Liberals explain angry white voters. I remain skeptical.


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:

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.


  1. “How did we get to a place where it’s wrong to talk about someone’s record in regards to war?”

    We haven’t, but you certainly imply that she was part of the lies being made up to get us into the war. She wasn’t. The blame lays squarely on the shoulders of the Bush administration and the neocons who advocated for that war. They are the ones who lied to us, Hillary included.

    They trotted out no less than Colin Powell to sell their little adventure, and it worked, to his eternal shame.

      • In the lead up to the Iraq war, 36,000,000 million people worldwide protested the US led invasion. Record breaking numbers.

        Bush didn’t fool everyone.

        Hillary’s too smart to not have known what she was doing.

        And even if she was fooled, that doesn’t explain her admiration and friendship with Henry Kissinger, America’s greatest living war criminal.

        Saying “but everyone was doing it” didn’t fly with my mom when I was 8 years old and it doesn’t fly for grown up politicians.

  2. First yes most trump supporters are or racists in the liberal sense of that word. But! they also oppose free trade too! The reason you don’t here much about their views on free trade is that the corporate media supports free trade! Guns god and gays(but this last is starting to weaken) Hillary finally came out against t.p.p. for the same reason she voted for iraq war it was the political thing to do. Hillary needed to keep the union vote away from bernie. didn’t work in michigan. For free trade: establishment democrats and republicans corporate establishment right wing talk radio. Against: lower middle class working people. The people democrats say they support with lip service just as republicans say thank you for your service as they cut veterans benefits.

    • I’ll start believing that free trade deals are motivating white voters and their anger when I see something resembling consistency from them on that, ie, they start ousting Republicans for supporting them.

      Case in point: Sam Brownback of Tom Frank’s beloved Kansas. Brownback not only voted for NAFTA in Congress, but as the current Governor of Kansas has transformed the state into the premier meth-lab of Koch-ocracy.

      I’m sure the angry white voters of KS will be punishing him for that any minute now…

  3. Everyone that I know who supports Trump and I know quite a few, support him for the exact reasons you stated Donna. I have a couple of friends who feel like the midle class has been dumped on due to economic policies and feel he is speaking to them. However, dig deeper and I eventually hear that their schools are suffering due to poor schools getting money or jobs suffer due to immigration.

  4. Tom, well, at least we know who to blame for a war based on consciously-constructed lies, toxic patriotism, misdirection, and greed: not the very party and leaders who perpetrated this but one of a majority of senators who voted to authorize use of force IF it was required to keep America safe.

    Why not simply stipulate that your political religion requires a Satan it conveniently shares with the American right: Clinton hatred.

    • I was with Hillary until Bernie stepped up. I don’t see why it’s Clinton hatred to support a candidate who actually shares my values, I’ve been a fan of Bernie for years.

      I blame everyone involved with the Iraq war and will not vote for anyone of them, with one exception, HRC if she wins the primary, holding my nose and bitching about once again having to choose between the lessor of two evils.

      This either you’re with Hillary or you hate women thing is getting out of hand.

      Maybe you should try to convince me why HRC is the better choice instead of breaking out the Satan stuff.

      Maybe us Bernie supporters should start asking if you’re against Sanders because he’s Jewish?

      How would that make you feel?

  5. Wow, from Trump to a complaint about HRC being treated unfairly.

    HRC voting for a war that was based on entirely made up scary stuff that led to the deaths of over 4000 US servicemen and women, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths is something that no one should be allowed to live down.

    That’s blood on her hands. There’s no statute of limitations on murder. We don’t say Whoopsie! when it comes to war.

    How did we get to a place where it’s wrong to talk about someone’s record in regards to war?

    • Why don’t we talk about Bernie Sanders support of the NRA in regards to the mass murder of innocent people? Is that blood on his hands as well?

      • Oh, but he’s got a D- from the NRA! Or so we’ve heard a bazillion times now. Nothing to see there with those crucial votes to hold gun manufacturers harmless and maintain the Charleston loophole. Move along now.

        • Okay, I’ll overlook HRC’s interventionist foreign policy, Iraq and Libya and her love affair with Kissinger, and her ties to Wall Street, because Bernie’s not perfect.

          I’ll be glad when one of them gets the nod and we can all go back to hating on the Koch’s.

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