Neil Buchanan: Time to Stand Up and Be Counted

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Protesters demonstrate againstDonald Trump across from NRG Stadium, site of Super Bowl LI, on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Neil Buchanan writes that being in the opposition during the early stages of what might become a full-blown crisis of democracy is fraught with peril. We are right to worry about what will work and what will not. Yet we cannot talk ourselves into a state of paralysis. Tim Warner/Getty

This article first appeared on the Verdict site.

Ever since the election results came in on November 8, the ritual on the center and left has been to say that we need to reach out to some of the non-majority of voters who voted for Trump, in order to re-establish credibility with the hurting people who, in their desperation, abandoned the Democratic Party to vote for a dangerous demagogue.

Part of that conversation has involved gingerly stepping around the question of racism and other bigotries that might have been motivating some of Trump’s voters. The idea is that there are plenty of people who could be brought back into the Democratic fold, but calling them bigots (or bigot enablers) is only going to drive them further away.

As far as it goes, this is an important conversation, and I have tried to make some contributions to that discussion (especially here and here). Recently, however, I have become more and more convinced that this is an exercise in futility, with Democrats chasing their tails in an endless effort to figure out the “real” cause of some working-class white voters’ decisions to support Donald Trump.

In order not to make anyone worried that we are calling them bad people, these discussions begin with a disclaimer (sometimes explicit, but always there) that we are not accusing anyone of bigotry. What we really mean, however, is that there really are some terrible people who voted for Trump, but they are not our audience.

Related: Neil Buchanan: Better Trump drunk than Pence sober?

In order not to address emotional social issues—and because far too many people have bought into the ridiculous claim that Democrats cannot win with “identity politics,” which is not only wrong but for good measure requires believing the fantasy that Republicans do not engage in even more blatant identity politics—these conversations revolve around economics.

The idea is that, because we want to avoid talking about the possibility that prejudices drove some voters into Trump’s column, we instead reasonably focus on their economic motives.

The problem at that point, however, is that we cannot help pointing out that Trump offered such voters nothing that has even a prayer of changing their economic situations. His ideas on trade are already harming the economy, and he will be doing everything possible to help the Republicans suppress wages and make workplaces more dangerous.

At this point, the instinctive self-reproach among anti-Trump people tells us that maybe we are being condescending or disdainful of people who fell for Trump’s empty lies. People do not like to be called chumps, so even though they are now very much being played for chumps, we worry that we are not supposed to say so out loud. Trump voters supposedly hate “experts,” so we should not act like such know-it-alls.

That strikes me as both self-defeating and deeply condescending. It is self-defeating because it amounts to unilateral disarmament. After all, facts and logic are overwhelmingly on our side—on the economy, on the environment, on gun violence, on basically every issue for which facts and logic should matter. To agree not to talk about those things is to surrender without a fight.

But this is also condescending, as I discussed in a column last week, where I pointed out that some analysts have been treating Trump’s voters as “snowflakes.” (I deliberately appropriated one of the newer all-purpose insults that the Fox-Trump people have been using to claim that their opponents are fragile people who melt at the slightest disappointment.) Supposedly, people in “flyover country” are very angry with coastal elites for looking down on them.

As I pointed out in that column, it is an insult to voters to say that the reason they fell in with a fake populist is that they are thin-skinned and are willing to vote against their own interests in order to stick it to latte-sipping intellectuals. This is especially difficult to believe because the people behind Trump are even more contemptuous of working-class people and their lifestyles.

I thus suggested that maybe we should treat reachable Trump voters as adults who understand that they do not have to like everyone with whom they ally politically, and that they can be won over by directly (but obviously respectfully) reminding them what is really at stake for them and everyone else.

In response to my “snowflake” column, a noted scholar suggested that I was misunderstanding the nature of the working-class objection to elite condescension. The question, he said, is, “Why should they vote for candidates who evidence a dismissive attitude towards the socio-cultural beliefs central to their lives?” Religion, gender roles and other social attitudes are supposedly the key.

And now the circle is complete, because the entire premise of the conversation was supposed to be that we are not allowed to talk about cultural issues. We were supposedly saying that the reachable Trump voters were motivated by economics, because we did not want to start talking about social issues. Once it becomes obvious that the economic explanation holds no water, however, we come right back around to an explanation that is non-economic and is based on social issues and identity politics. So we must now think about those issues, too.

