What Liberals Can Learn from Donald Trump

Liberals are not responsible for the rise of Donald Trump, but they may have unwittingly enabled him.

Scene at a protest against Donald Trump in New York City, New York, April 14, 2016 (mal3k)

Some Republicans in the United States have tried to make the case that Donald Trump, their party’s likely presidential nominee, is somehow the left’s fault.

Bobby Jindal, the former Louisiana governor and a failed presidential candidate, blamed Trump’s popularity on Barack Obama in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal. After eight years of the Democrat’s cool and nuance, it was little wonder, Jindal argued, that voters longed for bluntness and “strength”.

That was followed by an article in The Daily Beast that said “political correctness” had created Trump. Britain’s The Spectator published something similar. At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum rejecting this thesis, but recognized it was not entirely without merit.

Before blaming others, conservatives should take a long, hard look in the mirror. There is more right- than left-wing complicity in Trump’s rise. I argued back in December that mainstream Republicans had for too long ignored or tried to co-opt the crazies among them. Conor Friedersdorf has made a similar argument in The Atlantic. Jonathan Bernstein argued much the same at Bloomberg View not long after Trump launched his presidential bid.

Even so, we can see that Trump is a reaction to liberal pressures in several ways. That’s not to say the left is to blame. But liberals can learn from this.


One area is gender. Aaron MacLean argues in The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, that as with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner in the face of ascendant feminism, or hiphop stars after the decline of the black family, “the appeal of a man as transparently ridiculous as Trump is driven by the exasperation of one part of American society that another dominant segment of that society has decided manliness of any kind is retrograde.”

That dominant segment of society will likely elect Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic opponent, in November, symbolizing the triumph of liberal gender norms.

Reactionaries know which way the wind is blowing, but they’re not ready to accept defeat, even if fighting a rearguard action means supporting — MacLean’s words — a “boastful, deeply insecure bully” like Trump.


MacLean exaggerates when he accuses the left of an “assault” on manliness. It’s not an assault, it’s that many liberals understand manliness differently than do many conservatives and both sides are genuinely uncomfortable about the other’s views.

But the outcome is the same. As Josh Marshall has argued at Talking Points Memo, a more left-wing publication, Trump frequently displays a hatred toward female power that is less about women than it is about power — “and being out of place in the proper hierarchy of power, which has Trump at the top at all times.”

Trump’s personality and political traction is one rooted in dominance — indeed, assertions and demonstrations of dominance. We’ve seen it played out with his presidential competitors, often in fairly gendered terms, even with his mainly male opponents.

Trump called former Florida governor Jeb Bush a mama’s boy, Texas senator Ted Cruz a “pussy”, Florida senator Marco Rubio “little Marco” and he said about Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett Packard, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”

This is about putting people in their place, as Trump and his followers see it.


There is a parallel to Trump’s brand of nationalism, argues MacLean.

Just as there is such a thing as responsible manliness — brave, even bold when circumstances demand; cool under pressure; gentle with the weak but fearsome to wrongdoers — so there is such a thing as responsible American patriotism.

He again blames the left for undermining such a healthy patriotism, calling it “suspicious of the very idea of nations.”

Some leftwingers are, but it would be more accurate to say that the cosmopolitan left is less attached to the nation than are conservatives. That doesn’t mean one side is to blame or one side is right and the other is wrong; suffice it to say there are competing views on what nationalism means and should mean and Trump is an extreme reaction to one of those views.

Like his parody version of old-school manliness, Trump’s nationalism is hard to distinguish from caricature. He simultaneously advocates an isolationist “America First” policy while vowing to destroy the self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, something that would require a significant American military commitment. He claims other countries no longer trust the United States, then calls allies in Asia and Europe freeloaders and praises enemies in North Korea and Russia.


I submit there is a similar dynamic at play when it comes to race.

Trump’s racism isn’t casual; it’s central to what he is about. As Marshall puts it, “The entirety of Trump’s campaign has been driven by building white backlash resentment against non-whites — mainly Hispanics and principally Mexican immigrants or their descendants.”

From calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “murderers” to proposing to bar all Muslims from entering the United States to arguing that the judge in a case against him is unqualified because of his Mexican parents, Trump’s consistent message has been: “they’re not us, they’re dangerous, they’re taking our stuff and pulling us down.”

It’s that mix of grievance and desire to reclaim what is being taken away, that desire for revenge that has been the centerpiece of Trump’s campaign from the outset, far more than any sort of economic arguments or anything else.

This feeds into the dominance angle and restoring a “proper” hierarchy as well.

To be clear: Trump’s rhetoric is indefensible and I doubt many, indeed any, of his white supporters have a legitimate racial grievance.

But they may still have been pushed too hard, too fast by progressives determined to finally right race relations in the United States.

David Marcus has argued in an insightful piece at The Federalist that when white Americans are pushed “to take stock of their whiteness,” the result is not a catharsis of white identity. “It will be resentment toward being the only tribe not given the special treatment bestowed by victimhood.”

He writes, “The last thing our society needs is for white people to feel more tribal.”

A big part of the reason so many white Americans have been willing to go along with prejudicial policies, like affirmative action, “is that they do not view themselves as a tribe,” according to Marcus.

“Should that change,” he warns, “white privilege (whatever one views that to be) will not be eviscerated — it will be entrenched.”

Trump is doing what he can to make sure it will be.


That brings to mind something Robert Tracinski has written, also at The Federalist: that Trump’s is a lousy form of populism.

Traditional right-wing populism tells ordinary people that while the elites may think they’re rotten, “the joke’s on them because you’re actually better than them. You’re honest, hard-working, salt-of-earth people with heartland values, unlike those corrupt, effete, cynical jerks.”

Tracinski knows that was never quite true, but it was true enough to make the argument believable.

Trump, by contrast, tells his followers that if the elites think they’re rotten, they might as well be.

You’re never going to be politically correct enough, so throw out all standards of decency. They’re going to hate you anyway, so you might as well be what they hate you for.

It’s an appeal to popular vice instead of popular virtue. Instead of offering voters a better version of themselves, Trump wants them to be the worst version of themselves. “He wants to rise to highest office by dragging everybody else down,” is how Tracinski puts it.

Progressives would add: by dragging everybody back.

Berate and cajole

The lesson for liberals is that you don’t berate and cajole people into becoming a better version of themselves.

Mocking somebody’s old-fashioned sense of manliness is unlikely to persuade them to be more relaxed about gender roles. Ridiculing somebody’s patriotism is unlikely to make them more critical of jingoists. Shaming somebody’s whiteness is unlikely to open their eyes to how deep racial injustices still run.

Liberals must not mimic Trump and encourage the worst in his voters. Let’s not be impatient. Don’t put people on the defensive. Progress can be slow, but it’s better to keep moving in the right direction than push people too hard and provoke a backlash.

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