Here’s a project for liberals in 2023: try to understand Trump voters. Stop hating them. Don’t discard them in your basket of deplorables. And, my God, do not feel sorry for them or try to educate them! Instead, be educated by them.
It’s my fervent hope for the New Year that Donald Trump is finished. He had a very bad fourth quarter, though nowhere near as bad as he deserves. But if Trump is history the 75 million of our fellow Americans who voted for him will still be very much with us. We can afford to despise Trump, but we can’t afford to do the same with those who supported him. It’s not in anybody’s best interests.
Moreover, it’s not really just about one man. The Trump disease is worldwide. It can be found in Brexit and Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban, Vladimir Putin and on and on. The problem isn’t just these individuals, but hard-right populist quasi-fascism. It has its roots mostly in rural areas and among people without college educations. And while there are signs that it may finally be in retreat (Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro and Le Pen have been defeated and Putin has been turned back in Ukraine), it’s not going away any time soon.
As liberals, we have to ask ourselves why we have all these wonderful policy solutions to help blue collar workers (higher minimum wages, health care subsidies, worker protections, rural broad band, etc.) and yet blue collar workers can’t stand us. The standard liberal answer is that they’re too stupid to understand their own interests. They should have gone to college — and have had their loans paid off by the taxpayers.
This is not a useful response.
Here’s my best crack at trying to understand what’s going on. There has always been a disconnect between relatively affluent people who live in cities and less well off people from rural areas. Cities are places that suck up resources (including the children of rural people), add value to those resources, charge more for them and reap the benefits. They also tend to be places where people and goods enter and exit the country or the region. So, by nature, cities tend to be more cosmopolitan, more open and tolerant of different ideas, lifestyles and identities. It takes time for those things to penetrate into the interior, though they almost always do.
That age-old split between rural and urban has widened in recent decades. Technology and free trade have accelerated the trend toward rewarding education and discounting physical stamina. The ability to do things has given way to the ability to think about things.
Trump voters can feel that. They see their own towns fading while cities are doing better. They see their kids going away to college or for a job in a city and not returning. They find that words and ideas that they revere or at least never questioned are now offensive. (Stanford University now discourages the use of the word “American.” I kid you not.) They see media and popular culture, even the NFL, embracing ideas and causes that seem to exclude them, if not blame them for the problem. When they hear “inclusiveness” they assume they’re being excluded.
The answer is not in policy, though that’s got to be part of it. Anything we can do to shift some of the benefits of a technological, knowledge-based economy to rural areas and to blue collar workers everywhere would be a good thing. Not requiring a college degree for jobs that don’t really need one would be an excellent start.
But here’s a crucial point. This cannot be seen as charity. That’s why I think the liberal idea of a guaranteed income is so horrible. People have their pride. They do not want to be told what they deserve to get just for breathing. They want to know what they can earn by working hard at something.
Also, it would be very helpful if liberals would stop inventing new pretentious language every week, especially the language of victimhood — “intersectionality”, for cryin’ out loud. Stop signaling your virtue at every opportunity. If you really feel so guilty about your “privilege” then stop displaying it every chance you get.
The bottom line is that we need to narrow the gap between the economies, the values and the cultures of urban and rural places and between the college degreed and those without the paper. Bill Clinton had the best formulation to combine the pithy value statement with the policy direction that works best: If you work hard and play by the rules you should get ahead in America.
I would only add that if you work hard and play by the rules it should matter less where you live, what work you do or how many years of education you have.
Finally, if you’re a liberal for whom social justice just burns in your very soul, why on earth should you cool your passion? I’ll offer two reasons. The first is that your definition of social justice needs to expand. What’s just about the benefits of the new economy accruing so disproportionately to people in cities with college degrees? And second, what is a greater threat than hard-right populist fascism?
Trump may be on his way out, but the anger and resentment he represents is here to stay until we do something about it. If there was one motivating force behind Trump it was “owning the libs.” He did things just to get under our skin (remember his awarding the Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh at a State of the Union address?) and we always reacted with satisfying outrage.
We have to ask ourselves what it is in our own approach and rhetoric that generates so much anger that otherwise reasonable and decent people would vote for a man like that. The problem isn’t just Trump, the problem isn’t just the people who supported him. Some of the problem is in ourselves.