Among members of the liberal press, the reaction to Donald Trump’s RNC acceptance speech has been almost unanimous. It was, they say, “grim,” “angry,” and “dark.” Trump painted a “Mad Max” picture of the United States, as a nation in crisis, beset by crime, terrorism, unemployment, and despair.
This picture, say the commentators, is false. Trump exaggerated crime rates, which are actually going down rather than up. He scare-mongered about immigrants and terrorism, creating threats where there are none. And he suggested that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, when it is not. As Ezra Klein put it in a blog post for his website, Trump had to convince people that “things are really, really bad” when things are not “really, really bad.”
This has been a consistent thread in the liberal reply to Trump’s rhetoric. Trump casts America as a broken land in need of fixing. Democrats respond that America is doing just fine, and that everyone is better off than they have been in years. They highlight the achievements of the Obama administration in bringing healthcare to millions and reducing unemployment. In response to Trump’s bright-red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps, the Democratic Party attempted to popularize its own brand of “America Is Already Great” hats. (They did not take off.)
All of this is a peculiar role reversal. Ordinarily, conservatives are the ones defending the status quo, while the left tries to rouse public interest in various pressing social problems. Now, Trump is the one speaking of the decline of the country’s fortunes, while liberals have become the new cheerleaders for America-as-it-is.
Of course, Trump is hardly a leftist in his diagnosis of the cause of the present troubles. In his speech, Trump displayed a downright Nixonian view of the country’s cities, as hotbeds of murder and social dysfunction. Naturally, the immigrant hordes and Muslim menace are looming over us, threatening to kill our police officers, take our jobs, and convert our children to Islam.
But some of Trump’s populist rhetoric is distinctly leftist in its tone, and there were portions of the speech that could have come straight from the mouth of Big Bill Haywood or Eugene V. Debs:
I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice.
That posture presents a formidable challenge for the Democrats. Trump is (as some predicted he would) positioning himself to the left of Hillary Clinton on many economic issues, decrying the influence of big business and the “disaster” of NAFTA. In doing so, he could well appeal to the millions of people who were drawn to Bernie Sanders because of Sanders’ willingness to fight for the working class.
Yet the response among Democratic commentators has not been to explain why Democratic policies will better serve laid-off factory workers. Instead, they have tried to downplay the very existence of laid-off factory workers, with article after article explaining that Trump has overlooked the positive. The press has even taken Trump to task for overstating how many young African Americans are unemployed, pointing out that actually, it’s only ⅓ rather than ½ (though it does rise to ½ if you count the underemployed). But it’s odd to go after Trump f0r pointing out how hard African Americans have it, considering that the facts on black wealth and unemployment are indeed disturbing.
Pointing out Trump’s statistical errors does not provide an effective counter-narrative, and it threatens to make the Democrats seem totally out of touch with people’s concerns. When people working cushy media jobs tell working class Americans that they’re better off than they think they are, one can almost hear a variant on the myth of Pauline Kael’s puzzlement that Nixon could have won the election when nobody she knew voted for him: “I can’t understand what this whole ‘widespread despair’ business is all about. Nobody I know is in despair.”
The vision of America as profoundly broken is not some delusion. Things might not be “really, really bad” for Ezra Klein, but they are for many others. Liberals may point to the low unemployment rate as proof that the Obama economy is rebounding. But those numbers conceal important truths about the state of the country. For example, look at the vast rates of consumer debt, with credit card debt alone reaching $1 trillion. Even if access to credit has positive overall effects, debt creates nightmares for people.
Consider what happened to Kevin Evans. After 25 years at his job, Evans was laid off during the recession. He was forced to sell his home, and reduced to mere subsistence. Whenever he could, he worked low-wage jobs at lumberyards and the like. At the same time, Evans build up $7,000 in credit card debt trying to pay for his daughters’ college education. In the past few years, Evans’ employment position has improved as the economy has grown; he’s back to a better-paying full-time job. But now, CapitalOne is garnishing his wages, taking 25% of everything he earns in order to pay back his outstanding debt. He continues to live in constant economic uncertainty.
The important thing about Evans’ story is that it shows how recovery can exist on paper while a person’s level of financial stress remains high. If we look solely at employment, Evans is a success. But in reality, he’s still struggling, a huge chunk of his wages disappearing to pay off debts. Stories like Evans’ are perfectly consistent with economic recovery, buried beneath ostensibly encouraging statistics. In other areas, too, the actual factors creating despair are overlooked. For example, as Matthew Desmond has recently pointed out, many people’s lives are now dominated by the threat of eviction from their homes.
