Trump Was Bold Enough to Be a Public Racist. It Worked.
(Optional Musical Accompaniment To This Post)
Out in the country, how's that transition going? That well, eh, Medium? That's quite a gallery you've got going there, and Shaun King on the electric Twitter machine is doing a good job collecting the True Horror Tales, too.
Look, I'm not sure how much good politically the mass marches that broke out in a number of cities on Wednesday night ultimately will do. A part of me—the pragmatic, cynical part—agrees that it will set deeper in concrete the hatred and dread common to those voters who lined up behind El Caudillo del Mar-A-Lago and expressed their economic insecurity in such interesting ways. I mean, I get that argument, and I agree with its fundamental premises.
But what I think about it shouldn't really matter a damn to those people in the streets. I'm not going to get harassed at a gas station. My kids aren't going to be tormented on the playground. Nobody's going to spray-paint a swastika on my garage or tell me to hustle my ass to the ovens. Nobody's going to ship my abuela back to El Salvador. I can't begin to plumb the depth of the fear that the targets of this unmoored ferocity must be feeling. I am sorry flags got burned and that property was damaged and that CNN found a marcher saying untoward things about civil war—the kind of loose talk, by the way, that was commonplace among supporters of the president-elect before the returns rolled in Tuesday night.
Which brings me to another point.
Ever since it became plain that Donald Trump was going to be the next president of the United States, there's been an awful lot of chin-stroking about how the "coastal elites" had failed to articulate the economic anxiety of the white working class and/or the rural proletariat. (Somebody should tell me why the white working-class and the black working-class are different. Never mind. I think I figured it out.) This rather mystifies me since it seemed that the elite political media spent an awful lot of money sending people out to take the temperature of the people in the body shops and battered farms of the lost exurban paradises. Every other day, some member of that ol' debbil media was out there, buying them all a cookie. These people were not ignored. They were as well-represented in the coverage of this election as any group was. Long ago, the indispensable Alec MacGillis determined that this was the story of the election and he's spent a lot of times listening to the folks out there and bringing their stories back to us. Via ProPublica:
And yet St. Martin was leaning toward Trump. Her explanation for this was halting but vehement, spoken with pauses and in bursts. She was disappointed in Obama after having voted for him. "I don't like the Obama persona, his public appearance and demeanor," she said. "I wanted people like me to be cared about. People don't realize there's nothing without a blue-collar worker." She regretted that she did not have a deeper grasp of public affairs. "No one that's voting knows all the facts," she said. "It's a shame. They keep us so fucking busy and poor that we don't have the time." When she addressed Clinton herself, it was in a stream that seemed to refer to, but not explicitly name, several of the charges thrown against Clinton by that point in time, including her handling of the deadly 2012 attack by Islamic militants on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya; the potential conflicts of interest at the Clinton Foundation; and her use of a private email server while serving as Secretary of State, mixing national security business with emails to her daughter, Chelsea. "To have lives be sacrificed because of corporate greed and warmongering, it's too much for me—and I realize I don't have all the facts—that there's just too much sidestepping on her. I don't trust her. I don't think that—I know there's casualties of war in conflict, I'm a big girl, I know that. But I lived my life with no secrets. There's no shame in the truth. There's mistakes made. We all grow. She's a mature woman and she should know that. You don't email your fucking daughter when you're a leader. Leaders need to make decisions, they need to be focused. You don't hide stuff. "That's why I like Trump," she continued. "He's not perfect. He's a human being. We all make mistakes. We can all change our mind. We get educated, but once you have the knowledge, you still have to go with your gut."
I advise everyone who has lurched from one simple explanation for Trumpism ("Those people be stooopid.") to another simple explanation ("Why won't the Democrats reach out more?") to read that passage carefully. There literally is no innovative political strategy, and there is no creative policy prescription, that would have convinced that woman to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton. She is so deeply sunk in the mire of misinformation that she never will be pulled out again. Who is it, precisely, that doesn't care about her, and how was that manifested in her daily life? How, precisely, would Donald Trump care about her? The piece is replete with these kind of moments. What should the Democrats do to meet halfway the guy who believes the nation is being "pussified"? What's precisely the political outreach strategy that will bring back a guy who says this?
"If I say anything about that, I'm a racist," he said. "I can't stand that politically correct bullshit." He had, he said, taken great solace in confiding recently in an older black man at a bar who had agreed with his musing on race and crime. "It was like a big burden lifted from me — here was this black man agreeing with me!"
And if, as has been suggested, HRC had switched her strategy from talking about Trump's manifest unfitness to office to a pitch that she was on their side, would that have sold?
"They feel like this is a forgotten area that's suffering, that has been forgotten by Columbus and Washington and then they hear someone say, we can turn this place around, they feel it viscerally." And he feared that the national Democratic Party did not realize how little it could afford such a loss, or even realize how well it had those voters in the fold as recently as 2012. "I'm a believer in the Democratic coalition, but they're writing off folks and it's going to hurt them," he said. "To write them off is reckless."
Again, in what way had the Democratic coalition been "writing off" these people? It wasn't the Democratic coalition who stymied actual stimulus spending in 2009. It wasn't the Democratic coalition that hamstrung the Affordable Care Act so that Republican governors could refuse to take FREE MONEY! to implement it. I wish there was a political fix for these folks but the fact is that, more than anything else, they have been victimized by a stratagem through which people refused to allow government to work and then blamed it for being ineffective. Old dog, as the late Ms. Ivins used to say, still hunts.
