In composing the title of this post, I just typed “The Trump Election”, as in Donald Trump, reality TV star elected leader of the free world. Give me a moment please.
Ok, I’m back. I just needed a minute to be sure I haven’t lost my mind. Yes, it really happened. Enough folks in the right states voted for Donald Trump and on January 20, 2017 he will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America. Social media is bursting with emotion – everything from elation to panic, anger and despair. But two articles that crossed my path particularly intrigued me. They portray two very different versions of American whites, Trump’s largest contingent.
On the one hand, we have Shelby Steele, a black conservative thought leader who wrote a piece published in the Wall Street Journal. His basic premise is that liberals constantly demand that Americans atone for perceived sins against minorities and that anyone who does not atone, or give deference, is condemned as a racist or misogynist or a member of Hillary’s “basket of deplorables”. Steele asserts that Trump has tapped into people’s desire to stop atoning, to stop being guilted into deferring to supposedly abused minorities.
Deference has been codified in American life as political correctness. And political correctness functions like a despotic regime. It is an oppressiveness that spreads its edicts further and further into the crevices of everyday life. We resent it, yet for the most part we at least tolerate its demands. But it means that we live in a society that is ever willing to cast judgment on us, to shame us in the name of a politics we don’t really believe in. It means our decency requires a degree of self-betrayal.
And into all this steps Mr. Trump, a fundamentally limited man but a man with overwhelming charisma, a man impossible to ignore. The moment he entered the presidential contest America’s long simmering culture war rose to full boil. Mr. Trump was a non-deferential candidate. He seemed at odds with every code of decency. He invoked every possible stigma, and screechingly argued against them all. He did much of the dirty work that millions of Americans wanted to do but lacked the platform to do.
On the other hand, we have Patrick Thornton who works behind the scenes at Roll Call and is less sympathetic to the contingent Steele is talking to. In his piece, Thornton suggests that rural whites are in a bubble.
To pin this election on the coastal elite is a cop-out. It’s intellectually dishonest, and it’s beneath us.
We, as a culture, have to stop infantilizing and deifying rural and white working-class Americans. Their experience is not more of a real American experience than anyone else’s, but when we say that it is, we give people a pass from seeing and understanding more of their country. More Americans need to see more of the United States. They need to shake hands with a Muslim, or talk soccer with a middle aged lesbian, or attend a lecture by a female business executive.
Thornton is informed by the people he grew up with in Ohio. He calls for empathy from all sides but he says rural America isn’t empathizing with those outraged by Trump’s victory because they literally don’t know the people Trump has offended.
I think both authors make valid points. We liberals have become incredibly arrogant in our belief of moral superiority to the conservative. We mock them. We insult them. During the Trump campaign we lied about them, over and over. Trump, for example, never called Mexicans rapists. Nor did he ever call all immigrants rapists. He said, in his very blunt manner. that some Mexicans entering our country illegally were committing crimes. This got distorted and a lie told often enough becomes the truth. When Hillary stepped over the line and attacked Trump’s followers instead of his ideas, she confirmed what every conservative thinks of liberals – that we are condescending, judgmental pricks.
However, I believe it is also true that a segment of America, mostly white, blames folks they don’t really know for the predicament they find themselves in. As Thornton puts it, “When you grow up in rural America, denying rights to people is an abstract concept. Denying marriage rights to gay people isn’t that much different than denying boarding rights to Klingons.” When you don’t actually know any Muslims, it is easy to accept banning them from the country to ease your fear of terrorism.
This dual view of America played out in a heated debate on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Friday when Michael Moore, of all people, said rust belt Americans are tired of being screwed over and want a fresh face to deliver them from their problems. The media elites just don’t get it. On the other side, New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas said that empathy must be a two way street and the rust belt needs to understand the fears of the Muslim, or the pro-choice woman.
I’m not here to advocate for either position. I think the Trump candidacy and victory speak to the fragile social state of our country. It is complicated. Blame laying is just too easy. Surely, true bigots and misogynists are not to be tolerated in civil society but you can’t label everyone with whom you disagree a bigot or misogynist. Van Jones talks about a whitelash. I don’t think Jones is completely honest about the nature of that whitelash. In her deplorables remark, Hillary showed her contempt for a large segment of America who is tired of being the punching bag for America’s problems. To them, that is not a “great America” and they’re hoping Donald can make America great again.