In a little known canto of Dante’s Purgatorio, the Florentine poet reaches Terrace 3-1/2 of purgatory’s mountain, a strange space halfway up the path between the levels where the wrathful and the slothful endure their purification. There he finds the pundit class of the present-day United States, a tangle of arms and legs and laptops, with piteous cries and smug certainties rising in a chorus. Their task, imposed by the refining power of divine love, is to wrestle together until they reach consensus on whether it was racism or economic grievances that drove so many American voters into the arms of Donald Trump.
God help me, I am in that number. Which means that to do my part for our purgation, I am obliged to argue once again that the most powerful liberal story about 2016, in which race overshadows everything and white nationalism explains the entire Trumpian universe, is an exaggeration of a partial truth.
The latest example of this narrative is Adam Serwer’s essay in The Atlantic, “The Nationalist’s Delusion,” which has been praised to the skies by almost every liberal in my Twitter feed, and which comes on the heels of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ similarly themed Atlantic essay, “The First White President,” which earned similar encomia a couple of months ago. Both essays present themselves as arguing against a reductionist conventional wisdom that supposedly dismisses the role of race in Trump’s ascent; both tend toward a fatal reductionism in response, one that insists that hard truth telling matters more than hopeful politicking, but tells only enough of the truth to breed racial pessimism or despair.
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In his grim analysis Serwer insists that he’s just following the data, which point away from any economic explanation for the events of 2016. The allegedly populist Trump did not actually win large majorities among the lower middle class and poor, Serwer notes; rather, Trump won white voters of all income levels, and did best among what in the European context we would call the white petite-bourgeoisie, the group most likely to be threatened by a kind of psychological status competition from minorities. Thus Trump’s was not really a populist or “working-class coalition,” Serwer concludes, but a “nationalist one,” rooted in white panic over demographic change, with little to do with any genuine paycheck-to-paycheck anxiety or grim opioids-and-family-breakdown socioeconomic trends.
And this reality is confirmed by how Trump’s supporters have reacted to his presidency. “The allure of Trump’s white identity politics,” writes Serwer, is clear from “the extent to which it has overridden other concerns as his administration has faltered.” His voters will accept innumerable personal failings and a stumbling policy agenda that’s more royalist than populist, so long as he’s deporting Mexican migrants, hassling Muslim travelers and picking fights with black pro athletes.
As is ever the case in our pundit purgatory, Serwer makes a number of strong points. He’s right that Trump’s “birtherism,” with its xenophobic cocktail, was crucial to building his initial support – which perhaps explains why it lurks in the president’s paranoid imagination to this day. He’s right that Trump’s campaign trafficked in casual bigotry, played footsie with legit white supremacists, and stoked white suspicion of minorities. He’s right that Trump’s supporters tolerated this noxiousness even if they did not endorse or embrace it. He’s right that the obvious mind-meld Trump has achieved with a part of the Republican coalition should tell conservatives something depressing about the role that white identity politics has played in their movement all along.
But we will never escape from purgatory until these points are treated as complements to the role that other forces played in Trump’s success, not as substitutes that somehow make the “economic anxiety” or “anti-establishment” analyses of Trumpism into racism-denying crocks.
For instance, Serwer is correct that Trumpian populism did not magically turn the Republican Party into a pan-ethnic party of the poor and working class. But to the extent that Trump did change the Republican coalition, he changed its class composition, not its racial composition. He actually won a smaller share of the white vote than Mitt Romney overall, the same rough percentage of black and Hispanic voters – and far more voters without a college degree (building on a primary campaign in which he likewise relied heavily on working-class votes relative to his Republican opponents). This, along with Hillary Clinton’s bleeding support to third-party candidates, was the important electoral change between 2012 and 2016. Trump’s general-election coalition as a whole wasn’t a working-class coalition, but his most visible effect on American politics, in both the primary and the general election, was an effect on working-class voters.
No doubt that swing was racially mediated in some of the ways that Serwer suggests. But the swing also happened during a campaign in which Trump explicitly and consistently tried to move the Republican Party’s economic agenda toward the center or even toward the left – abjuring entitlement cuts, channeling Bernie Sanders on trade, promising a splurge of infrastructure spending, pledging to replace Obamacare with an even better coverage guarantee and more. This stuff wasn’t a small part of his campaign: Trump literally picked out sites for campaign events based on their post-industrial-wasteland backdrops, talked constantly about the “forgotten man,” railed against Clinton’s Goldman Sachs connections and more.
