Ross Douthat's pathetic Trump evasion: The NYT columnist attempts to pin the blame on Obama — and fails spectacularly

The NYT writer believes that Obama alienated the white working class with extremism. The numbers tell another story

Published March 1, 2016 9:25PM (EST)

Ross Douthat               (HBO)
Ross Douthat (HBO)

After months of ignoring him and hoping he would go away, Republicans have accepted that the success of Donald Trump is a problem for them. And, as conservatives tend to do when facing a problem, they have begun to blame liberals. The most recent argument comes from Ross Douthat, who writes,

“What it hasn’t inspired is much in the way of self-examination, or a recognition of the way that Obama-era trends in liberal politics have helped feed the Trump phenomenon.”

The piece contains no mention of race or racism, and ironically appeared on the same day Trump failed to denounce an endorsement he received from former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. Instead, it makes a series of assertions that could only be believed if one spent their days within a right-wing epistemic bubble.

Douthat begins by arguing that Obama escalated the concept of the President as celebrity. Douthat writes,

“First, the reality TV element in Trump’s campaign is a kind of fun-house-mirror version of the celebrity-saturated Obama effort in 2008. Presidential politics has long had an escalating celebrity component, a cultish side that’s grown ever-more-conspicuous with time. But the first Obama campaign raised the bar.”

The argument’s only virtue is in how difficult it is to disprove, since it relies on nothing but conjecture. (Indeed, because it is impossible to disprove, it’s probably the strongest argument Douthat makes.) However, it bears noting that it was movement conservatives who ushered a B-list Hollywood actor into the White House and haven’t stopped worshipping him since. While there are no “Obama Democrats,” every GOP contender for the last decade and a half has pledged to govern as a “Reagan Republican.”

Douthat next claims that Trump is “also proving, in his bullying, overpromising style, that voters are increasingly habituated to the idea of an ever more imperial presidency — which is also a trend that Obama’s choices have accelerated.” However, numerous facts belie this narrative. It was Boehner, not Obama who walked from debt ceiling talks, even after Obama agreed to compromises that rankled progressives. It was Republicans who insisted on holding the nation’s creditworthiness hostage to achieve political goals. According to Senator George Voinovich, McConnell’s strategy from the beginning of Obama’s presidency was to never work with Obama, because compromise would be a victory for Obama.

However, the wrongest statement Douthat makes comes at the end. He writes:

Trump’s strongest supporters aren’t archconservatives; they’re white working-class voters, especially in the Rust Belt and coal country, who traditionally leaned Democratic and still favor a strong welfare state.

These voters had been drifting away from the Democratic Party since the 1970s, but Obama has made moves that effectively slam the door on them: His energy policies, his immigration gambits, his gun control push, his shift to offense on same-sex marriage and abortion.

Interestingly, Douthat fails to mention what actually caused the White working class to abandon the Democratic Party in droves: racism. According to sociologist Philip Cohen, the percent of a county that is Black strongly correlates with Trump’s vote share in the South Carolina primary, strongly suggesting that race has a role to play in his rise. Political scientist Matt Blackwell finds that half of variation in Trump’s support in South Carolina can be explained by the percent to the population was Black in 1940 and the median income today.



At the New York Times, Nate Cohn finds that Trump’s support strongly correlates with racially charged Google searches.

If Douthat is arguing that the decline in the economic position is causing Whites to support fascism, one wonders why he continues to side with the party that stands for slashing social programs to afford tax cuts for the rich and opposes the health care programs, stimulus and job programs that would benefit the working and middle classes. As I’ve shown, whatever the faults of the Democratic party, it has a far better record of delivering economic growth and equitably distributing that growth across race and income.


Instead of citing racism as the culprit, Douthat claims the White working class abandoned Obama because of his supposedly extreme positions on same-sex marriage, abortion, guns and immigration. Let’s take these in order. For one, Obama was slow to come around on gay marriage, and the main actor here was the Supreme Court, not the executive branch. More importantly, it's scolding social conservatives, not the White working class, who oppose gay marriage. According to my analysis of the American National Election Studies (ANES) 2012 dataset, 39 percent of Whites without a college degree (working class Whites) support gay marriage, and 32 percent support civil unions, while only 30 percent say that there should be no legal recognition of a gay or lesbian couple’s relationship.

As I have noted elsewhere, the White working class is actually closer to Democrats than the GOP on the issue of abortion. Only 13 percent believe that by law abortion should never be permitted, 32 percent say only in cases of rape, incest or danger to the women, and the rest (56 percent) take the position that women should always or nearly always be able to obtain abortion as a matter of personal choice. When asked to place the candidates on the same scale, White working class respondents tended to place Obama’s position closer to theirs. Only 12 percent of working class Whites said they were more conservative than Romney, while 57 percent said they were more liberal (32 percent said they were the same). In contrast, 58 percent of working class Whites either agreed with Obama on abortion or were more liberal than him (43 percent said they were the same as Obama).

It’s unclear what Douthat means by energy policies, but as I have extensively documented, it is the donor class, not the general public, that opposes actions on climate change. ANES contains a variable that asks respondents to place themselves on a 1 to 7 scale, with 1 being “regulate business to protect the environment and create jobs” and 7 being “no regulation because it will not work and will cost jobs.” The mean White working class respondent places themselves at 3.53. Respondents are also asked to place the Presidential candidates on the scale. The mean response from working class Whites was 2.78 for Obama and 4.74 for Romney. Respondents are between Obama and Romney, but lean towards Obama.

On the final issue Douthat cites, there is again little evidence for his argument: A full 54 percent of working class Whites say they want gun laws kept “about the same” while only 7 percent support looser laws and 40 percent support stricter laws. As the chart below shows, working class Whites are more liberal than the GOP on abortion and services, but more conservative on the issue of race, Trump’s exact ideological position.


Douthat, and many other conservatives, often lament the lack of personal responsibility in America. Maybe they should exercise some themselves. A more accurate reading of Obama’a presidency would note that he was voted into office by the most diverse coalition in American history and spoke of uniting, not dividing the country. He pursued technocratic and widely supported policies to pull America out of the Great Recession. He expanded the safety net and has presided over the longest stretch of job growth on record. On issues from climate change, to immigration, to guns he pushed for policies that a decade ago would have garnered broad Republican support.

On the other side of the aisle, the right has whipped up a feverish and racially tinged mob to delegitimize Obama. They have refused not just to compromise, but even to negotiate with Obama. The right-wing Supreme Court has come within inches of enacting its second Constitutional putsch, and still managed to gut the Affordable Care Act and Voting Rights Act. Racist rhetoric about “Obama phones,” the “food stamp president” and Santorum’s famous “blahs” outburst have been flung by leading Republican candidates.

Trump is the ugly creation of the Republican party’s race-baiting political coup. As a man Douthat admires quite a bit once said, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Obama’s only responsibility for creating Trump was being a Black man who had the audacity to become President of the United States.

By Sean McElwee

Sean McElwee is founding executive director of Data for Progress. He tweets at @seanmcelwee.

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Barack Obama Donald Trump Elections 2016 Gop Primary Ross Douthat The New York Times