Should we sympathize with Trump voters? I found this essay from Rick Perlstein pretty enlightening, even if I disagree with a lot of what he had to say. In short, Perlstein writes about the captivating experience of dealing with a very intelligent Trump voter named “Peter” in one of his seminars. Peter writes a compelling paper on Trump’s appeal to working-class whites and then reads it for the class, but Perlstein later fleshes out some of the supporting data and finds that the myth of the downtrodden Trump voter is probably a bit overstated. He concludes by trying to draw out how the bogeyman of Reconstruction apparently lurks in the minds of people like Peter, thus proving that conservatives will gladly downplay racism if it doesn’t square with their narrative.

I also wanted to pull in this older piece by Jedediah Purdy, which takes a more moderate stance on many of the same issues and draws up this analysis at the end:

There are, crudely drawn, four or so current theories of Trump and the new New Right. The establishment conservative view, sounded by figures like Andrew Sullivan, Jonathan Rauch, and Leon Wieseltier, is that Trump is the sick consummation of an individualistic, “hyper-democratic” culture that values emotional satisfaction and “authenticity” over facts and reason. One liberal view—expressed at its bluntest on social media, but also in columns by Paul Krugman and Jamelle Bouie—is that his supporters are basically racist and otherwise-bigoted hicks, whom the Republican Party has been feeding on the sly for decades, and who are now out of their cages. A more polite version of this take sees Trump’s success as a response to the declining status of working-class, rural, and small-town whites in a demographically and culturally changing world, a last grab at a nostalgic America where, even if they are not bigots, they feel they once belonged. A final view, more congenial to the Sanders and Jacobin left, is that while Trump himself is a repugnant charlatan, his supporters seek in him a salve for the real economic problems of blue-collar displacement and the bait-and-switch promises of the American dream.

In the end, I think they’re all right, although Perlstein really gets his finger on it when he says that “Feelings can’t be fact-checked, and in the end, feelings were what Peter’s eloquent essay came down to­—what it feels like to belong, and what it feels like to be culturally dispossessed.” I think the feeling of cultural dispossession motivated a lot of people to vote for Trump, regardless of income.

For some, economic anxieties heightened this sense of cultural dispossession. We’ve run away with the “downtrodden white working class” narrative because some of those voters with economic anxieties in some crucial electoral regions voted for Obama twice and then switched to Trump, but their actual impact on the election is hard to discern. This story, compelling as it is, cannot be generalized to the whole Rust Belt, the entire white working class, the majority of Trump voters, or all “real Americans”.

Cultural dispossession, on the other hand, is a lot more easy to generalize. There are a lot of people who are economically secure and still feel like their identity is under assault from “coastal elites”– heck, when you have the luxury of economic security, you have more time and energy to obsess more about symbolic representation and what happens in the dorm of a college you or your children will never attend. There have only been a handful of instances where someone has been threatened with actual economic hardship for some permutation of Christian belief, but those are serious enough to have created a sense of existential dread for the average (white) evangelical.

Similarly, fears about illegal immigration create existential dread, whether one fears that an illegal immigrant will take their job or simply destroy our economy by taking welfare benefits equal to one-millionth of a percent of whatever it costs to drone-strike another wedding party in one of the seven countries we’re currently bombing. “Black criminality” inspires similar fear, and if you can convince yourself that ensuring officers are held accountable for illegal actions will somehow unleash a giant crime wave that will take some form of public transportation to your neighborhood… well, there you go. Racism animates this dread, of course, but one of the pernicious things about racism is that it finds a half-truth (in this case, about crime rates in cities) to hide behind so that you feel more uncomfortable discarding it.

This ties into the existential dread: If you can provoke anyone into feeling scared enough, you can get them to compromise on convictions that they don’t hold to quite as tightly. This is especially potent if they can identify a particular bogeyman responsible for their dread. There is enough blowharded elitism leaking out from various centers of power to convince folks not only that their dread is justified, but also that the only way to ameliorate the threat is to punch back and seize power.

Trump’s election made it quite clear that many evangelical Christians don’t necessarily need the leaders they support to be “one of them”. They want someone who is willing to break the rules in order to defend them. They want a bodyguard, an enforcer, an attack dog unconstrained by decorum who will do what it takes to quiet the dread.

Post-election, there was a lot of hand-wringing about the need to sympathize or empathize with Trump voters, which is a nice sentiment but not really vigorous enough. People who threw their support behind Trump are craven and gullible (at best), and while I think we should always do our best to empathize with other people, you need far more than empathy to get anywhere. Now that Trump’s taken office, this feeling is quickly transmogrifying into a determination to win at any cost, which is of course the mistake that a lot of decent people who voted for Trump made.

