We must shame dumb Trump fans: The white working class are not victims

It's not smug liberalism to point out Trump backers are low-educated. What's dangerous is to sympathize with them

By David Masciotra
April 30, 2016 5:29PM (UTC)
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(AP/Robert F. Bukaty)

A few weeks ago, I was a guest on the political radio show "Beyond the Beltway." To no one’s surprise, the conversation turned to Donald Trump, and I referred to the overwhelming evidence proving his supporters are ignorant and bigoted. The first caller, voice rising to the level of a shriek, badgered me for my “arrogance” and “smugness.” Then, he concluded his tantrum with predictable sophistication. He called me a “Zionist hack.” For the record, I’m not Jewish, but implying that I am such does not qualify as an insult.

The second caller – perhaps from the same tinfoil-insulated room as his predecessor – argued that I was a “snob” for citing the publicly available data I’ve read, and rebutted accusations of xenophobia by announcing he is “sick of seeing taco stands every five minutes.”

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A novelist could not invent better exchanges to illustrate the reality of the Trump voter. Let them talk long enough, and they will soon convict themselves of indecent exposure.

The intellectual deformities and disfigurements of the average Trump supporter should provoke universal disgust, but a fun game for phonies has begun to sweep the liberal world of commentary. Some writers, in their desire to play dress-up as Woody Guthrie, have taken to writing maudlin essays on the victimhood and pitiable state of Trump fans. People who applaud an inarticulate blowhard’s description of Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” cheer for proposals to ban Muslims from entry into the United States, and laugh at mockery of women’s looks and a disabled reporter’s mannerisms, are actually deserving of sympathy. According to the Guthrie poseurs, if liberals fail to cry crocodile tears for their idealized version of the “white, working class,” they are actually responsible for the putrid rise of Trump.

The latest commentator to squeeze into overalls is Emmett Rensin at Vox. In a rambling elaboration of Hallmark sentimentality, Rensin condemns what he, much like the Trump cultists who chastised me on the radio, calls the “smug style of American liberalism.”

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The smug style, as Rensin defines it, is a “way of conducting politics predicated on the belief that American life is not divided by moral difference or policy divergence but by the failure of half the country to know what's good for them.” Its trademarks are “condescension and sneering dressed up as a monopoly on reason.” Exhibit A in his case against liberal smugness is my own work, and my own fact-based analysis of Donald Trump supporters as low-income and low-educated. He quotes at length from my own essay on the topic, never once making the argument that anything I said was wrong. His entire point is that I was wrong to say it.

“The wages of smug is Trump,” Rensin writes, and implies that it is this very smugness – the kind I apparently demonstrate with great aplomb – that could potentially help Trump brand his name across the columns of the White House. Snobs like me are the “handmaidens” of liberal destruction. It is just too mean to point out that some people don’t know things, and that some people are wrong in what they believe they do know.

When Rensin isn’t weepy and precious, he is an amateur psychologist. The smug style, he claims, is a liberal defense mechanism for dealing with a “profound shift in American political demography.”

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Much of what follows is a vague condemnation of liberals for their confidence of knowledge. Rensin italicizes the word knowing as if research, scholarship and education are dubious practices, and in the interest of consistency, he demonstrates no knowledge of anything.

In his political history, he identifies the mass exodus of the white, working class from the Democratic Party as beginning in the 1960s. The trend has continued, unabated, up until the present. Rensin doesn’t show much interest in attempting to explain the white abandonment of liberalism. He posits that Richard Nixon is to blame, “but then so is Bill Clinton,” and then bravely punts on third down: “I have my own sympathies, but I do not propose to adjudicate that question here.”

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He then argues that liberals are walking around, hands in the air and jaws on the floor, continually asking themselves, “What happened?”

Yes – if only there was some major change in American law, politics and culture in the 1960s to explain why many white people might have begun to disapprove of the Democratic Party.

Bill Moyers – one of those liberals who knows things and isn’t shy about showing it – remembers that when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he was “euphoric.” Later that evening, Moyers found him in a “melancholy mood,” and asked him “what was troubling him.” The president answered, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time.”