Actually, these truths aren’t really any kind of a secret; the facts are well-known and frequently discussed. Whole areas of the country are “dying of despair.” In West Virginia, “the economy is declining along with the coal industry, towns are hollowed out as people flee, and communities are scarred by family dissolution, prescription drug abuse and a high rate of imprisonment.” The suicide rate is the highest it has been in 30 years. Life expectancy is actually diminishing among poor whites. Rising levels of alcoholism are destroying countless lives, with the result that the white working class holds “a shockingly dismal view of what the future holds for them.”
These facts shouldn’t have to be reiterated. It’s been explained repeatedly, by everyone from the National Review to Noam Chomsky, that Donald Trump’s success emerges from working-class anxiety over these real social problems. As writer J.D. Vance tells it:
These people–my people–are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time. Donald Trump at least tries. What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by.
And yet right after Trump’s speech, instead of focusing on her own solutions to America’s problems, Hillary Clinton remarked that “the last thing we need is somebody running for president who talks trash about America.” That sounds like something George W. Bush would have said about John Kerry. And it’s hard to think who such a line will persuade. The despairing, angry mass of Trump supporters is hardly likely to buy into the theory that its grievances are “unpatriotic,” and people on the left are supposed to reject the idea that criticisms of social problems constitute “trashing America.”
But, we might say, economic anxiety is one thing, racially-charged national security anxiety is quite another. What about the fear-mongering on immigration, crime, and terrorism? Surely Trump’s apocalyptic image of the country’s security needs to be rebutted. Trump has explicitly tried to insist that crime is rising, when has been going down steadily for the last 20 years. And the number of Americans killed in terror attacks is minuscule.
Here again though, we see the weakness of the Democrats’ approach to countering Trump. Trump’s rhetoric is certainly ominous and paranoid, pretending that enemies lurk around every corner, that immigrants, criminals, and terrorists are tearing apart the country they love. That’s not the case. But in order to persuade people that that’s not the case, you need more than a graph of crime rates. You need a compelling alternate explanation for what is going wrong in people’s lives.
It’s somewhat important to point out that nearly everything Trump says is a transparent falsehood. But it’s also true that while Trump may lie a lot, he’s not always lying. When Trump talks about abandoned factories and bodies in the streets of Chicago, he’s not making those things up. (Nor, despite misstating his own previous positions, is he wrong about Clinton’s “failed policy of nation building and regime change … in Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Syria.”)
It’s also important to understand why it’s easy to create an imaginary crime wave, namely that when people feel a generalized and nameless sense of fear and hopelessness, they grasp at myths that help explain their feelings. Take the Brexit crisis in the U.K., which was an instructive lesson in what can happen when the working class feels excluded and angry. The consensus among elites is that Brexit voters were driven by racism and the fear of immigrants. And it’s true that, were it not for fear of immigration, the Brexit vote would likely have gone the other way.
However, in terms of a political strategy, it is pointless to simply scoff at pro-Leave voters for being racists. If people are blaming immigrants for their problems, the correct strategic response is to build a platform that shows people what the actual source of their problems is, and proposes a means of solving them. By simply lobbing charges of xenophobia, one denies that any of the underlying anxieties fueling anti-immigrant sentiment (as opposed to the sentiment itself) are real and legitimate. If you don’t have a compelling alternate vision and program, then of course people will be susceptible to demagoguery about crime and immigration. Trump and Nigel Farage may have a racist and delusional explanation for the cause of the world’s troubles, but they have an explanation.
Creating a successful competing political philosophy isn’t just a matter of making those communities understand that immigration benefits them. (Actually, among low-wage workers, immigration may well slightly increase competition for jobs, a fact that needs to be acknowledged and dealt with.) It’s also a matter of actually proposing ways of better redistributing the economic benefits of globalization. As Fredrik deBoer pointed out here recently, we know where the economic gains have gone; they’re certainly not evenly shared across society. Global inequality has risen to the point that nearly all wealth is controlled by a tiny minority of the super-rich, and labor power is in decline. It might be wise for the left to have something to say about this.
So far, centrist Democrats have been miserably bad at generating that kind of meaningful alternative (possibly because they are, themselves, largely the beneficiaries of inequality). In fact, by dismissing the concerns of working-class voters, and gushing about the Obama administration’s wonderful policy achievements, liberals almost seem to be mocking and taunting their working-class constituents. (Clinton’s missteps, like telling coal country voters that she would put miners out of business, have also been unhelpful.) As Emmett Rensin has written, elite liberalism has become characterized by a “smug style” that simply shouts “idiots!” at the “stupid hicks” who are getting “conned by right-wingers.” Rensin says that liberalism has come to believe in “the politics of smart people in command of Good Facts,” which has “no moral convictions, only charts.”