Let us look at one prominent example, a social issue that has motivated right-wing voters for the last few years: bathroom access. One of my students recently told me about a dinner she attended with a family of Trump supporters who were in D.C. to attend the inauguration. After insulting his guest by calling her a snowflake, the father suddenly brought up transgender rights and said, “Like, I don’t even understand why those people want their own bathrooms. What makes them so special?”

Of course, no one is arguing for a special new set of bathrooms for anyone. If we are going to have gender-segregated bathrooms at all, the only question is who is allowed to use which of the two choices. And if there were any internally consistent logic at all, the people who supposedly feel discomfort about these issues would feel most uncomfortable when a transgender man walks into a women’s bathroom because his birth certificate identifies him as a woman.

Somehow, however, the problem is supposed to be that liberals are being condescending when they tell people that bathroom issues are not the simplistic, divisive issues that conservatives say they are. Transgender people have spent years under threat of violence because of this fundamental question, and Republicans’ claim that access laws are going to allow sexual predators to run free is both ridiculous and insulting.

If the response is, “Well, I just feel uncomfortable with this,” then one reasonable reply is, “Yes, I initially had the same reaction, because people like us have had the luxury of never having to think about this before now. But if you think about it, this is better for everyone, and it’s time to update our attitudes. Republicans are only making matters worse by stoking what should not be a controversy.”

Is that condescending? Is it disrespectful? Does it mean that liberals have disdain for so-called traditional values? I think the answer to each of those questions is clearly “no,” because it does not involve saying, “You’re a bad person who can never empathize with other people’s situations.” It affords people the respect of believing that they are able to see past the scare-mongering being perpetrated by the true bigots.

Similarly, saying that anti-Trump people are disrespectful of other people’s religious beliefs is a lie. If marriage, to take a prominent example, were only a matter of religious ceremony or personal commitment, then we could simply be content with allowing religious pluralism to flourish. Orthodox Christians could join churches in which same-sex marriages are not performed, and others could join the Unitarians or other groups that recognize marital commitments among people who have historically been denied such recognition.

But marriage is a public issue because marriage is a public issue. Visitation rights in hospitals, employment benefits, rights of inheritance and hundreds of other legal matters are tied to marital status. It is not disdainful to argue that these rights should not be denied on the basis of a particular set of religious beliefs. Rather, it is a recognition of the difference between the secular and the sacred.

If the reason that some Trump voters jumped ship is that they “feel condescended to,” then we have a choice. We can either say, “OK, you feel the way you feel, and you’re not going to change, so we give up.” Or we can take seriously the idea that real respect is shown by trying to convince people that their religious beliefs are either not in conflict with liberal views or do not automatically deserve primacy in public policy debates.

Returning to my initial point, the danger here is that anti-Trump people are running in circles, trying to say that we can reach some Trump voters by stipulating that they are not motivated by bigotry but then saying, “Well, they actually are acting out of implacable prejudice and are even too thin-skinned to think about allying with people who think differently.”

Viewed in this way, the people who oppose Trump, not just liberals and progressive but moderates and conservatives as well—that is, the majority of the people in the country who did not vote for him and are growing more alarmed by the day—run the risk of talking themselves into silence.

As I also noted in my “snowflake” column, the numbers reveal that anti-Trump politicians could succeed—with large majorities—even if Democrats were to decide to give up on every single person who voted for Trump. There is no reason to do that, however, especially because at least some Trump voters are soon going to be experiencing serious buyers’ remorse (if they are not doing so already).

Even so, we are now trying so hard not to offend that small group of people that we run the danger of doing nothing at all.

More broadly, anti-Trump conversations are too often dominated by telling people that they are opposing Trump in the wrong way. I am not talking only about silly, snarky comments like The New York Times’s David Brooks’s description of Democrats who “narcissistically boycott[ed] the inaugural.” There is a message for the ages: Protest, but do so politely and without bringing attention to yourselves, boys!

The bigger danger is in convincing ourselves that we are guilty of what the right wing in this country has long claimed, which is that we are the enemies of the people. An especially troubling example of this style of reasoning came in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, in which a Venezuelan journalist who spent decades opposing his country’s Trump-like dictator, Hugo Chavez, warned anti-Trump Americans not to repeat the Venezuelan opposition’s mistakes.

