Do you remember back in 2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama accurately diagnosed Trumpism?
Okay, you probably don't, at least not in those terms. But trust me, you remember the speech. It was the one where Obama called many white working-class Americans "bitter" and said they "cling to guns or religion." Obama was raked over the coals for saying this. Yet in retrospect, what he said before and after was remarkably prescient, hitting every major theme that has driven Donald Trump to the head of the Republican primary.
But the quote is also worth revisiting in its full context, because it hammers home a point that some upper class and establishment liberals, in their glee at the Republicans' ongoing implosion, have lost sight of. Emphasis mine:
You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations. [Obama]
Think about the parallels to today: Trump has pretty much blasted every presidency in recent history and loves to say "our politicians are stupid;" he has promised to build a wall on the border and use a "massive deportation force" to kick out the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants; he wants to ban Muslims from traveling to America; he's vowed to dismantle international trade deals and slap tariffs on imports from China and other countries; he's pledged his devotion to maximal gun rights and lambasted gun free zones; and he's pulling in a massive haul of evangelical support despite his own questionable status as a role model for conservative Christian virtues.
Back in 2008, Obama did not excuse this sort of ugliness, but he did not allow it to define those voters either. He recognized that reaction and revanchism are what fill the vaccuum when communities have been economically abandoned by American society and its political system.
Economist Benjamin Friedman, for instance, has amassed a wealth of evidence showing that rising and broadly shared prosperity makes people more moral: more open and humane to immigrants and people of different races; more generous to the less fortunate; and more devoted to democratic political institutions. Conversely, people move in the opposite direction when inequality rises and the economy slumps. Other studies and research make the same point.
Political scientists even recently identified what they call an authoritarian personality type, quite common among Americans, that correlates very well with support for Trump. Crucially, though, authoritarianism is not necessarily dominant in any voter's worldview. It has to be activated — usually by social upheaval. (And while the effect is far more prominent among whites, it's worth remembering that tensions and violence between America's various racial minorities is not uncommon.)
All this boils down to a point that really ought to be obvious: Scarcity and want makes people paranoid and cruel. Human beings are not heroes or saints. We are limited creatures most often defined by our context.
But when Obama and others make this same argument about Trumpism, liberal commentators often sneer at the idea that economic dislocation or anxiety is critical to understanding Trump's support. There's a creeping implication that their racism is the only thing we need to know about Trump's supporters, and that because of this singular defining force behind their politics, there's no point in trying to reach them.
Now, of course, racism should also be confronted directly and on its own terms. But any such confrontation must be paired with a full-court populist economic push. That's what's not happening. The Democratic Party long ago gave up on trying to engage or mobilize the white working class, and other than the early successes of his administration, even President Obama largely failed to secure the help he himself recognized was needed. If the design of her platform is any indication, Hillary Clinton barely intends to try. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders has been dismissed as a naif for running a campaign so bullheadedly focused on the big issues of inequality, single-payer health care, and campaign finance reform, while Clinton has positioned herself as the sophisticated and cosmopolitan alternative.
Even by 2020, the white working class will still be 30 percent of the population. The idea that Democrats ought to simply concentrate on building a coalition around them is both impractical and shameful. Whatever these people's failings, they are in need of service and help, as Obama rightly saw. Go read his 2008 comments and you'll find a call for Democrats, activists, and everyone else to go out and engage the voters who would eventually throw their support to Trump: to talk to them and hear them and wrestle with their fears and cynicism and failings, and try to offer them some set of concrete pledges to hold onto.
His argument is nuanced and its implications are humane: that racism and tribalism are in many ways chronic aspects of the human condition, and giving people something to hold onto — a sense of solidarity, of hope, of socioeconomic inclusion — is key to combating them.