Liberal Anti-Politics

Liberal pundits would have us write off all Trump supporters. But only a broad working-class movement can defeat the far right.

A Trump supporter in March 2016. Johnny Silvercloud / Flickr

A certain tendency has emerged among the liberal commentariat following the election of Donald Trump: a total identification of the president-elect with those who voted for him.

Jamelle Bouie gives it a pithy summary in a recent Slate article called “There’s No Such Thing as a Good Trump Voter,” his most explicit articulation of a position he has alluded to consistently. “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,” he writes.

It’s redolent of a statement Hillary Clinton made on the campaign trail. Half of Trump’s supporters, she said, fit into a “basket of deplorables.” When those supporters emerged from their basket in greater numbers than her own on Election Day — at least where it counted — it became clear that calling them “deplorable” wasn’t an effective means of winning their votes. But you know what they say about hindsight.

At the time, this questionable strategy was considered a sound one by many liberal pundits. Jonathan Chait endorsed Clinton’s remark in a piece at New York magazine titled “Yes, Most Donald Trump Supporters Are Deplorable.” After posing the question “Do Trump’s supporters legitimately share all of his deranged beliefs, or are they merely signaling some kind of tribal affinity?”, Chait concluded that it’s “a distinction without a difference.”

He cited a study claiming Trump’s backers are “authoritarians” who “yearn for a strongman who can override the systemic constraints on presidential power.” They’re deplorable, Chait said, whether or not they agree with everything Trump says.

For Chait and Bouie, Trump voters didn’t just make the wrong choice. They all lack legitimate grievances. Even a misguided social conscience, or mistaken self-interest, can’t be entertained as possible causes of their decision. They voted solely out of malevolent disregard for the targets of Trump’s invective.

Trump was elected by 46.2 percent of American voters. That’s around 20 percent of the American general population — well over 60 million people. Exit polls indicate that this number includes several million people of color. No one on the Left believes these voters were right to support Trump, but Bouie and Chait take it a step further. They don’t even want to change their minds.

Bouie's Take

Those who do want to change minds have been an additional target of Bouie’s ire. In a subsequent article, “The Democrats Are Screwing Up the Resistance to Donald Trump,” Bouie takes Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders to task for speculating about why Trump won over so many working-class voters. “Both Warren and Sanders emphasize that bigotry was part of Trump’s message,” he writes. “But they want to separate the ‘deplorables’ from the larger group of more ordinary Americans who just wanted a change of pace.”

Bouie doubts there’s a difference. The attempt to understand Trump voters, he charges, is tantamount to collaboration with the president-elect himself. That Bouie’s contempt is reserved for Sanders, Warren, and Minnesota representative Keith Ellison (coincidentally, the first-ever Muslim congressperson), rather than the likes of Clinton (“we owe him an open mind”), Barack Obama (“we are now all rooting for his success”), and Joe Biden (“everything will be in good hands”) is a clear sign of partisan opposition to the Left rather than a principled stance.

“It seems reasonable for Warren and Sanders to make a distinction between Trump as blue-collar populist and Trump as racist demagogue,” Bouie writes later in the piece. “But that distinction doesn’t exist.” It’s a neat trick: Bouie takes statements about the motives of voters and turns them into a description of the candidate.

“White voters backed Trump as a bloc,” he tells us. The assumption he takes for granted — that poor white Trump voters had the same motives as wealthy white Trump voters — has little grounding in evidence. He doesn’t think it’s necessary to provide any. Though willing to view people with common physical characteristics and cultural norms as a cohesive group, Bouie doesn’t consider class a comparable category.

It’s exactly this kind of liberal glibness toward class divisions that hampered Hillary Clinton in the general election.

In March, Bouie argued that in order to take the presidency, “Democrats don’t need to win working-class whites or even to come close.”

By October, with Election Day approaching, he was holding to the same prediction. Today’s Democratic Party, he argued, “doesn’t see a national future in winning white workers from the GOP.”

Hillary Clinton is still on track to win this presidential election. And barring an extraordinary — and unlikely — collapse in Trump’s support, she will do so with a revamped Obama coalition, comprising nonwhites; young voters; and an unprecedented number of moderate, suburban whites. She will have claimed the center of American politics, not by pandering to popular prejudices, but by rejecting them.