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The Voting Rights Act later aggravated white voters to the point of mania, but so did Johnson’s War on Poverty, and not because of bromides about “big government.” White voters in the decades leading up to the Great Society initiative had no objection to generous social programs of assistance for the poor, disabled and illiterate. The Homestead Act, the GI Bill, Social Security, the rural electrification policies of the New Deal, and other public aid programs were uncontroversial – popular with the white working class, because they were the sole beneficiaries of government largesse. It was not until the federal government started spending white tax dollars on anti-poverty relief for spics and niggers that low-income white voters went into hysterics about the evils of dependency. Up until the Great Society, most government programs were, like Southern hotels and diners, white only.

At one point, Rensin refers to the “evangelical revival” as one possible explanation for the rise of the right-wing white voter, but demonstrates no awareness of the hideous racial politics at the center of Christian Conservatism.

Randall Balmer, in his excellent biography of President Jimmy Carter, Redeemer, documents and describes how white evangelicals were largely apathetic and apolitical prior to the 1976 presidential election. They swarmed the polls in high numbers to help usher one of their own into office. Carter’s faith and testimony seemed genuine, and white evangelicals supported him for cultural and theological reasons, rather than anything having to do with politics or public policy. By 1980, those same voters were carrying placards for the “Reagan revolution.” As Balmer explains, “Although homosexuality and, eventually, abortion, would figure into their (white evangelicals) critique, the real catalyst for their disaffection was race, especially the issue of desegregation.”

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Early in his single term as president, Carter instructed the IRS, the Justice Department, and the EEOC to investigate private Christian schools and universities in the South for refusal to admit black students. It quickly became clear that religious academies, Bob Jones University, and other Christian colleges were discriminating against black families and applicants to preserve the universal whiteness of their student bodies. Under the Carter administration, the IRS then removed the tax-exempt status of these schools. Paul Weyrich, considered by Balmer and many others as the chief architect of the religious right, told Conservative Digest, “When the Internal Revenue Service tried to deny tax exemption to private schools, that more than any single act brought the fundamentalists and evangelicals into the political process.”

One will notice if paying attention that none of the Woody Guthrie poseurs are black. African-Americans seem not to suffer from any confusion over why working-class white people don’t like the Democratic Party. It brings to mind the late Norman Mailer’s observation that there are plenty of uneducated, uninformed, and even unintelligent black Americans, but there are no stupid ones. The condition of blackness in America brings with it a political sophistication unwelcoming of soft and sentimental illusions. The truth cuts deep: Most white, working-class voters left the Democratic Party because they did not want to associate with racial minorities, and they did not want to support any candidate who was unwilling to prove – term by term – his contempt for black people.

If the truth was more complicated, why haven’t black and Latino working-class voters left liberalism? If Bill Clinton is really to blame – I would presume Rensin thinks his shift of the Democratic Party to the center is partially responsible – for white disaffection, why would those same voters turn out for George W. Bush? Was Bush to the left of Clinton? At one point, Rensin refers to the “destruction of labor unions” as a possible cause. How then to explain the interesting political mutant known as the “Reagan Democrat”? Reagan did more to damage public unions than any president of the modern era. Rensin claims that liberals have stopped helping the white, working class. Then, how would he explain widespread hatred among the white, working class for the Affordable Care Act? Why has hatred for Obama only intensified as the economy has improved?

Unlike Rensin and most pundits, I live in a small town in Indiana. There are Trump supporters in my family, and my wife’s family. Like the callers on "Beyond the Beltway," if you give them enough rope, they will eventually self-tailor a noose. It is racial resentment, and little else, that motivates the Trump supporter. This is not an indictment one could generalize against all Republicans. A friend of mine is on the executive board of the Chicago Young Republicans, and he detests Trump, possibly with more passion than I do, because he realizes he has more to lose if the GOP allows an unapologetic bigot to become its public mascot. The “Never Trump” movement is a national version of my friend’s fears and frustrations over the Trump surge.

