For leftists beginning the work of opposing and resisting a Trump presidency, one of the most pressing questions is how to understand and address those who supported him. Even ignoring the predictably bad takes from the centrists who pass as progressive—like Jonathan Weisman implying the Democratic National Committee shouldn’t have a “black Muslim” like Keith Ellison at its head, as it might alienate (presumably white) rust belt voters, and Mark Lilla blaming Hillary Clinton’s loss on an “identity politics” too focused on diversity—the question has become a fault line.
On one side, there are left-liberals like Jamelle Bouie, who declared “there is no such thing as a good Trump voter.” Rejecting calls to empathize with them, Bouie argued that we must focus instead on the marginalized groups who will be hurt most by Trumpism. “If any group demands our support and sympathy,” he wrote, “it’s these people, not the Americans who backed Trump and his threat of state-sanctioned violence against Hispanic immigrants and Muslim Americans. All the solicitude, outrage, and moral telepathy being deployed in defense of Trump supporters—who voted for a racist who promised racist outcomes—is perverse, bordering on abhorrent.”
On the other side are socialists who argue that we must embrace a political strategy that will appeal to many of the groups that Trump won, undermining his sham populism by advancing an authentic left populism. As five members of the Jacobin editorial board argued:
Blaming the American public for Trump’s victory only deepens the elitism that rallied his voters in the first place. It’s unquestionable that racism and sexism played a crucial role in Trump’s rise. And it’s horrifying to contemplate the ways that his triumph will serve to strengthen the cruelest and most bigoted forces in American society.
Still, a response to Trump that begins and ends with horror is not a political response—it is a form of paralysis, a politics of hiding under the bed. And a response to American bigotry that begins and ends with moral denunciation is not a politics at all—it is the opposite of politics. It is surrender.
In truth, the distance between Bouie and Jacobin (on this issue, anyway) isn’t so great. It is possible—and necessary—to loudly and unequivocally condemn the racism essential to Trump’s rise, the racism his voters articulated and countenanced, while simultaneously building a broad political movement that targets if not those very voters, then ones very much like them who stayed home on election day. However, doing so requires abandoning the most comforting liberal narratives about the right and its supporters.
Too often, the tropes liberals use to describe right-wing voters collapse the distinction between the problems those voters face and the policies and politicians they support. In condemning the latter, liberals deny that the former exist at all. Not only does that create the conditions Trumpism thrives in and the political blindness that made Hillary Clinton seem unbeatable, it obscures insights that are fundamental to a progressive political program and posits a false choice between moral condemnation and political power.
The This American Life episode “Seriously,” which aired in late October, provides a telling example. The title alone summarizes the bewilderment and exhausted disdain with which the show treats Trumpism. And while that disdain is earned—it’s only natural to want to throw up your hands when Ira Glass rolls tape of Trump claiming that Clinton started birtherism and he finished it, that she was on drugs during one of the debates, that she “meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty”—it’s a mistake to assume that every one of these absurd tales is totally baseless.
Blaming the American public for Trump’s victory only deepens the elitism that rallied his voters in the first place.
Of course many of Trump’s narratives are outlandish, brazen lies, and probably will continue to be throughout his presidency. And some of them truly are completely detached from reality. But the question we should ask ourselves is how those lies could ever seem true to his supporters, and to do that we must be willing to admit that some of the lies grow out of a grain of truth, no matter how disgusting their final form. Clinton is not plotting the destruction of U.S. sovereignty, but she most certainly is part of an elite with immense wealth and power that uses its influence to shape the global economy to its liking. So were her Republican corollaries who served as Trump’s earliest victims—let us not forget the fate of JEB!, after all.
But instead of taking into consideration what 62 million Trump voters might experience in their everyday lives that could make them believe his inane theories, Glass merely laments the growing “distrust [of] the fact-based media and fact-based journalists.” Instead of questioning what ignored truths might motivate Trump’s claims of a secret banker cabal—something plenty on the left are likely to believe as well—Glass merely contrasts the “post-truth politics” of Trumpism with the fair, objective understanding of the world offered by more respectable (and ostensibly liberal) commentators.
