It is undoubtedly the most irritating journalistic genre to emerge from our present national crisis. Across the first half of 2017 we were treated to a toxic flood of treacly interviews with The Suffering Trump Voter. This genre featured down-and-out Trump voters and emphasized their “heart” and “anguish” while soft-pedaling their bigotry. Chris Arnade turned it into an art form, complete with its own rituals (visiting the McDonalds) and slogans (front row kids and back row kids) before apparently melting down and disappearing. Saleno Zito parlayed her Trump Whispering into a job at Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. Almost everyone who was anyone took at stab at the “Trump voters are crying for help” schtick at one point or another.
As the year wore on, the act wore thin. More and more journalists started wandering into diners in Allentown and Moline and Fort Wayne. Where the first round of Trump Whisperers stuck carefully to their soft-focused, poverty-porn message, these new explorers asked a few more questions and got the answers you always would have expected. By November, you could see Trump Whisperer pieces anchored around interviewees dropping N-bombs.
I’ve been unfortunate enough to hear personal accounts from many more Trump voters than I would have liked. The overwhelming bulk of them were precisely the kind of incoherent bigoted rubbish you would expect, however amid the hysterical rants have been a number of troubling insights. Several of these Trump voters have been people who I know were Obama voters, thanks to my decade of work as a Republican precinct committeeman. A few of them are black. Thanks to my roots in Texas I’ve seen the naked racism of the average Trump voter up close, but I’ve also observed the wider, more complicated picture.
In September, Ta-Nehisi Coates tore into George Packer for his sympathetic treatment of Trump supporters in 2016. Packer wrote a remarkably powerful response. Though it pains me, I must say that Packer has the more persuasive argument. Without referencing Packer or Coates, I weighed in on this question in a piece at Forbes today. Revisiting Trump’s obscene spectacle at the Carrier factory in Indianapolis last December, I considered the ways that Republican racism may be obscuring some deeper, festering economic and political issues. Racism is a central problem for white America, but our focus on white bigotry may interfere with our ability to recognize and address potentially disastrous political failures.