.

Although that example is extreme, the 2016 election post mortem is in its own way just as misguided.

Because so many liberals are willing to believe the negative stereotypes that they hear about themselves -- "Well, gee, I really don't like tractor pulls, and I do laugh at candidates in the Iowa caucuses when they eat fried cheese" -- I strongly suspect that this new narrative is a peculiar form of penance for people who deep down are ashamed when Sarah Palin describes other places as "the real America."

I recently read a long article by the journalist George Packer in The New Yorker, which was published a week before the election.  It is a fascinating read, in part because it shows that whatever else one might say about Hillary Clinton, she was keenly aware of the populist rumblings among working class voters and was actually quite focused on winning them over.

Packer's piece is not without its weaknesses.  Any journalistic effort that actually takes Thomas Friedman and Charles Murray seriously as thinkers is not on strong ground, after all.  In any event, Packer focuses on the idea that the white voters who were drawn to Trump were understandably angry with supposed liberal elites.

Packer quotes Murray: "The energy coming out of the new lower class really only needed a voice, because they are so pissed off at people like you and me.  We so obviously despise them, we so obviously condescend to them—'flyover country.'"

And there it is again, the supposed condescension and disdain that Trump's voters are now thought to have been rebelling against.  The problem is that all of this solicitude for the feelings of Trump's voters is itself insulting, condescending, and disdainful.  One can imagine Murray and Packer whispering: "Shhhh.  Don't say anything bad about them, because they hate that.  They're very sensitive!"

To use the insult that the pundits on Fox News are now wrongly hurling at college students, people like Packer seem to think that working class white people are "snowflakes" -- fragile, pathetic, and weak losers who will melt if someone says something unpleasant to them.

Surely, no one likes it when others are being condescending.  But I frankly think that working class voters can take it when they find out that their leaders don't like fried butter on a stick.

When I was growing up in a working-class suburb of Toledo, Ohio, we knew that Ohio was the butt of jokes (and within Ohio, Toledo was the butt of jokes).  When I went to college, for example, a kid from a suburb on Long Island (a suburb that was surely no different from my suburb) asked with a smirk, "How many cows do you have on your farm?"  It was stupid, but who cares?  We were stronger than that.

Moreover, as I have pointed out again and again, it is also condescending to Trump's voters to say that they hate elites but somehow they cannot bear to be told that Trump is conning them by installing people in power who really look down on working people.  (When the Koch brothers are not pouring money into Republican campaigns, they are endowing operas and ballets in liberal, disdainful, condescending, elitist New York City.)

People can be stubborn, so we can depend on Trump's voters to deny that they made a mistake in voting for Trump.  Indeed, we can be sure that the non-voters who actually flipped the election to Trump will be even more insistent that their acts of omission were not the reason for Trump's rise.

But it is essential to engage with these voters and non-voters and show them that Trump's promise to bring back the jobs of the fifties and sixties is a cynical lie.  That is going to upset some people, but that is politics.  The alternative is to refuse to engage on the issues at all.

People are not snowflakes, and they can handle adult conversations in which they are challenged to rethink their positions.  For liberal pundits to think otherwise, and to imagine that white working-class voters will suddenly change their views if liberals learn to love pork rinds, is what real condescension looks like.