As it turns out, one of the reasons Clinton lost was because her campaign neglected states where working-class whites have historically voted Democratic.

In fact, as Nate Cohn noted in the New York Times in the wake of the election, Trump won many counties “where Obama was strong among white working-class voters.” Even more scandalously, Trump performed better among voters of color, including African Americans and Latinos, than Mitt Romney in 2012. Clinton, on the other hand, did worse than Obama among nonwhite voters.

Bouie has acknowledged that such news is “somewhat surprising.” But he’s doubled down on the explanation he offered before the election: that all we’re seeing is “a white electorate fueled by tribalism and eager to reassert its dominance.” There were just more people of color in it this time.

Chait's Take

While Bouie is convinced that Trump voters from every economic stratum are motivated by the same racist ideology, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait has a simpler explanation. It’s because they’re “idiots.” When Trump won the Republican nomination, Chait headed straight for his high horse.

As low as my estimation of the intelligence of the Republican electorate may be, I did not think enough of them would be dumb enough to buy his act. And, yes, I do believe that to watch Donald Trump and see a qualified and plausible president, you probably have some kind of mental shortcoming.

This was a remarkable position to take for a man who had argued three months earlier that liberals should “earnestly and patriotically support a Trump Republican nomination.” Chait insisted that Trump “would almost certainly lose,” but if by some impossible feat he did win, Trump “might even, possibly, do some good.” (Chait’s stance would be more amusing if it didn’t appear to be the Clinton campaign’s position as well.)

Chait’s critical faculties also failed him when it came to explaining Trump supporters. The “authoritarian” study he cited described them as obedient chumps — eager to follow leaders, aggressive toward outsiders. Evidence in hand, Chait arrived at the same conclusion as Bouie: Trump and his supporters were morally equivalent — “irredeemable,” in Clinton’s words.

What Chait didn’t mention was that in the 2008 Democratic primary, a similar study found that Democrats with authoritarian tendencies preferred Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama. Even worse, he ignored a more recent study on GOP contenders. Supporters of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, it found, were comparably accepting of authoritarianism — in Cruz’s case, even more so. The difference was that Trump supporters exhibited populist tendencies — particularly anti-elitism and mistrust of experts — to a far greater extent than supporters of his Republican rivals.

As Christian Parenti has pointed out, the racist and misogynistic statements that usually made it into the news — important and repugnant as they were — may not have been the aspect of Trump’s rhetoric some supporters took home with them. “Choppy as they were,” Parenti writes, “Trump’s speeches nonetheless had a clear thesis: Regular people have been getting screwed for far too long and he was going to stop it.”

Bouie vs. Chait

Bouie and Chait don’t usually see eye to eye on race and class.

While Bouie thinks the Left downplays racism, Chait thinks we see it everywhere. These days, he’s best known as an opponent of “political correctness.” Trump supporters may be deplorable, but to Chait, the worst authoritarians are on the Left.

Borrowing from a right-wing conspiracy theory made famous by Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, Chait traces the origins of identity politics and privilege discourse to Marxism. Today’s left, he says, has replaced the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie with the struggle of black against white, woman against man, and gay against straight.

For Chait, class is a kind of identity, and identity is to be rejected outright. Indeed, it was precisely on this basis that Chait denounced Bernie Sanders during his primary campaign.

Class, in [Sanders’s] telling, means far more than a rough description for a person’s income or level of social need. It is the singular prism through which Sanders views politics. He does not merely argue that people with different incomes have different economic interests. He treats class as the fundamental identity in American society.

Before the recent furor over political correctness on campus, Chait’s take on identity politics landed him in a public back-and-forth with Bouie.

The dispute began with a 2014 reflection on racism and the Obama presidency, in which Chait quoted Lee Atwater’s notorious explanation of what came to be known as a “dog whistle.”

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a by-product of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.

This year, Bouie rightly noted that the dog whistle was a primary characteristic of Trump’s campaign.

But two years ago, in a more innocent time, Chait thought looking for dog whistles was unfair. Liberals, he said, have acted as though “Republican politics is fundamentally racist, and even its use of the most abstract economic appeal is a sinister, coded missive.” Chait found that “completely insane.” Accusing someone of racism and actually being racist were, for Chait, roughly equivalent offenses.