Thus it’s strange to read Serwer dismissing “the idea that economic suffering could lead people to support either Trump or Sanders, two candidates with little in common” – since if you just listened to their public rhetoric, Trump and Sanders did have a lot in common, with Trump deliberately positioning himself in territory close to Sanders on a range of economic issues. (And foreign policy issues, and attacks on Washington corruption, and more …)
That this positioning from Trump did not appeal to minority voters because it was intertwined with racial agitation is not surprising; that it was an important factor in understanding the class dynamics of white voting still seems obvious. Simple explanations are rarely complete explanations, but when a candidate makes many more populist promises than is usual for a Republican, and then wins more working-class votes than is usual, the straightforward explanation – that the promises actually resonated with voters – probably contains a lot of truth.
And trends in public opinion since the election have tended to confirm this point. Since entering the White House, Trump has mostly dropped his campaign populism and pursued conventional Republican policy goals (ineffectively in legislation, effectively in judicial appointments), while relying on tribal and racial and culture-war appeals to hold his base.
This combination has enabled him to maintain a core of partisan support, which proves, again and alas, that large parts of the conservative coalition either tolerate white-identitarian forays for the sake of other ends (anti-abortion or pro-corporate tax cuts, depending) or else simply prefer identitarian nationalism to higher-minded forms of conservatism.
But his governing style has not made Trump broadly popular, or enabled him to hold onto even the 45 percent support that he won last November. Instead, his awful approval ratings in the midst of the best growth since the Clinton era strongly suggest that many of Trump’s supporters were hoping for something else from him besides just white identity politics and a repudiation of the first black president.
So does the fact that among right-of-center voters, disappointment with his presidency is often strongest among Republicans who identify as “market skeptics” and economic populists– suggesting that their populism cannot be simply subsumed in racial grievance, that Trump’s economic promises mattered to a substantial number of his voters, and that his failure to follow through is being noticed even through the fog of Kulturkampf.
The point of belaboring all of this is not to discourage racial analysis of Trump and his supporters, but to discourage racial reductionism – the idea that in analyzing American politics we have to choose between claiming that all Trump voters are entirely innocent of racism and damning them all as white nationalists, heirs to Alexander Stephens, part of a grand sweep of racist history in which KKK nightriders and stepped-up immigration enforcement are simply the same thing.
Serwer’s essay is somewhat better than Coates’ recent body of work in trying to avoid this pitfall. But his determination to dismiss the possibility that economics was a strong force driving Trump’s support makes his story still read too often like a caricature.
And as ever in these condemnations of the sins of white America, there is little imaginative sympathy for people who feel threatened by liberalism in power.
“Nowhere did Clinton vow to use the power of the state to punish the constituencies voting for Trump,” Serwer writes at one point, while discussing the Democratic nominee’s famous references to the “irredeemable” and “deplorable.”
But of course the entire drift of cultural liberalism in the West of late has been to use taxes and mandates and regulations and speech restrictions against groups that they deem bigoted and backward. It’s increasingly common for liberals to assume that the irredeemable don’t qualify for certain religious liberties and the deplorable don’t deserve the fullness of free speech; the idea that the pejoratives don’t carry any element of political and legal threat is silly.
Acknowledging this complexity is not the abdication of moral judgment that many liberals seem to think. Rather it’s the beginning of political wisdom, because it makes it possible to discern what are, I think, fairly obvious paths out of our present predicament.
The path for conservatism is to do roughly the opposite of what the party in Washington is presently doing – to adapt to the experience of Trumpism by moving to the center on economics, as he did in the campaign, while rejecting his white-identitarian appeals.
The path for liberalism is to treat Trump’s white working-class supporters as persuadable rather than deplorable, and to marry the economic critique that the present Republican non-agenda deserves to a diminished absolutism on social issues where the Democrats have marched left faster than the country.
That these paths are obvious does not make them easy to take. But they are as responsive to the complex truth about our predicament as any jeremiad against Trumpism-as-racism. And while neither promises paradise, both might lead to a level of purgatory a little closer to heaven than our own.