***Correction. Chris Arnade grew up in the South, much like me. With temperatures running this high, we’re making a lot of mistakes.
There will be a special place in hell for the “Trump Whisperers,” the writers of feely faux-think pieces describing the “plight” of Trump voters. Like prophets of old, they declare that the plague of Trump is divine retribution for our sins, a judgment for our calloused embrace of the knowledge economy and global capitalism. Having hardened our hearts to the suffering of noble, misunderstood, “real” Americans, we must either turn from our evil ways or face yet greater travails.
These treacly dispatches from coal country or northern Florida always include the “big tell,” the line that lays bare the mindset that gives them their special odor. Chris Arnade is one of the leaders of the genre, making a name for himself with rich, deeply sympathetic dispatches from Trumplandia. Here’s an example of the big tell from one of his pieces:
“For much of my own life I was a Wall Street trader, sitting behind a wall of computer screens, gambling on flashing numbers.” Uh huh.
In other words, these are amateur anthropologists in a strange, exotic land of WalMarts and guns. They project a fairy-tale narrative onto a picture they do not understand, taking the gibberish they are hearing and translating into a relatable story of the “oppressed” and “forgotten.” Globalization, my ass.
For starters, Trump is not getting the bulk of his support from “the poor.” His hardest of hardliners are aging white people earning modestly above middle incomes. They are, however, pretty consistently “left behind.” They are white people, overwhelmingly men, usually without a college education, who for reasons of choice or circumstances did not participate in the great boom of the past thirty years, the largest expansion of wealth in the nation’s history.
What these people have lost over the past few decades is not factory jobs or middle class incomes. Political and economic liberalization has badly weakened the shadow social safety net that used to insulate white people, especially lower and middle income white men, from conditions everyone else had to endure.
If you actually listen to Trump supporters describe their reasons for supporting him, you get some version of this:
Nothing these people say about Donald Trump makes a lick of sense, from the Clinton email narrative to the claim that Trump “tells it like it is.” Their arguments make no sense because they aren’t going to talk about their genuine motivations. Pretending that race doesn’t matter is more central to the American identity than baseball.
For poverty tourists determined to find a compelling story, the nonsense spouted by Trump supporters is an invitation, a blank canvass. Trump Whisperers are determined to translate this gibberish into a neo-Marxist story of working class angst. It takes a lot of work and a soft focus to pull this off, but they are trying.
For someone raised blue collar in East Texas who has listened to these people when they feel comfortable enough to tell the truth, a clearer picture emerges that has nothing to do with “economic anxiety.” You’ll hear clarity from Trump voters under one circumstance, and only one circumstance – if they feel safe enough (or drunk enough), to tell you “what I think about The Blacks.” Sometimes they’ll substitute Mexicans or in a rare case even The Jews. And increasingly, you might hear what they think about “radical feminists,” which is code for their wives (or ex-wives).
Want to see an antidote to the Trump Whisperers? Read what people from white working backgrounds say once they’ve escaped. Kevin Williamson at the National Review drew fire for his cold assessment of the Trump phenomenon back in March. Williamson is no alien to Trumplandia. A native of Amarillo, a place where I spent my holidays and summers in a trailer park, he sees this scenario pretty clearly. Speaking of the Trumpsters, he explains:
Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.
There’s a clean, mathematical test available to determine whether white angst is about economics or race. Voters in the primaries had an opportunity to nominate a Democratic candidate who devoted his entire campaign to a Rooseveltian program of democratic socialist economic outreach. Alternatively, they had an opportunity to vote in the Republican primary for a race-baiting Fascist. Guess which guy white voters picked.
Stories written by soft-core sociologists about the plight of white people hit me in a particularly personal place. I grew up white trash in one of those forgotten hellholes that people like Arnade like to visit, patronizingly admire, and then leave. These places were hellholes decades ago in their imaginary prime. They were hellholes eighty years ago when writers like James Agee came to ogle their inhabitants and muse on their simple virtues. Now they are hellholes with fewer people and less going on.
Nothing about these places has changed apart from the fact that the rest of the world got better, a lot better. And most importantly, the world has gotten better for people like African-Americans, Hispanics, and women; people whose suffering used to give Trump voters some relative comfort.
These voters chose Trump because the election isn’t going to change much of anything about their lives. The place where they live will continue to be a hellhole under a President named Trump or Clinton. Trump isn’t offering them a chance to improve their town, he’s offering a chance to destroy better places; a chance to turn everything into the kind of hellhole they are content to inhabit.
Mealy sympathy-pieces about backwater towns in thrall to Trump offer a certain comfort to everyone else. We would all be relieved to discover that this national nightmare was just a big misunderstanding, another example of “elites” failing to listen to the common people. We could just hug it out.
Sorry. I’ve been listening to these people my whole life. We are not facing some new problem born of globalization or capitalism or trade. We are facing America’s oldest, most stubborn problem.
When white people feel their hold on power slipping, they freak out. And it always starts with the folks at the bottom, because they have the highest relative investment in what it means to be white in this country. There’s not a damned thing we can do about it other than out-vote them and, over time, out-evolve them until this crippling and occasionally lethal national glitch is slowly worked out of our bloodstream.
Politics in a democracy hinges on an openness to understanding, the quest for empathy. As the Trump Whisperers are demonstrating, that quest can go wrong, especially when both understanding and empathy are stunted by cultural distance. Our drive to find common ground can end up legitimizing or even romanticizing toxic ideologies. All values are not equal. Some values deserve to be aggressively marginalized. Some values should inspire more anger than sympathy.
The people who write these travel-slumming pieces should be sentenced to live in Southern Mississippi for at least five years without access to their trust fund. Then they can come back and tell us about their heartwarming lessons from their time among “real Americans.”