And, of course, there is the Other Thing.
Jones, 30, who worked part-time at a pizza shop and delivering medicines to nursing homes, joked at first that his vote for Obama might have had to do with his having been doing a lot of drugs at the time. He grew serious when he talked about how much the Black Lives Matter protests against shootings by police officers grated on him. Chicago was experiencing soaring homicide rates, he said—why weren't more people talking about that?
People were. Lots of people were. The quick retort to people (like me) who argue that nativist racism played a decisive role in the election generally point to counties that voted for Obama in 2008 (and, occasionally, in 2012, too) but flipped to Trump in 2016. This, they say, is proof that the vague sense of having been "written off" in those places was a more powerful motivator there than race. But I tend to agree with Jamelle Bouie, who wrote that a big part of the reason these places went for Obama was that neither John McCain nor Mitt Romney were racially inflammatory enough. That, in this painful area, they didn't "tell it like it is." Trump did. Via Slate:
There's an easy rejoinder here: How can this be about race when Trump won some Obama voters? There's an equally easy answer: John McCain indulged racial fears, and Mitt Romney played on racial resentment, but they refused to go further. To borrow from George Wallace, they refused to cry "nigger." This is important. By rejecting the politics of explicit racism and white backlash, they moved the political battleground to nominally colorblind concerns. Race was still a part of these clashes—it's unavoidable—but neither liberals nor conservatives would litigate the idea of a pluralistic, multiracial democracy. Looking back, I thought this meant we had a consensus. It appears, instead, that we had a detente. And Trump shattered it.
Those people who felt "forgotten" and "left behind"? Where do they stand on right-to-work laws? Where do they stand on voter suppression laws, which go out of their way to prevent a solid voting bloc of white and black working-class voters? Where do they really stand on trade, with Bernie Sanders or with the Wal-Mart to which they go every weekend?
I would like someone to convince me that economic populism without the accelerant of racial animosity would have changed the results materially on Tuesday. It never has before. The Jacksonian Democrats successfully rebelled against the effete establishment and the eastern speculators, and some of them even embraced the new white immigrants from Europe, but they did so while being stalwart defenders of the slave power and by conducting genocide by a number of means against the indigenous populations of North America. Under the Jackson administration, the Southerners took every opportunity to hijack lands that belonged to the Creek and Cherokee peoples and ol' Andy, who got all up in John C. Calhoun's grill when that worthy threatened nullification over the tariff, found his inner Tenther when it came to land grabs by the Georgia legislature. The reason he had the political space to do so was because Americans considered the Native peoples less than human. That was how populism worked back then.
I would like someone to convince me that economic populism without the accelerant of racial animosity would have changed the results materially on Tuesday.
In the late 19th century, populism of all sorts flared in reaction to the excesses of the Gilded Age and the political consequences of the industrial money power. For a time, this reaction included millworkers and farmers, men and women, and even black and white citizens. In the early 1890s, a Georgia congressman named Tom Watson created what was called the Farmer's Alliance which, eventually, got folded into a populist political party that splintered off from the Georgia Democratic Party. He supported African-American suffrage and, in 1892, Watson ran for re-election on a platform that included an anti-lynching law. He was beaten. And then he was beaten again in 1894. He entered a period of exile and emerged as a virulent racist and anti-Catholic. From the New Georgia Encyclopedia:
Through his Jeffersonian Publishing Company, Watson also produced a magazine and a weekly newspaper that achieved widespread circulation throughout the South and in New York. Watson's Jeffersonian Magazine in particular became an outlet for lengthy editorials on anti-capitalistic political philosophies and for strong diatribes reflecting his increasing racial and religious bigotry. Although Watson had long supported black enfranchisement in Georgia and throughout the South, he changed his stance by 1904. Resentful of Democratic manipulation and exploitation of black voters and strongly opposed to the increased visibility and influence of such leaders as W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, Watson endorsed the disenfranchisement of African American voters, and no longer defined Populism in racially inclusive terms. Watson supported Hoke Smith in the 1906 Georgia's governor's race only on the condition that Smith support black disenfranchisement, and the inflammatory rhetoric that surrounded the issue was partially responsible for sparking the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906. Governor Smith later delivered on his promise to Watson by leading the successful adoption of a constitutional amendment that effectively disenfranchised black Georgia voters. During his 1908 presidential bid Watson ran as a white supremacist and launched vehement diatribes in his magazine and newspaper against blacks. Watson also launched an aggressive campaign against the Catholic Church. He took issue with the hierarchy of the church and railed against abuses by its leaders. He mistrusted the church's foreign missions and its historic political activities. The Catholic Church responded by putting pressure on businesses that advertised in Watson's publications, resulting in an effective boycott. In 1913, during the trial of Leo Frank, Watson's strong attacks on Frank and on the pervasive influence of Jewishand northern interests in the state heavily influenced negative sentiment against Frank, who was lynched by a mob in 1915.
By 1922, Watson got himself elected to the United States Senate. He knew where the power was.
The tragedy of American populism—whether it's in the previous Gilded Age or the current one—is that the country's original sin makes populism's success almost impossible without some sort of us-versus-them dynamic. Since the myth of the American Dream almost always makes a true class-based politics impossible, the search for that essential dynamic almost invariably becomes white-vs-black or native-vs-immigrant.
That's happening again, with another "populist" champion and the people who now have followed him into whatever future they imagine he will bring them. I wish to god this weren't the case, but it is.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.