Offered in obvious good faith, these suggestions nevertheless reek of the insults that anti-Trump people have heard recently. He offered, for example, this admonition:

By looking down on Trump’s supporters, you’ve lost the first battle. Instead of fighting polarization, you’ve played into it. The worst you can do is bundle moderates and extremists together and think that America is divided between racists and liberals. That’s the textbook definition of polarization.

As far as it goes, of course, that is good advice. But it is the Trump people who have been bundling moderates and extremists together, most prominently including now-Vice President Pence’s repeated claims that Hillary Clinton had insulted “millions of good Americans” by saying that some Trump voters were deplorable and others were not.

Moreover, if the argument is that we cannot even risk appearing to conflate the bigots with the non-bigots, then matters become even worse. One of the most potent openings that Democrats will have in the upcoming months and years is to say to the reachable Trump voters:

You didn’t think you were signing onto these crazy immigration laws because you’re not a bigot. And we know that you’re rightly appalled, even though so many of Trump’s voters do not share your shock and anger.

One of Trump’s greatest weaknesses will be the increasingly obvious hatefulness of his policies, which have actually been even worse in some ways than his campaign rhetoric. (No one thought that he was going to have five-year-olds handcuffed, or that his spokesman would defend doing so.)

Some Trump voters did not think that he meant what he said about building a wall or banning Muslims. One of their favorite lines was that the press took Trump literally but not seriously. As it becomes increasingly obvious that Trump is literally doing the cruel things that he promised to do, the people who hoped for the best when voting for him will be in play politically.

Because the Democrats are out of power, this necessarily means that they will have to do things that might sometimes look desperate. Yet our Venezuelan correspondent admonishes us:

Look, opponents [of Chavez] were desperate. We were right to be. But a hissy fit is not a strategy. The people on the other side — and crucially, independents — will rebel against you if you look like you’re losing your mind.

This echoes the mocking claims from the right that the highly successful women’s marches in D.C. and elsewhere made the opposition look bad because they were too unfocused, or they could not agree on what they wanted, or the pink hats looked silly, and so on. Like Brooks’s, the advice essentially boils down to: Protest, but do so unobtrusively and in a way that no one can call an overreaction.

Finally, we are told: “Show concern, not contempt, for the wounds of those who brought him to power.” To which there is only one reply. A person would have to be blind or willfully obtuse to suggest that anti-Trump people, and certainly Democrats, have been failing to show concern for the wounds of the voters who brought Trump to power.

As I noted last week, Hillary Clinton was keenly aware before the election that working-class voters were hurting and might abandon the Democrats. Ever since the election, former Vice President Biden has very publicly anguished over the results, saying that he wished every day that he had only talked about jobs and pocketbook issues to make it clearer to working-class voters that Democrats were on their side.

Yes, there is good reason to show contempt for Trump and his Administration, and even for many of the voters who supported him and would never consider abandoning him, because his worst policies are exactly what they have wanted to see for years. Saying so does not mean that we are not showing concern for the people who have inadvertently harmed their interests by voting for him.

Being in the opposition during the early stages of what might become a full-blown crisis of democracy is fraught with peril. We are right to worry about what will work and what will not. Yet we cannot talk ourselves into a state of paralysis.

No matter what we do, Trump and his supporters are going to say ridiculous, hateful, unfair things. A hint of the low level of the response comes from John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the U.S. Senate, who dismissed opposition to one of Trump’s cabinet nominees by sneering that Democrats “still seem to be upset about the results of the election.” Are we on an elementary school playground?

As a former chancellor at the University of Chicago wrote in 1950: “We ought to be afraid of some things. We ought to be afraid of being stupid and unjust.” Those words were written at the height of the McCarthy era, when opposition to a demagogue was causing people to agonize over the best way to respond.

We should be afraid to allow our fears to quiet us. The vast majority of Americans want nothing to do with Trump or his hatred. Stopping him will not always be a garden party, but we must not be afraid to make our case clearly and unsparingly.

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar, a professor of law at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Taxation Law and Policy Research Institute at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts, and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.