vision 2020

Democrats Should Court the Economically Anxious Trump Voters Who Don’t Exist

Nothing wrong with a little white lie. Photo: Paul Sancya/AP/REX/Shutterstock

A couple of very long years ago, 62.9 million Americans voted to make a racist reality star — who, by his own account, had no experience at governing, but plenty at groping random married women — their president. By the time these votes were cast, Donald Trump had called for banning all Muslims from the United States, led a movement contesting the first black president’s legitimacy, insinuated that the bulk of Mexican-Americans were drug dealers or rapists, praised his supporters for assaulting (nonwhite) protesters, and vowed to subject each and every one of America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, including those brought to the U.S. as children, to deportation.

Nevertheless, 46 percent of the U.S. electorate thought him worthier of the White House than a former senator and secretary of State (who just happened to be the first major-party nominee with the kind of genitalia that Trump boasted about grabbing).

For many liberals, it is difficult to reconcile this set of facts with a magnanimous view of their Trump-voting compatriots. And it is harder still to hear nonpartisan political analysts — and even some putatively progressive pundits — attribute the demagogue’s victory to motives as innocent as “economic anxiety,” or even to his opponent’s failures of empathy. As if Republican voters’ decision to rally behind a self-professed pussy-grabber had somehow discredited Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that there were “deplorables” among them. For decades, progressives had been begging the mainstream media to acknowledge the centrality of racial animus and misogyny to the GOP’s appeal. Now, the party had traded its dog whistle for a foghorn; “self deportation” for a Muslim ban; and the patriarchy’s polite, paternalistic superego for its bawdy, hateful id. The mask was off. The unsightly (and oddly orange) face of reaction fully exposed.

And the press was just going to veil it with thousand sympathetic profiles of Trump country and its humble, forgotten folk?

Academic autopsies of the 2016 election have largely validated blue America’s exasperation. A hefty body of political-science research has established that the more “racially conservative,” “hostilely sexist,” concerned about immigration, or distrustful of Muslims a 2016 voter was, the more likely they were to support Trump, no matter their partisan or ideological self-identification. No similar correlation has held between Trump support and economic dissatisfaction. More broadly, Trump’s coalition was almost identical to Mitt Romney’s — and while the 2016 GOP nominee did attract a bit more support from working-class whites, the available data suggests that this had less to do with the mogul’s sporadic appeals to economic populism than with his near-constant stoking of white racial resentments and anxieties about demographic change.

To be sure, economically insecure Rust Belt voters — who pulled the lever for Trump primarily out of a well-founded resentment of Clinton’s support for NAFTA, or of Barack Obama’s failure to arrest their region’s postindustrial decline — surely exist. And there is evidence that human beings become less tolerant and more tribal amid conditions of scarcity. Thus, it’s conceivable that Trump’s brand of white grievance politics would have had less appeal in 2016, had policy-makers averted the past four decades of stagnant middle-class wages and soaring individual and regional inequality. Finally, it would be unfair (or at least ungenerous) to deny the existence of conservative voters who oppose mass immigration primarily out of an aversion to change, rather than an investment in a soft form of white nationalism (there are millions of nonwhite Trump voters in this county, after all).

All that said: The idea that the typical Trump voter (or even, typical Obama-to-Trump voter) was a downwardly mobile proletarian — who grudgingly looked past Trump’s racism and sexism out of desperate hope that an outsider might deliver genuine economic change — has no empirical validity.

And yet many of the Democratic Party’s 2020 hopefuls are preaching that convenient untruth, anyway. On a recent trip to South Carolina, Pete Buttigieg argued that a lot of Trump voters knew the mogul was “not a good guy, walked into the voting booth and voted to burn the house down because of some very deep issues that motivated them to send a message.”

“Some of which I think we should give no quarter to, like racism, but others of which deserve to be taken seriously,” the mayor of South Bend continued. “The sense of displacement, and the belief that Democratic and Republican presidencies have let them down, and the failure of this enormous American prosperity to reach so many people in so many communities.”