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An easy 90 minutes down the highway from my home is the town of Elkhart, Indiana. Like many Indiana towns, it has its charm and communal appeal, but also its oddities. The New York Times recently made Elkhart the focus of a fascinating report on the Trump constituency. When President Obama began his first term in 2009, unemployment in Elkhart was at 20 percent. The townspeople were desperate, and after Obama twice visited them, they claimed they would applaud and attach themselves to anyone who could rescue them out of the ashes of bankruptcy. Unemployment in Elkhart is now at 3 percent, and local business owners have taken to hiring workers right out of the nearest homeless shelter. Members of the Chamber of Commerce and political officials in Elkhart are on record as crediting the stimulus package, along with other Obama policies, as directly helpful to the local economy. They are also publicly in a daze over how their friends and neighbors have reacted to the good news – mainly with hatred for Obama. At a recent high school basketball game, the Elkhart crowd chanted “Trump” and “Build the wall” at the visiting team. Most of the players from the opposing school were Latino.

What Rensin either does not know or would prefer to deny is that these people are not flexible. If they see the light on the road to Damascus, they will close their eyes and retreat into a dark corner. Cute and optimistic liberals often make a vague argument for the possibilities of recruitment, but 61 percent of Trump supporters do not believe that Barack Obama was born in the United States. What recruitment strategy will convince someone that the president is not an illegal immigrant? That same president oversaw the passage of the most significant health care reform since the creation of Medicaid. White, rural voters do not exactly seem grateful to Obama for helping them obtain the best medical coverage they have ever had.

The president probably put it best with his now infamous gaffe about “bitter people clinging to their guns and religion.” The real story of demographic change in American culture is not the fairly obvious and boring transformation of party constituencies, but the “browning of America.” It is not only the presence of minorities, but the power of minorities – in American institutions at all levels – that has many white voters running scared, straight into the arms of a billionaire who just a year ago was probably indifferent to their existence. Trump voters are not deifying their candidate because liberals are mean. They are doing so for the exact reasons they have given journalists and pollsters. They don’t like immigrants, and they believe minorities are receiving too much governmental assistance and cultural power, at the expense of whites.

To act as if the truth is otherwise – that white people shouting “Build the wall” at Latino teenagers need only the right message from the right liberal messenger to change – is not compassionate. It is either dishonest or naïve. To excuse ignorance is the equivalent of writing a book on why it is fine to be illiterate.

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The demographics and culture of America are steadily becoming more civil, decent and communal for blacks, Latinos and gays, because of the improvements in ethics among younger people, and because of the shaming of bigots. Knowing is a major factor in the continual enhancement and expansion of American freedom. Those who oppose that expansion – anti-gay, anti-black and anti-women weirdoes – are increasingly unwelcome in civil society, and it is the weight of shame that silences the bigots who are obstinate. It is the tool of shame that declaws and neuters them.

The best tactic of defeat for Donald Trump is to shame his supporters, not sympathize with them. If support for Trump, or anyone with such ignorance and hatred at the center of his vision for the United States, invites public embarrassment, supporters will begin to cower. If they cower, they lose.

At the heart of Rensin’s essay is disapproval for the “smug disdain” many liberals demonstrated by criticizing and mocking Kim Davis – the public official in Kentucky who refused to do her job and marry gay couples, because God sent her a text message telling her not to. It is fitting and revealing that Rensin almost comes to her defense, because what he seems to peddle is a politicized version of Christian martyrdom. Rather than properly humiliating Davis – so that likeminded officials won’t fall to the temptation of mimicking her deplorable and illegal behavior – liberals should turn the other cheek, and speak humbly and mercifully. It is a bizarre application of the masochistic “love your enemies” philosophy. It is much wiser and more moral to politically destroy the enemies of liberalism, especially those who are hell-bent on preaching dislike of people they don’t know, and obstructing the progression of America into a more peaceful, just, and – yes – loving society.

The Bible says that the meek shall inherit the earth. Not in this political climate.


David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters" (Bloomsbury Publishing) and "Mellencamp: American Troubadour" (University Press of Kentucky, 2015).

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