theres an entire journalistic genre now about how We Got Trump Because A Sliver Of White People Have The Sads https://t.co/w4STKGbYqQ
— Oliver Willis (@owillis) March 8, 2016
One such piece is by Thomas Frank, the gifted prose-crafter who has made a career out of arguing that angry white voters angrily voting for Republicans are guileless rubes tricked into voting against their own economic interests.
I call it a “mystery” because the working-class white people who make up the bulk of Trump’s fan base show up in amazing numbers for the candidate, filling stadiums and airport hangars, but their views, by and large, do not appear in our prestige newspapers. On their opinion pages, these publications take care to represent demographic categories of nearly every kind, but “blue-collar” is one they persistently overlook. The views of working-class people are so foreign to that universe that when New York Times columnist Nick Kristof wanted to “engage” a Trump supporter last week, he made one up, along with this imaginary person’s responses to his questions.
When members of the professional class wish to understand the working-class Other, they traditionally consult experts on the subject. And when these authorities are asked to explain the Trump movement, they always seem to zero in on one main accusation: bigotry. Only racism, they tell us, is capable of powering a movement like Trump’s, which is blowing through the inherited structure of the Republican party like a tornado through a cluster of McMansions…
…Stories marveling at the stupidity of Trump voters are published nearly every day. 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.” A New York Times reporter proved that Trump’s followers were bigots by coordinating a map of Trump support with a map of racist Google searches. Everyone knows it: Trump’s followers’ passions are nothing more than the ignorant blurtings of the white American id, driven to madness by the presence of a black man in the White House. The Trump movement is a one-note phenomenon, a vast surge of race-hate. Its partisans are not only incomprehensible, they are not really worth comprehending…
…Yes, Donald Trump talked about trade. In fact, to judge by how much time he spent talking about it, trade may be his single biggest concern – not white supremacy. Not even his plan to build a wall along the Mexican border, the issue that first won him political fame. He did it again during the debate on 3 March: asked about his political excommunication by Mitt Romney, he chose to pivot and talk about … trade…
…All this surprised me because, for all the articles about Trump I had read in recent months, I didn’t recall trade coming up very often. Trump is supposed to be on a one-note crusade for whiteness. Could it be that all this trade stuff is a key to understanding the Trump phenomenon?
Do read the whole article, both because I don’t want to quote too heavily from it and because Thomas does raise undeniable points about how neoliberal economic trade policies have legitimately harmed American workers and thrown them into confusion about their own and their children’s futures.
It’s just that I have some legitimate problems with conclusion he’s drawn about why white voters have fled from Democrats for decades and currently seem to be flocking toward Trump. As I put it on Twitter earlier:
It can be simultaneously true that neolib econ policies are shitty AND that Dems lost white vote for reasons having nothing to do with them
— Donna Gratehouse (@DonnaDiva) March 9, 2016
I base that on a trio of things. First, there’s my decade in the Navy (1987 to 1997) and then a subsequent decade in a white-male dominated tech field. Believe me when I tell you that I require no liberal, no matter how well-meaning, to liberal-splain angry white people to me. I heard it for years. And I promise you that close to 100% of what I heard from them about their grievances had naught to do with corrupt corporate oligarchs and everything to do with “welfare”, “reverse racism”, and “political correctness”.
That’s admittedly anecdotal but you’d think trade deals would have come up occasionally, if they were such a salient factor in the mass exodus of white voters to the GOP. That brings me to my second point, about those trade deals: While much has been made of how NAFTA was (arguably) a “kiss of death” for Democrats, I have yet to find a single example of a Republican member of Congress who lost a seat over it. Which is odd, since Republicans eagerly voted for NAFTA too.
I get that when a President supports something, he and his party get more of the credit/blame for it. But if free trade deals were really the impetus behind white voter anger, it just seems very strange that Republicans (having had a grand run since 2010 in both Congress and in state houses) have been held entirely harmless for them* by those same white voters. A whole bunch of Republicans, operating between Pat Buchanan in 1992 and Donald Trump in 2016, have cleanly gotten away with their support for NAFTA and other free trade deals. Amazing, isn’t it?
The third thing is Arizona and SB1070 and the anti-immigrant sentiment here among white voters in general. There is a reasonable argument that undocumented immigrant labor replaces and drives down the wages of American workers. And I and others have tried to point out that if that’s your beef, then you should direct your ire at the employers who exploit the porous border and loopholes in employment law. I have even taken pains, on numerous occasions, to remind readers that the AZ Chamber of Commerce got concessions from then-Senate President Russell Pearce on SB1070 to strip employer enforcement provisions out of the law so that the Chamber would go “neutral” on it.
Not a single white supporter of SB1070 I encountered ever cared about any of that. They supported the law because “Mexicans are taking over!” and people spoke Spanish around them. I met supporters of it who admitted to hiring undocumented people themselves. They just didn’t want them to have rights and have happily voted for the Republicans who ensure that will be the case. Welp.
Basically, I’ve got a whole lot of personal and empirical knowledge that contradicts the wealth of liberal-splaining about those angry white voters. So save it. I’m with Oliver Willis at the top of this post. I honestly wish angry white people in America cared as much about economics as their many liberal defenders think they do.
*Compare that to the Iraq invasion, which was George W. Bush’s baby, and voted for by nearly all the Republicans in Congress at the time. Certain Democrats who voted to authorize it, such as then-Senator Hillary Clinton, have never been allowed to live it down, by people on both sides. IOKIYAR, I guess.