Bernie Sanders expressed similar sentiments at a CNN town hall last month. “I’m not going to say that within Trump’s camp there aren’t some people who are racists and sexists,” the Vermont senator said. “There are. We have seen that. But I don’t believe that is the case for most of those folks. I think many of these people are people who have worked hard their entire lives and their standard of living is going down, in many cases, they’re making less today than they did 30 or 40 years ago.”

Sanders and Buttigieg are far from alone among Democratic candidates in insisting that there was really only ever a thimbleful of “deplorables.” Plenty of others have suggested that a 2016 Trump vote is (more or less) the language of the unheard.

And all things considered, that’s probably for the best.

The political scientists have only interpreted the marginal Trump voter’s motives in various ways. The point is to change them.

The politician and the public intellectual have two very different jobs. The latter is tasked with telling the best approximation of the truth they can muster — especially when said truth is uncomfortable or unpopular. We need political scientists willing to overturn our most cherished presumptions about actually existing democracy, historians eager to recover our republic’s most violently suppressed memories, and commentators who illuminate our collective complicity in contemporary injustice.

In certain contexts, on certain subjects, we need elected officials to do the same. But the politician’s primary vocation isn’t to speak truth to power — it is to win power, and then exercise it in a manner that advances the greater good. In a representative democracy, that typically means rallying the largest possible coalition behind you, your party, and its governing priorities. Depending on one’s definition of the greater good, that task may well involve a great deal of uncomfortable truth telling. But any politician who cares more about expressing (what she perceives in a given moment to be) the unvarnished truth than about using state power to improve people’s lives has chosen the wrong line of work.

Democratic candidates may do well to describe the Republican Party’s agenda, elected officials, and electoral strategy in unflinching terms. The modern GOP exists to entrench plutocracy by cultivating white Americans’ racial and cultural animosities. It is becoming increasingly forthright in its opposition to democracy and contempt for the most basic rights of vulnerable minorities. Refusing to indulge in euphemism when describing where the conservative movement is taking the country seems both socially useful and (relatively) electorally benign. Donald Trump is an immensely unpopular president. The less distance there is in the popular imagination between his illiberalism and extremity and the Republican Party’s, the better off Team Blue will be.

But to insist that Democrats explicitly impute ignominious motives to GOP voters is to insist on the commission of political malpractice. It may be a sociological fact that most conservative voters who support Trump’s immigration agenda — and revile Barack Obama — do so (at least in part) out of an anxiety about white America’s declining cultural and political dominance. But the percentage of soft Trump supporters who consciously understand themselves to be motivated by racial anxiety or animus is bound to be on the smaller side.

And you won’t win many swing voters’ hearts and minds by telling them you know their hearts and minds better than they do (no matter how many links to regressions of voter file data you provide them).

You can’t build a coalition without telling a few white lies.

Hillary Clinton spent much of 2016 arguing that Ronald Reagan would never vote for Donald Trump. At the Democratic National Convention, a series of speakers — including Barack Obama — argued that the patron saint of the conservative movement would recoil at Trump’s authoritarian ethos. At a September press conference, the Democratic nominee suggested that the Gipper would be incensed to see the Republican nominee praise Vladimir Putin while disparaging the American president. One of her super-PACs’ final campaign ads cast Reagan’s ghost as a Clinton surrogate.

Clinton’s campaign did not embrace such messaging out of sincere reverence for the man who killed off the New Deal consensus. And when promoting the idea that Trump’s GOP represented a radical break from Reagan’s, her team certainly wasn’t telling difficult truths. There are worthwhile distinctions to be drawn between Trumpism and Reaganism. But the president who launched his 1980 campaign by preaching “state’s rights” in Philadelphia, Mississippi, had no intolerance for racial demagogy. And the commander-in-chief who presided over Iran-Contra was no stalwart opponent of authoritarianism or defender of (small-r) republican values. Clinton did not favorably contrast Reagan (and Paul Ryan and Bob Dole) with her opponent out of fidelity to the truth. She did so because she believed such comforting fictions might make it easier for Trump-averse GOP voters to cross the aisle in 2016.

