Donald Trump Is Not The Problem; Or, How American Liberals Are Doing It All Wrong

“I can’t wait for when we stop talking about Donald Trump and get to return to normal life again.” My roommate, in Beijing, China, March 2016

Experiencing the 2016 presidential election from China has been a uniquely frustrating experience: the longer I spend living in a non-democratic single-party political system, the greater the fundamental respect I have for American political and social institutions. Yet American politics and media seems determined to undermine my newfound goodwill with the charade that is the current election.

The problem, however, is not Donald Trump. It is the reaction on the Left to Donald Trump. Donald Trump says something offensive, liberal commentators recoil in visceral horror, somebody writes a trend story about the process of obtaining a visa to move to Canada, etc. It is a map dotted with little volcanoes of individual self-righteous outrage: Americans who support Trump must be stupid or racist, liberals say, because there is no other alternative that fits within their current worldview.

Articles that accuse Trump’s followers of being bigots have appeared by the hundreds, if not the thousands. Conservatives have written them; liberals have written them; impartial professionals have written them. The headline of a recent Huffington Post column announced, bluntly, that “Trump Won Super Tuesday Because America is Racist.”” The economy added 160,000 jobs last month; I assume that at least half of those were for new bloggers to write about how dumb Trump voters must be.

I spent a long time trying and mostly failing to express in words why this attitude frustrates me so deeply, but thankfully Emmett Rensin’s excellent essay at Vox on the ‘smug style’ of American liberalism fills much of the gap. The Left has embraced a smug attitude, Rensin argues, in which there are only two options for human thought: rationality (in which you would support liberalism, as embodied in the Democratic Party), or stupidity (in which you support Trump).

Rensin’s essay, despite its length, is worth reading in full. I want to elaborate on what Rensin writes and push the argument one step further. Those who are not ‘rational’ are likely not only stupid, but also racist. And the proper response to either stupidity or racism seems to be shame: these are unforgivable sins and whoever espouses these views must be beyond rehabilitation.

What is left of the Left is a motley coalition of rich coastal elites and minorities. Its main policy tools are means-tested social programs and semi-privatizations, promoting finance and tech elites while increasing support for the poorest. It is moving ever further away from the pro-labor party that prioritizes the interests of the working class.

Did elites abandon the labor left, or did the labor left jump ship? Both questions are primarily about the intersection of race and class. It is a question of which group prioritized race over class first.

On the one hand, some argue, the elites destroyed the progressive New Deal coalition it by destroying the working class: dismantling labor unions, embracing means testing, and putting race concerns over those of class. (This is what Thomas Frank is arguing in What’s The Matter With Kansas, as well as elsewhere: liberals gave up on labour and are chiefly responsible for this divide).

One the other, the theory is that the progressive New Deal coalition was anomalous: the white majority was always too racist; eventually, their racism trumped class concerns, leading to a splintering of themselves away from their ‘economic interests’. As Jamelle Bouie writes, “The New Deal coalition Rensin describes was devoured by its own contradictions, chiefly, the racism needed to secure white allegiance even as the party tried to appeal to blacks.””

Both race and class are fulcrums of power. Racial gaps and class gaps both exist, and are arguably both growing despite the strides made in the not-yet-post-racial era.

Without getting stuck in the weeds of intersectionality, it is clear that deeply-embedded structural injustices target different groups in different ways: in today’s society, someone who is black is still often treated differently than someone who is white, even if on paper the laws of society say that they should be treated the same.

What is clear, however, is that the mainstream Left has pushed class down in favor of other fulcrums of power — notably race — for better or for worse. Andrew Sullivan, despite coming from to a different conclusion, provides a good example, “Much of the newly energized left has come to see the white working class not as allies but primarily as bigots, misogynists, racists, and homophobes, thereby condemning those often at the near-bottom rung of the economy to the bottom rung of the culture as well. A struggling white man in the heartland is now told to “check his privilege” by students at Ivy League colleges.”

Many young people on the Left have adopted a ‘zero tolerance’ policy toward racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, or any other form of discrimination: if someone says something that could be construed as offensive, they do not deserve to have their voice heard. Instead, they deserve to be shamed. They do not deserve equal status as citizens, even if they are not coming from a position of power based on class, or race, or gender, or some other fulcrum. This is most obvious on many college campuses, where saying something potentially offensive, even without malice, leads to people hoping that you lead a miserable life; such as at my own alma mater, where the fallout from a poorly phrased comment “has been tantamount to a witch-hunt executed under the guise of a brave assault on bigotry.” This incident was not even about race, but about anti-Semitism; and the student who has been showered with anti-racist shame was himself a racial minority.