Bouie vigorously disagreed. Chait, he said, paid little attention to the actual effects of racism, treating it as “a low-stakes cocktail party argument between white liberals and white conservatives over their respective racial innocence.” Chait countered that he was colorblind; he simply intended to “treat black Americans as part of a red-blue partisan divide, as opposed to treating them as black Americans, per se.” According to his analysis, “the Obama era has produced a cleavage along ideological rather than racial lines.”

Yet somehow this rather acrimonious dispute — with Bouie arguing for the primacy of race in American politics and Chait effectively arguing for its irrelevance — didn’t lead them to different political positions when Trump’s stock soared. Content to impute Trump’s odious views to all of his supporters, Bouie and Chait were united in their moralistic contempt.

A Fatal Flaw

In May, Bouie and Chait appeared in a joint interview on New York public radio. In spite of their attention to the history of coded racism in the Republican Party, they agreed to let the GOP off the hook.

Chait spoke of “a disconnect between themes that Republicans use to win elections, and then the purposes to which they apply that power once they’ve won it.” He argued that racism, whether overt or subterranean, merely capitalizes on “cultural resentments” in order to “harness them into votes.” Once they gain power, Republicans advance colorblind conservative policies — “things like cutting the capital gains tax, deregulating Wall Street, fossil fuels, and that sort of thing.”

Bouie didn’t dispute this, suggesting that repudiating Trump could help the GOP mature into a gentler organization.

The potential upside to Trump is just that maybe he changes how the Republican Party does its business, how it appeals to voters. Maybe it disabuses Republican elites of these plays to white resentment and white anger and forces or moves the party in a more, not necessarily liberal, but more open and cosmopolitan direction.

Their agreement anticipated a position Clinton would take in August, outlined in a speech that castigated Trump for his reluctance to renounce his white nationalist supporters. Clinton named Bob Dole, John McCain, and George W. Bush as exemplars of antiracism, exonerating the GOP for politics that, she implied, were solely Trump’s.

While Bouie and Chait’s strange truce allowed them to align with Clinton’s centrist appeal to moderate Republicans, the supposedly class reductionist Bernie Sanders consistently held a different position. In February’s Democratic primary debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Sanders noted class disparities that he ascribed to “institutional racism.”

As I understand it, the African-American community lost half of their wealth as a result of the Wall Street collapse. So when you have childhood African-American poverty rates of 35 percent, when you have youth unemployment at 51 percent, when you have unbelievable rates of incarceration — which, by the way, leaves the children back home without a dad or even a mother — clearly, we are looking at institutional racism. We are looking at an economy in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And sadly, in America today, in our economy, a whole lot of those poor people are African-American.

Sanders won the Wisconsin primary, but the state went to Trump in the general election. After securing the nomination, Hillary Clinton didn’t pay it a single visit. Turnout around the state, usually among the highest in the country, plummeted to a sixteen-year low. The sharpest declines, the New York Times reports, were in the poorest areas, with Milwaukee’s majority-black District 15 showing a nearly 20 percent drop from 2012.

One African-American resident explained his antipathy, telling the Times that “no president in his lifetime had done anything to improve the lives of black people.” He wrote in Sanders on Election Day. Another District 15 resident voted for Trump as a protest against Clinton, whose husband he holds responsible for sending him to prison (District 15 has one of the nation’s highest per-capita incarceration rates). Trump’s overt racism, he is quoted as saying, is “better than smiling to my face but going behind closed doors and voting against our kids.”

If voters like these don’t correspond to Chait and Bouie’s description, it’s because there’s a fatal flaw in their schema.

A New Rainbow Coalition

Earlier this week, Bouie responded at length to Columbia University history professor Mark Lilla’s recent New York Times op-ed calling for a “post-identity liberalism.” Lilla goes even further than Chait, arguing that the liberal “obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored.”

His analysis is the most questionable of all: rural whites, Lilla contends, voted for Trump as a high-minded critique of trigger warnings and safe spaces on college campuses. And his antidote is even more insidious.

As Bouie correctly points out, the practitioners of the ostensibly universalist politics that Lilla touts — Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — presided over administrations that were particularly damaging to marginalized groups. In response — and to his credit — Bouie calls for a reinvigorated “Rainbow Coalition.”

