Thursday, March 3, 2016

On Trump supporters

One of the constants in liberal politics is an unwillingness to take conservative voters at face value.  The book What's the Matter With Kansas is a near platonic example of this.  The basic thesis being that the voters in Kansas *should* have their own best financial interest at heart.  But they voted against their financial best interests so therefore they must have fallen victim to the lies and manipulations of the economic elites who are duping the average conservative voter into hurting themselves.

The conclusion is that conservative voters are basically misguided and if only they can be brought to see the truth (that they'd do better economically under a liberal government) they'd vote for liberals because that makes the most economic sense even if they don't like the liberal social agenda.  For a long time this view made sense to me and that was how I tended to think of conservative voters, as basically well meaning but misguided or duped individuals.

I've lately come to think of this viewpoint as being not merely bullshit, but paternalistic condescending bullshit.

If you actually listen to what conservative people say they're quite open about what they want and how they think and what they believe.  The supporters of Donald Trump may be the best example of this, but the Tea Party hasn't exactly been shy about their beliefs either.

And while they'd like to do better financially, it isn't the biggest item on the list, and moreover they see doing better financially via the sort of things liberals propose as cheating.  In fact, for many of them doing better financially, at least by liberal means, is an option they're willing to sacrifice in order to get what they actually want.

What Trump has done is simply rip off the veil of bullshit that conservative politicians have been trying to cover up the actual drives of conservative voters.  Lee Atwater, describing Nixon's Southern Strategy described the obscuring bullshit politicians found necessary to deploy rather than simply openly addressing the desires of their voters:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can't say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Race has always been one of the core issues of American politics, but since the 1960's it's an issue that conservative elites have been uncomfortable with.  But the conservative base has never really felt right about the need to obfuscate the racism.

A few years ago when a conservative complained about being silenced by "political correctness" they were almost always talking about liberals who they imagined would be annoyed at blatant racism or sexism.  These days when a conservative complains about "political correctness" they almost always mean conservative elites shushing the open racism and urging the use of dog whistle terms.

Trump is turning Atwater's advice on its head.  There is a hard core of conservatism in the USA that is not merely xenophobic, racist, and sexist, but is proudly xenophobic, racist, and sexist, and they're tired of being shushed, tired of being told to keep it away from the cameras, and tired in general of the politicians they vote for being embarrassed about who voted for them.

86.9% of Trump voters in one poll agreed with the statement "people like me don't have any say about what the government does".  Donald Trump is popular, in other words, largely because he sounds like your racist grandpa does when he spouts off about topics he knows nothing about.  Illegal immigration?  Build a wall and make Mexico pay for it!  Problems in the Middle East?  Bomb the shit out of 'em!  Complex matters with Muslim refugees, immigrants, and Muslims native to your nation?  Ban all Muslims!

The Trump supporters may also believe that implementing Trump's policies will benefit them economically, but that concern is a far distant second to the more important, more pressing, concerns they have.

Ultimately the desire is for a return to a status that never was, a desire for America to become like they imagine the 1950's were like.  A mythic time when American meant white, and everyone who wasn't white kept their heads down and didn't make waves if they knew what was good for them.  A mythic time when men worked and women stayed home to clean, cook, and care for the children.   A time, in short, when straight, white, Christian, men were unquestioned as the top of the heap and everyone else acknowledged it.

There's a reason why Trump's supporters are so overwhelmingly white, and a reason why people like David Duke and other white supremacists keep endorsing him.

The simple fact is that Trump is saying openly what Republicans have been urging their followers to say privately for decades.  He is the ultimate expression of Nixon's Southern Strategy, and the end product of years of Republican support for hate radio.  That this embarrasses the establishment Republicans who want to keep egging on white resentment for easy votes but don't want to be painted as racists, and especially don't want to actually implement programs that the resentful white voters want, is irrelevant.

To expect a Trump voter to reject him based on economics, or really facts of any sort, is to miss the point entirely.  Trump supporters are the product of resentment, they are not voting for a political agenda but for a tribal one.  It isn't about money, though the financial pinch they feel may well help amplify their resentments.  When they say they want their country back, when they say they represent Real America and by implication that anyone who isn't like them doesn't count as being really American, they mean it.  And that's how they'll vote.


  1. I came for Master of Magic and intended to write a response to your post on decentralization, but who can resist a topic as evocative as Donald Trump?

    I'm sure you've heard plenty of people say by now that if Trump gets elected, they'll move to Canada. That joke's lasted more than one election cycle. But ask yourself this, if Bernie Sanders is elected, where will the conservatives move to? The United States of America is the most conservative Western democracy in the world. For a conservative, there is literally no other option, no place to go. So when they see progressive legislation posing changes to their way of life, they feel backed into a corner. There is no flight response, it's either fight or die.

    I don't want to marginalize the thrust of your post in that I think it's very wise of you to recognize that conservatives are more than just duped liberals. But as a conservative, I want to clarify that the political "right" generally, nor Trump supporters specifically, are a homogeneous group. Even the so-called Tea Party is divided into distinct factions that pretty much hate one another.

    Thus it comes off as disingenuous when you describe Trump supporters as racist/sexist/prejudiced. I can understand that might be your experience of Republicans, but speaking as one, I see a much more vibrant and diverse makeup. Most of the conservatives I know don't give a damn about the color of a person's skin or what's between their legs. They vote based what they believe is best for the nation as a whole.

    The irony here is that the same problem you describe in the left camp exists in the right. You don't know how many conversations I've had where someone has said "If only the progressives would look beyond their immediate financial gain, they'd realize that conservative policies will benefit them in the long run." I agree with you. It's condescending to ignore that there is a fundamental difference in values in play.

    I just wish people would stop trying to impose their values on others whom they don't know and are never going to meet. I wish both parties would stop turning issues into national crises. Until conservatives and progressives can learn to leave one another alone, the two groups are just going to keep tearing at one another.

  2. The right isn't homogonous, no, but there is an enormous racist/xenophobic/sexist group in the right.

    If they don't care about race, why do they keep voting for racist policies?

    If they don't care who a person sleeps with, why do they keep voting for homophobic and transphobic policies?

    If they, like you, want people to stop trying to impose their values on others, why are they pushing so hard to do just that?

    I don't want to accuse you of lying, but you're basically claiming that the central goals of the modern Republican party are nonexistant.