Even if many of the “angry” Trump voters are not the worst sufferers, many of them feel — correctly or otherwise — that they have gotten screwed. Sullivan again: “These working-class communities, already alienated, hear — how can they not? — the glib and easy dismissals of “white straight men” as the ultimate source of all our woes. They smell the condescension and the broad generalizations about them — all of which would be repellent if directed at racial minorities — and see themselves, in Hoffer’s words, ‘disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things.’”

The idea of ‘political correctness,’ which is often a veneer for actual racism, has come to embody something much broader: a response to the feeling of being shamed.

This is not to try to determine whose privilege is correct or more important, or who is powerful and who is not. It is just to describe the attitude of a large portion of the Left, and the responding attitude of a large portion of the voters who have propelled Trump to presumptive nominee status.

If we accept the second thesis above — that racism drove whites out of the Democratic Party when it started to embrace minorities, and they have retrenched rather than opened up — the Left’s smugness and zero-tolerance policy are totally valid. In backing this idea, Bouie says (quoted by Rensin) that racism is basically the reason for Party realignment. It gets you “90 percent” of the way there. Trump supporters, then, are hopelessly and irrevocably racist, and they will not change regardless of whether the Left stands firm behind its anti-racist ideals. Neither shame nor acceptance will change the situation, so the Left might as well have fun knowing that the rest of the country will cling to their racism and stupidity rather than the ultimate rational truth.

This view strikes me as both false and uncharitable, however. White supremacists and aggressively stupid people exist, and I feel confident that there are plenty of them out there in any society. Some of them may vote for Trump, but they cannot define the Trump voter. Ideas like opposing immigration are not unique to racist people — they are pretty common among working class voters of all races (which Bouie wrote about in 2013), who see new immigrants as potential competitors for jobs. Nor is turning on the weakest elements of society anything new. When working and middle classes feel they are getting a raw deal, radical labor organizer Saul Alinsky observed, they blame both the rich and the poor: the rich because the system is tilted unfairly in their favor, and the poor, because the system helps them out when the rich throw them money.

The Left has done nothing to try to fix this; instead it has added fuel to this fire for decades by embracing policies that exacerbate this divide. The New Deal coalition was not some post-racial harmonious political alignment (it was plenty racist and sexist), but it did gain much of its power from universal programs that united the interests of the poor and middle class. Instead, the Left has mostly embraced means-tested (only the poor get benefits) or identity-based benefits; these may, actually, be beneficial to the working class across races, but it contributes to the long-standing feeling that the white working middle class, which was at the center of the New Deal coalition, has only been squeezed by the Left from both sides. From the top, by elites; and from the bottom, by the poor who get charity from the rich.

To quote my friend and former colleague Michael Lind, “If the Democrats had spent 1972 to 2016 offering universal social programs and working class whites had rejected them, you could infer self-defeating racism. But they didn’t.” Or, as Rensin writes, “It does not excuse surrendering a century of labor politics in the name of electability. It does not excuse gazing out decades later to find that those left behind are not up on the latest thought and deciding, We didn’t abandon them. The idiots didn’t want to be saved. It was not Ronald Reagan who declared the era of big government. It was not the GOP that decided the coastally based, culturally liberal industries of technology, Hollywood, and high finance were the future of the American economy.[…] No party these past decades has effectively represented the interests of these dispossessed. Only one has made a point of openly disdaining them too.”

I am still confident that Trump will not be elected. He — and major parts of the Republican Party — are still too racist and ethnocentric to have enough appeal to win a general election. For all of the talk that “Donald Trump Poses an Unprecedented Threat to American Democracy,” as one Jon Chait headline writes, he still has to be elected by a majority (or close, sorry Al Gore) of the American public. The American political system is far from perfect, but the democratic impulse is designed to prevent the most egregious changes from occurring. This includes electing fluffy-haired buffoons. If anything, our headlines should read: “American Democracy Poses an Unprecedented Threat to Donald Trump.”

But this is one election; even if the Democratic elite can win an election on a purely “I’m not Trump” ticket, it says little about what the future holds. If the Republicans can be a little bit less racist (ok, a lot bit less racist), a populist Republican ticket looks a lot more palatable to the current hodgepodge of coalitions that form the Democratic party. A “Clintonism” vs. “Trumpism” realignment of the parties is much more likely to represent the broader working class (Trumpism) and the elites (Clintonism); the losing ideology in this realignment, however, is “Sandersism.” The social democratic ideal of pro-labour, pro-social-safety-net, pro-regulation, and pro-democracy, seems slated to lose. The smug style of liberalism seems bound to push the Left upwards, rather than downwards. This is perhaps why I, like Rensin, find the smug style so frustrating: it is quite possibly a harbinger that people like us are going to have to wait a long time for our ideas to have a chance to be represented within the two-party system.