Progressives can probably achieve a lot of their political goals just by mobilizing more voters next time around; turnout was dismal enough in 2016 that they don’t have to sympathize or empathize with anyone to win. However, if we want to keep the wheels of our democratic order from falling off entirely, that will require some dialogue with some of the people who voted for Trump. In order to do that, we have to get within moral striking distance before we fire off our arguments. “Civility” is a word that seems to be getting more and more meaningless, as people seem to be using “uncivil” to mean “you hurt my feelings”. If that’s the case, then forget “civility”– you can be as strident as you want as long as you are persuasive.

Of course, this is more difficult in an age when people seem to feel like taking umbrage at a statement justifies their dismissal of its truth, do not bother to educate themselves on the basic facts of history or politics, and generally prefer to read pre-digested memes that support their preexisting prejudices instead of grappling with serious arguments from their opponents. There is no way forward without serious intellectual and moral formation. This is not easy to do (I wrote about it at the end of this piece), but it is preferable to the dissolution of a meaningful political order.

Trump won because enough people talked themselves into thinking he would soothe their existential dread or at least stave it off for a few years. I think that the Left could ease the sense of cultural dispossession by picking its battles a little better (e.g. don’t punch down on some backwater pizza parlor), but the Right really needs to make its voters a lot less susceptible to con men. For those of us somewhere in the middle, we need to be willing to do the slow, hard work of helping ourselves and others cultivate the virtues necessary for meaningful discourse. Sympathy not required.

Posted by Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org

3 Comments

  1. The virtues necessary for meaningful civil discourse include not simply believing what everyone else like you believes. But right now, the exact opposite is taking effect at an unprecedented rate, in a process that appears to be a self-reinforcing spiral of partisanship.

    I am increasingly dumbfounded at the echo chambers I observe almost everywhere I turn. The Right has taken a lot of flack (rightly so!) during this cycle for its “alternative media” and the blindness that engenders. But the Left seems (and despite the lip-service the mainstream media paid to re-establishing their credibility with conservatives immediately after the election) to have just as strong an echo chamber going on, especially in their own alternative media (Vox, Slate, etc.). And all of this is serving very little purpose, in my opinion, beyond keeping everyone as riled up as possible and driving their audience further and further left.

    Of course that argument is basically tautological – why shouldn’t the Left try to keep its adherents catechized and pulling ever further toward its ideological purity that represents the True and the Good? But as bad as the polarization was toward the end of GWB’s second term, and as much worse as it got during Obama’s terms, I am truly astonished at its velocity over the past 12 months, and especially the past 2. Both sides are using levels of rhetoric that, historically, have tended to lead in the direction of actual wars. It scares me to type that.

    Somebody has got to de-escalate — otherwise, regardless of who wins the next election, things will stay on this trajectory until something gets irretrievably broken. But it seems like moderates (most of whom think Trump is an absolute disaster of a leader, but many of whom also consider Obama’s policy legacy to be decidedly flawed) don’t even have a voice anymore.

    Reply

  2. […] of the possible consequences of poor semantics that Rosenberg talks about. I got some pushback on my previous post because some folks felt like Trump was simply the best possible choice out of the two, no further […]

    Reply

  3. “…the Right really needs to make its voters a lot less susceptible to con men.”

    Well said. Yet I wonder why this is only being said now. The GOP has been priming its voter base to elect someone like Trump since the 1990s. Until now, the Party leadership has succeeded in ensuring that a candidate embodying those “virtues” never made it onto the ballot. The goal of the GOP’s populist rhetoric (with its veiled message of racism, misogyny, and heterosexism) was to engender antipathy for Democratic candidates. The GOP leadership failed to consider that fomenting resentment in “real America” could come back to bite them in the end.

    I’m also consistently perplexed by this site’s writers to fail to see that evangelicalism is better understood as a subtype of white nationalism than as a distinctly religious phenomenon. James Davison Hunter recognized this well when he described ressentiment as the chief feature of evangelical engagement with the culture. In many ways, evangelicalism as we know it today may be little more than a recrudescence of the KKK. That’s not necessarily true of its leadership. But those leaders have done little over the years to address the rising tide of ressentiment that’s come to define the movement.

