Pundits have developed a repertoire of cliches surrounding Trump voters, in large part motivated by the desire not to stereotype them as racist ignorant hicks. Before recoiling from such weighty generalizations, it is worth noting how terms like ‘racist’ and ‘ignorant’ work. Two people can hold many diverging views and yet both be accurately described as racist or ignorant, though to different degrees. Are all Trump voters racist? Plenty Trump voters would find many of David Duke or Richard Spencer’s views reprehensible, but they also all judged that it was morally acceptable to vote for a candidate who is actively supported by racists, makes racist statements, proposes racist policies, and uses racism to galvanize a base. Does that make them racist? It depends on whether you think putting such a candidate into the most powerful position in the world is itself racist.
I. The Baskets
I think that the well-worn distinction (what we might call “Hillary’s baskets”) between racial resentment and “economic anxiety” is mistaken. The idea is that some voters were motivated by economic anxieties while others are the “deplorables”—those who were motivated by racial resentment, xenophobia, sexism, and other bigotries. Of course the two baskets are not mutually exclusive. A voter could belong in both baskets. But it also makes sense to talk about the primary motivation of voters. Some were primarily motivated by Trump’s comments about Mexicans or Muslims. Others were primarily motivated by the vague notion of bringing back jobs and draining the swamp. Thus we can fill in the baskets accordingly. David Duke is in one basket. The unemployed coal miner from West Virginia is in the other.
Hillary’s baskets give white people a way to clear their consciences (or feel no pain of conscience at all). As the pundits say, poor white people are really in pain—in so much pain, so it seems, that they are justified in turning to the empty promises of a racial demagogue. The lack of 1970s-style coal mining jobs is such a severe problem, so it seems, that voters are willing to tolerate a ban on Muslims and Syrian refugees. The implication is that a Trump vote can be accepted or condoned on these grounds. But such an idea presupposes Hillary’s baskets. Except for the distinction’s constant repetition and side effect of white exoneration, what reason do we have to accept it?
It is fairly easy to see that most forms of ‘economic anxiety’ are an outgrowth and superficially more acceptable form of racial resentment. The Trump voters’ language around economic issues shows their true loyalties and concerns. “We” want to make America great again by getting rid of the people who are coming in and taking “our” jobs. The motivation comes from a profound sense of entitlement and cultural identity, a nostalgia for homogeneity. This land is our land, not yours. To make America great again means to return ownership and power to the “true American.”
Maybe you think all of that is unfair. Let’s take a step back. Notice that Trump voters assume without argument that immigration, legal or illegal, hurts the economy. The claim is dubious and complicated. When faced with the question, “Why do you think illegal immigration is actually a problem?” few Trump voters have an answer, let alone one based on economic harm. But debate over that question matters little. The economic arguments are a convenient cover for racial resentment. Claims about enforcing laws, sovereignty, and border security decode to mean the preservation of a white national identity. Even if there is an important link between immigration and white economic pain, it is rhetorically coincidental. It is not what motivated the arguments in the first place. The racial resentment comes before the economic anxiety. The economic arguments serve as a way to express those darker views without receiving widespread censure. It is an age-old technique.
Maybe I am still being unfair. Complicated issues of globalization and trade are in play. What about the Bernie Sanders dimension of Trump’s appeal? People were attracted to the populism, the criticism of the Wall Street elites. The economic populism explanation is appealing because, again, it exonerates white America, which should already make us circumspect. But there is a further problem. If it were a true motivation of the Trump voter, we should be seeing large-scale outrage over Trump’s ultra-wealthy cabinet and incessant self-enrichment. The administration’s vision appears to be a government of rich people meeting with other rich people cutting deals to make rich people richer. After Trump and his supporters critiqued Clinton’s connection to Wall Street ad nauseum, many people were left scratching their heads at the hypocrisy. Why aren’t Trump supporters abandoning him in droves?
