Like so many folks, I have felt dazed and heartbroken about the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. I’ll speak plainly: while I believe the United States will survive this demagogue, no president has been a greater threat to the republic than Trump will be. Ever since Plato, political scientists have recognized that the greatest danger to democratic forms of government was demagoguery: and, in his cynical and phony populism, in his breezy dishonesty, in his breathtaking appeals to xenophobia and racism, Donald Trump is the most demagogic person ever to have been elected president of the United States.
SelfAwarePatterns, a WordPress comrade I admire, has posted a very thoughtful reflection on Trump’s win. He notes that while racists and nativists have helped to elect Trump, it does not follow that all—or even most—of Trump’s supporters are racists and nativists. Indeed, at least some of the people who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 came to support Trump in 2016. To ridicule these voters, to call them racists and haters or dupes, is to mistake the nature of Clinton’s loss and to further alienate those voters whom Clinton failed to reach.
While I don’t think that analysis tells the whole story, there is much to agree with here. I’ll start by saying that nothing good will come of trying to ridicule Trump voters. A huge part of Trump’s appeal came from his understanding that millions of Americans feel ridiculed already, feel looked down-on by liberal coastal elites. Trump’s harping on “the rigged system,” his invitation to rally-goers to heap abuse on the button-down liberals sitting in “the press pen,” were ways of blaming working class people’s losses on the kind of people that stereotypically vote for Hillary: those smug, expensively educated NPR listeners whose life is a kind of running Portlandia sketch.
Of course, Trump doesn’t just blame rich liberals for the problems with middle America; he blames Mexicans, “welfare takers,” Muslims. His racism and nativism are far more troubling because he can hurt and bully those target populations so much more easily. It’s the racism of these positions that has convinced many on the left that Trump’s voters must also be racists.
Doubtless some of them are. Other Trump supporters, I’m sure, are troubled to some degree by Trump’s attitudes and statements, but not enough to consider his racism a disqualifying factor for his candidacy. Still others have been convinced that Trump’s xenophobic positions are the correct ones, even though they could have been convinced otherwise, and perhaps were convinced otherwise by Barack Obama. Are all of these stances equally blameworthy?
Perhaps approaching the problem from a different angle would yield better results. Years of teaching at a community college have taught me that ridiculing a person for their choices marks the end of all dialog. If I believe my choice for president is a better, saner, more moral choice than Donald Trump, I can’t hope to convince anyone of that by shaming them and telling them how stupid they are, as though I have some special insight into stupidity.
However, we can and must critique the system of racism: we can work to help working class whites see that their economic interests align with working class people of color, that modern racism is not some natural human state but rather a conscious political strategy. Racism is in fact a relatively recent political program, designed during the colonial American period by economic elites to divide and conquer the dispossessed that lived here: black slaves, white indentured servants, landless white tenant farmers, Native Americans. A white indentured servant in colonial America may be landless, may be exploited, may be helpless to resist the depredations of creditors and masters and landlords, but he could believe at least that he was better off than a slave or an Indian.
Of course people of color are the primary victims of this control strategy, just as they will suffer disproportionately in this Time of Troubles. All of us who consider ourselves allies have to work together to provide safe havens where we can and to bear witness.
But working class whites do not escape the system of racism without injury. To the extent that working class whites have been bamboozled by elites to believe that their problems are caused by the marginalized, powerless other, rather than by the elites themselves, they too have been made victims. They may escape the brutality and savagery that has been visited on immigrants and people of color—indeed, working class whites will often be the perpetrators of that brutality—but working class whites are lashing out at their own victimization: the hollowing out of their towns, the loss of the dignity of work, the replacement of main streets with pill mills and payday loan shops.
Muslims and Mexicans are not to blame for that victimization. Hillary Clinton is not to blame either, though Trump actually made a fair critique that Clinton represents an investor class which does bear some responsibility for the offshoring of jobs and the decimation of main street. That may be the only fair critique Donald Trump has made in his life.
Those who were convinced that Donald Trump is a regular guy, that he is somehow not part of that controlling elite himself, will perhaps fare better than immigrants and Muslims. But the voters of Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania that elected him won’t fare well: Donald Trump and his gang of goons are predators. Someday, perhaps in two years or four years or 24, there will be an opportunity to drive them out again. I hope when the opportunity comes we take it, and we have an honest conversation about racism. Not racists, but racism.