    White evangelicals no longer want to attend church with people who are different from them. I’m not married. As someone who’s asexual and who travels for work about 40% of the time, I’ve seen no need to marry. When I first joined an evangelical church in the 1990s, that wasn’t an issue. There were some number of single people in the church, many of whom were in their 30s and 40s. But, over the years, singles have gradually vanished from evangelical pews. For example, there’s a 1000-member PCA church near my house. Right now, there’s only one single male who attends the church regularly, and he’s a recovering alcoholic. There are about a dozen single women, but they are all divorcees with children at home. Never-married professional Christians have simply stopped attending church. In fact, educated professionals who don’t embody the “family values” social narrative have largely disappeared too. I know several couples in their 60s who stopped attending church once their kids grew up and moved away. The same has also happened to Christians whose leanings are more politically moderate. One considers Denny Burk’s recent call for Reformed churches to begin excommunicating members who don’t oppose same-sex marriage.

    Trump is, in many ways, the result of an emerging tribalism. We often forget that the emergence of a white-collar professional class is a rather recent phenomenon. As recently as the 1970s, only about 10% of Americans attained college degrees, and most of them worked in environments that were dominated by non-college-educated people (e.g., engineers at manufacturing facilities, etc.). There was not much in the way of a distinct “professional culture” until the 1990s. But within a little over a generation, the percentage of educated workers has climbed to 30% of the population, and professionals has climbed to 30%, and such workers now move in environments where they rarely ever encounter anyone who’s not an educated professional. A distinct professional culture has emerged, distinct from and independent from the “white culture” that has dominated American life throughout the 20th century.

    We were always tribal. It’s just that one tribe made up 75% or more of the population. This “real America” tribe was defined by the values and interests of working-class whites. Educated whites generally went along because they were scattered among working-class whites, and had nothing to gain from challenging that hegemony. But since the 1990s, working-class whites have fallen from 75% of the population to about 40% of the population. Educated whites now make up about 20% of the population, and have begun to forge their own tribe separate from working-class whites. It’s no accident that the Culture Wars emerged when they did. The true battle behind the Culture Wars is a battle between educated whites and non-educated whites, and the ascension of the former at the expense of the latter. There is no longer a “white culture.” Broadly speaking, we now have a white working-class culture and a white educated-class culture.

    I’m not sure what this means for evangelicalism. Oddly enough, evangelical religion was one of the primary means by which succeeding generations rose from the working classes to the professional classes. The children of working-class evangelicals were far more likely to end up as professionals than the children of non-evangelical working-class folks. Even today, it’s rare to meet someone who rose from a working-class background to the professional classes whose parents weren’t either evangelicals or Mormons. But as the cultural ground between working-class whites and professional whites widens, it’s hard to see how evangelicalism resist being affected. In parts of the US where the professional culture thrives and is largely distinct from working-class culture, it’s rare to see too many younger white professionals attending evangelical churches. You only see it in places like Mississippi and Alabama, where no distinct professional culture has emerged.

    In some ways, I feel like the election of Trump will be good, if only because it forces us to discuss these issues with a bit more transparency. Like it or not, issues like abortion and same-sex marriage are little more than totemic issues that signal social-class membership. Lurking behind our discussions of abortion and same-sex marriage is a tougher issue: How do we move forward as a country without a hegemonic tribe? And what happens to evangelicalism? It has always been a movement with its feet firmly planted in “real America.” What happens when educated whites no longer feel a need to prop up and sustain real America’s institutions (or may even see such efforts as harming the interests of their own tribe).

    I’ve never been convinced that individual churches need to reflect the diversity of the culture, although I am convinced that they need to acknowledge that diversity and appreciate that God calls people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. As “white culture” breaks in two, I suspect that evangelicalism will also need to do the same. It’s already happening. Denny Burk has already called on churches to begin excommunicating those who don’t oppose same-sex marriage. Given the totemic value of same-sex marriage, this is effectively an effort to excommunicate educated professionals. After all, I know very few educated evangelicals under 50 who oppose same-sex marriage. One also thinks of Phil Ryken’s recent efforts at Wheaton College to put the pinch on faculty members who disagree with Creationism. Mind you, I’d guess that about 90% of Wheaton’s faculty reject Creationism. In various direct and indirect ways, evangelical churches and institutions are seeking to force educated professionals to choose which of the two emerging white subcultures they’ll pledge allegiance. Most of us are opting to stick with our tribe and let evangelicalism go. I’m hopeful that a more conservative variant of Christianity will emerge among educated whites. But that probably means a bit of denominational realignment. The current model of evangelicalism, which rests on the assumption of white monoculture, will not last.

    Reply

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *