The Sweet Spot Between the Cletus Safari and the Herman Cain Award

by Michael C. Dorf

Ever since the 2016 election, journalists for mainstream centrist-to-liberal outlets like the NY Times, Washington Post, and NPR have periodically ventured into Trump territory to listen to what the volk have to say. This sort of travelogue is so common that it has even earned a pejorative nickname:  a "Cletus Safari", after a stereotypical hillbilly character on The Simpsons. The Cletus Safari is often at least ostensibly sympathetic. Look. Sure, these white working class folks in the Rust Belt or rural America sound like racist and xenophobic theocrats, but you have to understand that ever since the plant closed and the opioid crisis hit, they've had it hard, so that's just projection.

Admittedly, even the ostensibly sympathetic Cletus Safari is patronizing in the way that attributions of false consciousness always are. But despite that and many other problems, Cletus Safaris usually do not traffic in overt hostility for their subjects.

Contrast the Cletus Safari with the Herman Cain Award--a subreddit that glories in reporting on how people who once downplayed or denied the risk of COVID-19 were later infected by and succumbed to it. It's understandable to feel somewhat less sympathy for such people than for, say, Colin Powell, who had received two doses of the vaccine and was about to get a booster, when he succumbed because he had a blood cancer that inhibited his immune response AND because the ambient level of COVID in the U.S. is higher than it would be if we didn't have so many anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers. Still, the Herman Cain Award itself is grossly insensitive. It's the kind of thing that gives schadenfreude a bad name.

Less gross but still a bit, I don't know, uncomfortable, are the numerous news stories in which an anti-vaxxer who became infected recorded a warning based on a change of heart that came too late. It is possible to imagine that some people who are vaccine-skeptical or otherwise conspiracy-theory-minded could be affected by one or more of these stories. However, they so frequently have a smugness about them that even when they seem to be offered in good faith, it's easy to see them instead reinforcing the view that "we" in the coastal liberal elite look down on the fools whom we're supposedly trying to persuade. No matter how sincere the motives of the people publicizing the posthumous warnings from anti-vaxxers who changed their minds too late, it cannot help that one site collecting them is the Herman Cain Award's Twitter feed.

Is there a sweet spot between the Cletus Safari and the Herman Cain Award? Put differently, how should rational liberals talk about and/or to Trump-supporting COVID-is-a-hoax types without, on the one hand, indulging and thus giving a platform to vitriol and nonsense, or, on the other hand, patronizing, demonizing, alienating, and thus further radicalizing them?

I don't have a perfect answer to that question. I confess that I enjoy the likes of Trevor Noah and John Oliver, each of whom runs numerous stories that have as their basic theme "these people are fools." (To be fair, they also run stories with the theme "these people are doing bad things"). But even if there were much less or even no overt smug condescension, FoxNews and the rest of the right-wing news/opinion ecosystem would find or distort something with which to generate outrage. In a big country with millions of people speaking out in varied fora, it will always be possible to find someone on any side of any issue saying something that either really is condescending or insensitive, or can be readily and plausibly mischaracterized that way. The War on Christmas is a forever war.

Thus, the point of avoiding things like the Herman Cain Award cannot be to persuade people who believe "we" look down on and lack empathy for them because Tucker Carlson told them we do. Nonetheless, there are two other reasons to avoid this sort of behavior. First, there are probably still a few people "in the middle" who will be offended by the insensitivity of the Herman Cain Award and things like it but who would not enlist fully in the fight against the bogus War on Christmas. Second, and certainly more fundamentally, we should avoid gross insensitivity because it's cruel. If a former anti-vaxxer who contracted COVID has, as a dying wish, that their message of regret go out to current anti-vaxxers, I suppose it might not be counter-productive to honor that wish, but let's at least not do so with anything resembling glee.

The opposite danger is easier to avoid. There is almost never a good reason for a Cletus Safari. The answer to the question whether Trumpists are people concerned about the global economic forces that have diminished their expectations or racist xenophobes who are prone to conspiracy theories like "white replacement" is both. Some are more directly activated by one set of concerns than the other, but these are not contradictory explanations. Economic misfortune or even the perception of potential economic misfortune exacerbates tendencies towards scapegoating. It's not important to talk to Cletus to figure out which is his primary motivation. It is important to pursue policies that will be more appealing than whatever appeal Trumpism holds.

But wait, you say. A fair number of Trumpists really are hardcore deplorables who should not be appeased. Sure, I'll grant that. Yet that's not a reason for even a Proud Boys safari, much less a Cletus safari. My point isn't that liberal-to-centrist media should ignore what's happening in Trumpland. It's essential to know where Trumparatchiks are being installed to corrupt elections, for example, so that if possible, steps can be taken to combat them. But the Cletus Safari isn't about keeping an eye on the opposition. It aims to humanize the opposition. To the extent that it ends up humanizing white supremacists, it's offensive. To the extent that it shows us that there are some otherwise sympathetic characters out there who have nonetheless fallen into believing and espousing dangerous and/or offensive nonsense, the Cletus Safari is at best pointless and often patronizing.

Thus, the sweet spot between the Herman Cain Award and the Cletus Safari ends up being fact-based discussion and inquiry, combined with sincere and passionate advocacy for sensible policies. That may sound banal and obvious. Perhaps it is. Yet for those of us who like our news and opinion with a large side of snark (and I'm as guilty as anyone of that taste), the temptation to go in other directions--especially the Herman Cain Award direction--is actually hard to resist.