Though popularized (and eventually copyrighted) by Jesse Jackson, the original Rainbow Coalition was launched in 1969 under the direction of the Black Panther Party’s Illinois chairman, Fred Hampton. The coalition began as a collaboration between the Panthers and the “hillbilly nationalistYoung Patriots Organization, before expanding to include the Young Lords and other smaller groups.

The Young Patriots consisted mostly of Appalachian migrants, who lived in Chicago’s desperately impoverished Uptown neighborhood. Though Panther organizer Bob Lee knew the area was a “prime recruiting ground for white supremacists,” he found common cause in the YPO’s counterstrategy: advocating for socialism and racial justice.

In a speech delivered not long before his murder by the FBI and the Chicago Police department, Fred Hampton explained the rationale behind the original Rainbow Coalition:

We got to face some facts. That the masses are poor, that the masses belong to what you call the lower class, and when I talk about the masses, I’m talking about the white masses, I’m talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too. We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.

In the decades since, the need for working-class unity has only grown more urgent. Bouie himself has noted that the percentage of people of color in the working class is increasing. But even this accurate observation has been couched in error. Today’s voters, he said in May, “aren’t the struggling whites of Appalachia or the old Rust Belt, in part because those workers don’t vote, and there’s no evidence Trump has turned them out.”

“Insofar that he represents any of it,” Bouie argued, “Trump just speaks for a portion of working America, and the same divisions of race and religion that make broad working-class movements rare also limit the ability of a Trump figure to succeed.”

Yet Trump succeeded. If the divisions Bouie points to were rigid enough to make his victory possible, Bouie’s own hypothesis proves that only a “broad working-class movement” can effectively oppose him.

Politics or Posturing?

During the Democratic National Convention, Bouie pointed a disapproving finger at the “Bernie or Bust” contingent that withheld support from Hillary Clinton.

For as much as they say they want a progressive path for the future of the country — a “political revolution,” as it were — are they willing to enter any coalition to achieve it? Is there anything Clinton (or Sanders or Warren) can say or do to attract their support? Are they here to win, or are they here to perform?

Projections before the general election showed that 72 percent of Sanders supporters planned to vote for Hillary Clinton. The majority were, in fact, willing to enter that coalition. The question now is whether liberals will show the same willingness to advocate the coalition that holds the best chance of defeating the far right: a unified working class.

Unfortunately, many in the liberal pundit class have resisted self-examination even after the Election Day debacle. By 2018 and 2020, Chait writes, “Trump will solve the Democrats’ voter-complacency problem for them.” Give Trump enough rope to hang himself with — which is to say, the highest office in the country — and he’ll oblige. This is precisely the posture Chait took toward Trump’s candidacy. To see him repeating it after such a resounding failure beggars belief.

As for Bouie, his latest contribution is encouraging (if oddly antagonistic towards Sanders, whom he bends over backwards to disagree with). By invoking the Rainbow Coalition, Bouie is joining the Left in calling for a politics “that takes identity and class seriously, that understands their relationship and interplay, that appeals to common identities and forges responsive solutions.” He quotes a passage from Jesse Jackson’s 1988 Democratic National Convention speech describing the experience of different marginalized groups as separate patches of cloth, all of which have to be unified into a quilt by “sturdy hands and a strong cord.”

For Bouie, the patches are worthy of attention — mass incarceration, housing, marriage rights, and other issues central to any left program — but he makes no attempt to identify the strong cord that binds them. This is where he falls short.

Building today’s coalition requires the same precondition that both Jesse Jackson and Fred Hampton identified — the strong cord of solidarity that unites the powerless against the powerful.

Liberal pundits can no longer play the role of oracle, foretelling a future that has not come to pass. If they’re serious about resisting Trump, their task now is to articulate a strategy that can mobilize and unite the entire working class, from disillusioned black workers in Milwaukee to angry white workers in Pennsylvania.

More than anything, the question for liberal pundits is: are they here to win, or are they here to perform? If they revert to pleas to “claim the center” — as Bouie hailed Clinton for doing, on the strength of suburban Republican voters — they’ll leave Trump emboldened and social progress in retreat. And they’ll be engaging in exactly the kind of apolitical posturing that they routinely accuse the Left of deploying.

Donald Trump is deplorable and irredeemable. That much is incontestable. But if we see all of his supporters that way, defeat is guaranteed.