But what Glass and his guest, Planet Money’s Jacob Goldstein, offer in response is not objectivity. It’s technocratic elitism. While discussing why Trump (as well as Clinton and Bernie Sanders) oppose trade deals like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Goldstein explains that “one of the reasons trade is so unpopular is, the pain is really concentrated and visible. And the benefits are really diffuse.” He cites a survey showing that zero economists—those consistent arbiters of truth—said NAFTA made Americans worse off. “The big picture with these trade deals,” Glass summarizes, “is, like, a small number of workers get bonked on the head, and then the rest of us get a bigger economy.” The problem with Trump voters, they seem to say, is they just don’t understand the data. If they did, they would realize that things are actually going pretty well for everyone, minus a forgettable few.
Of course, as anyone committed to a progressive politics should know, that brand of “fact-based journalism” fails to consider the role of growing inequality, and that even if GDP rises—as Goldstein explains it has—that increase in wealth is increasingly flowing into the pockets of a select few. In fact, according to research by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman, the bottom 50 percent of the country hasn’t seen a real increase in income since the 1970s. Glass and Goldstein also ignore how corporations suppress union activity, one of the biggest deterrents to inequality, with threats of outsourcing, which these trade deals make viable, as well as the broader way in which the deals disclose the power the wealthy have over the global economy—you know, the power that allows them to bankrupt the world’s economy and erase millions of people’s retirement savings with impunity.
Trumpism obviously represents a dangerous politics based on bald lies, but that doesn’t mean anything opposed to it is true. Looking back on the election, we can see now just how mistaken it was to deny the kinds of economic issues Glass and Goldstein ignored. A Brookings Institute report by Mark Muro and Sifan Liu showed Trump won 2,584 counties compared to Clinton’s 471, yet the counties he won accounted for only 36 percent of the country’s GDP, a historically low number for a winning candidate. Telling those people, as Glass and Goldstein seem to do, that things are actually already good seems especially daft. It’s the same losing tactic Clinton adopted when she claimed “America never stopped being great”—something that was clearly false for many rust belt voters.
In a rush to deny Trump’s vile politics, these politicians and journalists deny the life experiences that lead people to Trump. They prove their ignorance of Trump voters’ lives while implying they are the only ones with facts and reason and truth. And that means Trump’s deplorable racist stereotypes and conspiracy theories carry much more weight—because they are the only narratives that explain the basic experiences of certain voters, even when they take the form of ridiculous conspiracy theories and easily proven lies.
A Trump voter, focusing on the cultural rather than the economic, seemed to explain that on another pre-election podcast, WYNC and The Nation’s The United States of Anxiety. In the show’s fourth episode, this woman was brought to tears during Trump’s convention speech. She, like many other Trump supporters, has a troubling obsession with political correctness and offers an admittedly baffling history tying it to Bill Clinton’s “it depends on what the definition of is is.” But when host Arun Venugopal pushes her to explain why she finds Trump’s comments on political correctness so moving, she, clearly emotional, says: “To hear someone say the things we’ve been saying for decades and not feeling we were heard. Nobody to speak up for us. It’s pretty amazing.”
“As you can hear,” Venugopal concludes in a voiceover, “this disgust for the Clintons is very deep.”
It seems undeniable that the woman’s motivations stem from feeling locked out of government, held powerless by Washington power brokers. The Clintons seem more synecdoche than villain. But in one sweeping statement, Venugopal dismisses all those concerns, writing them off as nothing more than a ridiculous grudge. Perhaps his response was understandable, given the pressing need to confront Trump’s exploitation of political correctness. But denying the reality of ordinary Americans shut out of government because they blame that fact on immigrants and racial minorities is completely unhelpful. As the show’s other host, Kai Wright, rightfully said, “Whatever you think of Donald Trump’s message, it’s not like it came out of thin air. Whatever he has tapped into, it has been with us and it will be with us until we confront it.”
