Liberal America Unwittingly Radicalized Trumpland

Liberals overreached and drove working white Americans into the arms of a demagogue.

A portrait of businessman Donald Trump is seen in West Des Moines, Iowa, January 23
A portrait of businessman Donald Trump is seen in West Des Moines, Iowa, January 23 (Tony Webster)

When it became clear Tuesday night that Donald Trump was going to defeat Hillary Clinton in the big industrial states of the American Midwest — Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin — I thought of the way Barack Obama had triumphed there four years ago.

His opponent, Mitt Romney, was a decent and thoughtful man who I supported for president. It bothered me at the time that Democrats were portraying him — insincerely, it seemed to me — as a heartless plutocrat. But that’s how Obama won over the white working class in the very states Clinton lost on Tuesday.

I sensed there was a connection between the vilification of Mitt Romney and the victory of Donald Trump, but I couldn’t put my finger on it until I read this quote from a conservative voter in The Atlantic:

Give people the impression that you will hate them the same or nearly so for voting Jeb Bush as compared to voting for Trump and where is the motivation to be socially acceptable with Jeb?

It is now starting to sink in that liberal America unwittingly radicalized Trumpland.

Identity politics

David Marcus warned liberals before the election that if they pushed white Americans “to take stock of their whiteness,” the result would not be a catharsis of white identity. “It will be resentment toward being the only tribe not given the special treatment bestowed by victimhood.”

“The last thing our society needs is for white people to feel more tribal,” he wrote in The Federalist.

Michael Lerner similarly argues in The New York Times that the left has committed the same sin of identity politics as the right.

Conservatives have been very successful at persuading working people that they are vulnerable not because of their own failures, but because of the selfishness of some “Other”: blacks, feminists, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, liberals, progressives — the list keeps growing.

Instead of challenging this ideology of shame, the left has buttressed it by blaming white people as a whole for slavery, genocide of the Native Americans and a host of other sins, as though whiteness itself was something about which people ought to be ashamed. The rage many white working-class people feel in response is rooted in the sense that once again, as has happened to them throughout their lives, they are being misunderstood.

Lerner admonishes liberals to stop ignoring people’s pain and fears. Trump may be racist, sexist and xenophobic; his support does not reveal an inherent malice in the majority of the American people.

If the left could abandon all this shaming, it could rebuild its political base by helping Americans see that much of people’s suffering is rooted in the hidden injuries of class and in the spiritual crisis that the global competitive marketplace generates.

Timothy Garton Ash makes a similar argument in The Guardian. The challenge, he writes, is to develop a new language and new policies to appeal, emotionally and substantively, to that large part of the populist electorate that is not irredeemably xenophobic, racist and misogynist.

Those would be the people Jonathan Haidt, in The American Interest, identified as “status-quo conservatives”: temperamentally wary of big promises and big change but open to an alliance with authoritarians and populists if they believe that progressives are subverting the country’s traditions and identity so badly that dramatic political action is only way they can stand athwart history anymore yelling “Stop!”

Now the hard part

Liberals and progressives — not just in America, but in Europe as well — need to reach out to those who might be tempted by the false promises of nativism and help them understand why it’s a dead end.

We can no longer take for granted that the values which underpin our liberty and prosperity are properly understood.

Pluralism and diversity needed to be defended. As do democratic norms and institutions, which populists like Trump scorn with glee.

If Trump is a reaction to changing gender norms, to a more fluid definition of what it means to be “American” and to evolving race relations, then those making and supporting those changes must have more patience with those who are struggling to keep up.

You don’t convince people to be more relaxed about female power or gay and transgender rights by ridiculing old-fashioned gender roles or suing bakers who refuse to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple.

Nor do you defeat jingoists by mocking people’s patriotism or open their eyes to racial injustice by shaming people’s whiteness.

Do that and you get a Trump.

The next part is going to be hard. It takes a lot more effort to engage and empathize with those you disagree with than it does to shout them down, but that’s the only way anybody is ever persuaded of anything.