When Trump railed against “elites,” he wasn’t decrying the rich and powerful. His appeal was built on the fact of his wealth and power, on his promise to bring that wealth and power to bear on Washington and deliver benefits to the deserving. For Trump, “elites” are defined by the people with whom they sympathize. And in his narrative, they sympathize with the racial adversaries of his supporters: Hispanic immigrants, Muslim Americans, and black protesters. “Elites,” in Trump’s telling, are leaders who will not strike back against America’s enemies. This isn’t separate from his appeal to jobs and revitalization; it’s the other side of the coin. With echoes of George Wallace and Richard Nixon, Trump tied economic pain to a racialized picture of “elites.” Those elites, with their sympathy for the “other,” are the reason you are hurting; they are the reason America isn’t great. To elect Trump was to reclaim the country from those elites.
So we arrive back in the racial resentment basket. Or more accurately, we see that there is really only one basket. Trump voters were accepting of Trump’s racially-charged campaign, either explicitly through his immigration and crime policies or implicitly through his economic agenda (to the extent that he even had one). We see confirmation every day. (There may exist Trump voters who simply did not know what they were voting for. That is a different type of failure.)
II. The Call to Empathy
Why talk about this? Progressives have been repeatedly told to empathize with Trump voters. Journalists have shown a new interest in telling the stories of Trump voters, humanizing them, and lifting up their views as something worth attention and consideration. But Hillary’s baskets motivate the whole exercise: what are the nice Trump voters like and why are they upset? They keep telling us they aren’t racist, so shouldn’t we believe them? But if my analysis of the basket distinction is right, then the call for empathy is left needing a new basis. Why? The call to empathy is in fact a covert call to acceptance. If we see enough field reporting, the thinking goes, we will see that the Trump voter is actually well-meaning and good-willed.
Such an approach creates the reality it seeks to describe. The economic anxiety trope is so pervasive and culturally axiomatic that, at the same time as it goes out from every channel, it comes back in from the field, creating a loop that simultaneously defines and creates a group of people. The Trump voter self-identifies as one of the ‘economically anxious’ because it sets them apart from the deplorables and allows them to acquire a stamp of acceptability, an immunity from the angry leftists (whose anger now appears sanctimonious and irrational). The Trump voters offered themselves a free ticket out of guilt.
We must break the cycle and reject this thinking. There is no getting around the fact that a Trump vote was a moral failure. The explanations handed to us don’t survive critical analysis. Acceptance, if possible at all, must start from an accurate understanding of the wrong. Given the reality of the moral failure, we are fully justified in condemning and criticizing the action of Trump voters.
Plenty of progressives know this. They are angry and hurt. They are ashamed of their country. And they are right. Hillary’s baskets are appealing not only to those seeking exoneration. They also give a different picture of the country’s moral character. We don’t have to think that so many people would accept Trump’s campaign—or at least fall in line when the time came. But plenty of people know too much to fall for that delusion. For them, Trump was all too familiar. They saw exactly who he is and knew exactly how people would justify supporting him. And they knew how all of it would be distorted in a way that allows all of the guilty to brush off every demand for moral reflection. They know the age-old techniques.
For many people, the injustice of the election itself has been followed by the continued injustice of the discourse surrounding Trump voters. It is a discourse that lacks any plausible basis and diminishes the experiences of those harmed by the election results. Hence, the call to empathy rings hollow because it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of who Trump voters are and what they did.
If we are going to move forward, we need an accurate estimation of the country’s moral character. And we must move beyond empathy.
III: My Argument Condensed and Extended
There is a woefully inadequate discourse surrounding the significance of the Trump vote. In fact, the discourse and the vote itself stem from one and the same moral failure. Perhaps the most ubiquitous feature of the post-election discourse is the suggestion that liberals should reach out to their Trump-voting countrymen with empathy. The call to empathy, however, is actually a furtive call for acceptance. It assumes that under the surface nearly all Trump voters had legitimate reasons for their choice. But there were no legitimate reasons. As a result, the call to empathy is left without basis. It neglects the reality of the moral failure. But more than that, the push for acceptance is a product of the same thinking that attempts to justify the Trump vote in the first place. It constitutes a harm of the same kind. Hence, the targets of Trump’s agenda are left doubly harmed. On the one hand, they are victims of the damaging policies and language of the president and, on the other, they are diminished and gaslighted by the discourse surrounding the election.