Human beings do not forfeit old identities with ease or eagerness. Revising one’s self-conception can be painful, particularly when doing so involves admitting error. Thus, Clinton offered longtime GOP voters a way to vote for her without having to disavow their previous voting behavior or self-conception as Reagan conservatives. This was hardly a novel gambit (see Nixon, Democrats for). And many Mitt Romney voters accepted Clinton’s offer — and if they didn’t (almost) all happen to live in the suburbs of deep blue states, she would have won the presidency as a result.

When Buttigieg, Sanders & Co. suggest that most Trump voters backed the mogul out of an understandable (if misplaced) desire for economic change, they are performing the same maneuver. The point is to make it as unthreatening as possible for such voters to change their minds. “I understandably felt that Trump was the candidate most likely to address my legitimate concerns, but he has now broken his promises, and betrayed my trust” is an easier thing to tell oneself than “I backed Trump out of a desire to protect my unearned racial privilege, but I now recognize the shamefulness of my white fragility (and that of most of my friends and family).”

As Alana Conner, executive director of Stanford University’s Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions Center, told Vox’s German Lopez in 2018, “Telling people they’re racist, sexist, and xenophobic is going to get you exactly nowhere. It’s such a threatening message. One of the things we know from social psychology is when people feel threatened, they can’t change, they can’t listen.”

Another well-documented aspect of human psychology is that we are not always conscious of the motivations governing our behavior. And the way we remember the motivations behind our past decisions — or even what those decisions were — is influenced by our perceptions in the present. In fact, it is quite common for people to misremember whom they voted for in the past so as “to reconcile it with how they currently wish to vote,” a phenomenon researchers call “reconciliation.” One implication of these realities: Even if a given Trump voter did not support the president in 2016 on the basis of economic concerns, it is conceivable that a sufficiently talented and charismatic Democratic politician can convince said voter that she did.

The unwoke will always be with us.

Some liberals may see the empirical work showing the prevalence of reactionary racial attitudes among Trump voters in general, and Obama-to-Trump voters in particular, as evidence that no significant number of such voters are winnable, no matter how nonthreateningly they’re approached. And perhaps this is the case. But that argument sits in tension with the fact that the Democratic Party already depends on the support of voters with what some political scientists categorize as “racially resentful views.” Although the Democratic coalition is becoming more racially liberal, Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels has shown that, in 2017, some 33 percent of Democratic voters agreed with the statement, “discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities”; 39 percent felt that “people who disrespect the American flag don’t belong in this country”; and some 55 percent insisted that “speaking English is essential for being a true American.”

Many progressive policies and value propositions enjoy majoritarian support. But the percentage of Americans who hold the liberal position on each and every political question is tiny (as is the percentage that espouses uniformly conservative views). For progressives, there is no alternative to finding ways to make common cause with the unenlightened.

Some may argue that Democrats could reduce their dependence on such voters by bringing more people of color into the electorate, and that calling out the racism of Trump voters (or at least avoiding the temptation to impute empirically baseless motives to them) will further that objective. And without question, registering nonwhite voters and defending their right to the franchise from Republican attacks should be a top priority of the Democratic Party. But the notion that there is an inherent trade-off between courting marginal Trump voters (by paying lip service to their theoretical economic anxiety), and mobilizing politically disengaged nonwhite voters, is under-substantiated. No modern-day political figure has ever had more success at mobilizing disengaged nonwhite voters than Barack Obama — and he devoted far more rhetorical energy to scolding black America for its cultural pathologies than to upbraiding white Republicans for their complicity in structural racism.

Regardless, due to the way political representation is apportioned in this country, there are significant limits to what a progressive movement can achieve without making some inroads with the kinds of white, non-woke voters who backed Trump in 2016. You can’t free African-Americans in Oklahoma from the scourge of reactionary rule through increasing nonwhite voter turnout alone.

To make transformative change in the long term, progressive activists and intellectuals might well need to awaken their fellow citizens to the ubiquity of white revanchism in American politics — while also expanding the popular definition of racism, so as to stigmatize forms of political behavior that indirectly perpetuate racial inequity.

But to minimize the power of an increasingly racist and authoritarian Republican Party in the immediate term, Democratic presidential candidates need to court the racially innocent, economically anxious white Trump voter — even if he does not (yet) exist.

Dems Should Court the Imaginary Downtrodden Trump Voter