The it here is neither the biased descriptions Trump supporters give of their problems nor the prescriptions Trump offers. It is the motivations behind all of that, the conditions people are living in. That’s what we must address and explain. And that’s exactly what these podcasts repeatedly deny in their rush to condemn Trumpism. The rest of the State of Anxiety episode, for instance, was devoted to a laundry list of harrowing clips from right-wing media: Rush Limbaugh commissioning racist songs and mocking the genocide of Native Americans, Donald Trump Jr. referencing gas chambers, Limbaugh and Glenn Beck claiming Obama planned on inciting race riots.
We should take the time to combat those vile arguments—but we should also note the intent of playing them all back to back to back on one segment, which seems to be delegitimizing everything else Trump supporters say. And while we should militantly condemn their support for racism, we must be clear that the things those voters use racism to explain—lack of good jobs, lack of political power, the decline of public institutions, even extended work hours and the simple emptiness of life under late capitalism—are very real. Rather than affirming our moral superiority, we must offer better narratives explaining the root cause of those issues.
That need is all the more pressing because Hillary Clinton’s approach, which built on the comforting liberal narratives on display in these episodes of This American Life and The United States of Anxiety, failed in much of the country. And it failed not just because she couldn’t attract the moderate Republicans she targeted, but because she couldn’t bring Democratic voters out to the polls in battleground states, as Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr explained in Slate. Her narrative not only failed to offer an alternative to Trump, but it failed to motivate her base, including people of color.
That’s because the problems Trump is offering a solution to, however hate-filled and false that solution is, bear strong similarities to the problems that working-class Democrats endure. Look at the practical issues in all working-class voters’ lives: health care and education costs are rising, people feel disconnected from their government, shut out of economic growth, public services are out of reach or inadequate. We should always be clear that people of color, LGBTQ individuals, immigrants, and other groups suffer immense additional injustices based on their identities and that there are real and important differences in how poverty and its symptoms appear in the lives of these different groups. But we should also be clear that there are overlapping experiences that can be used as a starting point for a new political movement. In doing so, we can bring together the groups Trump depended on for his improbable win and those targeted by his policies.
That’s the kind of class politics Jacobin rightly encourages. But that approach will also focus on addressing racism, sexism, Islamophobia, and other forms of oppression, as Bouie rightly argues is necessary. While many liberal commentators claim those policies would scare away Trump supporters, that’s the exact approach the Moral Mondays movement used in North Carolina to oust Republican governor Pat McCrory, one of the few Democratic victories of 2016.
Moral Mondays has targeted a wide array of regressive policies that have an outsized effect on black voters, especially voter suppression. But it has done so while agitating for progressive, universal and class-based reforms, like more funding for public education and an increased minimum wage. In an interview with the American Prospect, Moral Mondays’ leader, the Rev. Dr. William Barber, described the diverse supporters the movement has attracted as its strength. “In the South, for the NAACP to be leading a moral movement and you see crowds that are 40 percent white and 30 percent young?” he said. “That’s what’s really concerning them, and why they’re calling us names.”
Yet McCrory barely lost and Trump won the state. Moral Mondays’ victory must be expanded, and to do that we need, to use Jane McAlevey’s terms, a politics focused not on “mobilizing,” bringing out those who already agree with you, but “organizing,” bringing out those who do not yet see themselves in your camp, including those who may have voted Trump. And to do that we must abandon longstanding liberal narratives that dismiss Trump’s base as ignorant, unredeemable fools. Doing so does not mean denying, as Nathan J. Robinson argued in Current Affairs, “that maybe it is racism that fueled their Trump votes,” but merely admitting “that racism is something that can be exacerbated by demagoguery.” And that means it’s something that can be suppressed by solidarity. Only on those lines will it be possible to put forward an explicitly antiracist, antisexist, egalitarian politics that can defeat Trumpism—as well as run-of-the-mill Republicans and corporate Democrats.
Matt Hartman is a writer living in Durham, North Carolina.