One could see that after Trump’s speech. The most common response to Trump among liberal commentators seems to be the relentless fact-checking of his statements, rather than any attempt to articulate a comprehensive alternate political worldview. Barack Obama himself, in addition to adopting the “America is already great” mantra, has decided that the best way to defend his health care policy to the public is through writing a heavily-footnoted academic article for a scholarly journal.
Clinton supporters can often seem stunningly oblivious. Pundit Andrew Sullivan (who believes that the rise of Trump proves that people are too stupid to be entrusted with democratic decision-making) responded to Trump’s criticism of Obamacare by saying that “I’m on Obamacare and I picked my own doctor.” Well, bully for Andrew Sullivan. But not everybody shares in his good fortune, and it’s both arrogant and useless to explain why Democratic policies look great from where you’re sitting. Such people fundamentally do not seem to understand what it feels like to live outside of the coastal elite bubble. Prominent liberal writers like Ezra Klein, who help shape policy priorities and set agendas, are totally uninterested in the way other types of people’s lives are actually lived. Their view of the working-class experience comes entirely from Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Thus they don’t understand the things that make people unhappy, stressed out, hopeless, and frightened.
One person who did appear to understand these things was Bernie Sanders. This was clear from his interactions with voters, and it’s why tens of thousands of people showed up at his rallies. It’s why he was able to rival Trump in the enthusiasm of his voters. He went from being a fringe candidate to a serious contender for the nomination, by tapping into an important part of the national mood. The fact that Sanders took off so unexpectedly, despite his total lack of traditional political charisma and a disorganized campaign apparatus, should have been a lesson.
Democrats need to pay attention to the Sanders model if they want to generate any enthusiasm or make any inroads with new groups of voters. Instead of telling people that everything is alright, they need to acknowledge that for many, many people things aren’t alright at all. Then, instead of offering terrifying doomsaying like Trump, they need to inspire people to believe things can get better. They need to run a campaign of hope rather than a campaign of complacency. If they want to successfully win Trump’s voters over, they will need to stop treating such people as nothing more than delusional racists. Yet, worryingly, many Democrats don’t actually seem to be committed to the task of winning people over. They seem to believe that Trump supporters are, indeed, just “dumb hicks” who can’t be reasoned with.
This is a fatal position to take. So long as Democrats are trying to retain support instead of grow it, Trump will continue to lure new voters while Clinton’s voter base will either remain stagnant or shrink. In order to win, you’ve simply got to persuade people. Internet theorist and perennial TED talker Clay Shirky recognizes the wonk problem, and tells Democrats that they have wrongly “brought fact-checkers to a culture war.” That’s true as an assessment of the problem, but the question is how Democrats intend to win that culture war. Do they intend to win it by trying to get people who already agree with them to half-heartedly drag themselves to the polls, and by portraying Trump’s working class constituency as the enemy? Or do they intend to win it by offering an actual principled contrast that deals with the real problems that people have?
The selection of Tim Kaine as Clinton’s running mate is not a good sign here. Kaine has no potential whatsoever to craft the kind of inspiring alternative platform that Democrats need. Hillary Clinton has not just admitted Kaine is boring, but says that she “love[s] that about him” because he fits her “fondness for wonks.” But wonks are precisely the problem; they are incapable of understanding voters’ emotions. Such people will puzzle over why Americans are “stubbornly negative” about the economy, failing to even recognize that large parts of the the country are characterized by massive inequality and poverty.
Kaine certainly doesn’t help with the Democrats’ need to reclaim a progressive populism, since he infamously tried to help banks evade consumer protection regulations. Trump will (accurately) seize on this as a reflection of Democratic obliviousness. Indeed, just hours after the pick was announced, the Republican National Committee sent out a statement pointing out that “Kaine has castigated opponents of free-trade agreements as ‘losers’ and strongly supported the War in Iraq.” By selecting Kaine, Clinton shows that she has no intention of trying to rechannel the working class anxiety fueling the Trump campaign into something positive. Instead, she’s simply hoping that people will be so afraid of Trump that they have no choice but to join her. Perhaps they will be. But consider: Trump tells people he will keep them safe from joblessness, terrorism, and crime. Clinton tells people that joblessness, terrorism, and crime aren’t problems, and that she’ll keep them safe from Trump. Which scare tactic is more compelling?
In an age where millions of people are looking for explanations and solutions for their despair, it might be unwise to count on fear of Trump as one’s sole campaign message. So long as Democrats stick with the mantra that everything is fine and Obama is fantastic, not only will they come across as smug, not only will what they are saying be false, but it’s hard to see how they will win a presidential election.