The Way Through, The Way Forwards: A White Techno-Liberal’s Response to President Trump

[NOTE: THIS IS STILL A DRAFT.  PLEASE DO NOT SHARE IT PUBLICLY YET.  SUBJECT TO CHANGE AND REVISION.  I want feedback from my friends and family over the next few days — from 11/19 to 11/25 or so — before sharing this publicly myself.]

 

Since Trump’s election I, with almost all of my Seattle liberal friends, have been freaked out by what has happened to our country, and trying to make sense of what comes next.  This essay, redrafted four times, is my attempt to sum things up and give some perspective.  I hope it is even slightly as helpful for you to read as it was for me to write.

Wow, this totally sucks.

Hate outbreaks are happening all over the country.  Trump is nominating some of the most hateful and maniacal people he can find to his cabinet.  He is soon to be backed up by a full steamroller GOP Congress and Presidency smashing over the Supreme Court and the federal bureaucracy, rolling back who knows how many decades of progress on gay rights, POC rights, environmental protection, civil liberties, the economy, you name it.

I’m disheartened as hell by the fact that someone I consider an avowed racist and sexist could get elected President.  It shows exactly how deep the racist and sexist heritage of this country goes: all the way back to its beginnings, and beyond.  The Confederacy is alive and well; the first black president is being succeeded by a man who was endorsed by the KKK.  A man-child who brags about getting to grab any woman he wants is now the most powerful politician in America, if not the world.

So, this sucks.  It absolutely, immensely sucks.  I completely sympathize with all my many friends who are so unbelievably disgusted that they are digging in for four years of total warfare.

Resistance first.

The first goal must be to resist Trump in all his efforts to tear the civil fabric of this country.

  • Protect the vulnerable directly.  Speak out and defend against hateful speech or acts, especially by white people.  Here is how.
  • Support the American Civil Liberties Union as Trump tries to damage freedom of the press.
  • Support the Southern Poverty Law Center as it fights the hate groups that will be hugely emboldened by Trump’s victory.
  • Support Planned Parenthood as it fights Trump’s attempts to eliminate Roe vs. Wade.
  • Support the National Immigration Law Center as it defends poor immigrants from the hatred coming their way.
  • Support the Movement for Black Lives as all Black Lives Matter activists come under increased attack from emboldened police forces.
  • Support environmental organizations (the Sierra Club, 350.org) as Trump tries to roll back all progress on climate.

There are so many things we can and must do, especially we white people with resources to help.  Absolutely nothing I write in the rest of this document in any way reduces the urgency of our immediate and effective response, against both Trump’s rapid, terrible policy actions, and against the harassment and rage of his supporters.

We can know that Germany and California stand with us, and many more will be speaking up and fighting back.

White liberals are responsible for engaging white Trump supporters.

People of color and gay people are on the frontlines of the battle against the Trumpian forces of hatred now.  It will be very hard for many of them to engage on any level other than pure resistance.  I understand this and support it.  That is why this essay is addressed mainly to white people.

We white people are not in Trump’s crosshairs.  People who obviously stand out — people of color, LGBTQ people — are the vulnerable ones.  So I want to be clear that I am asking nothing and expecting nothing of racial or sexual minorities here.  Whatever form of resistance they choose is theirs to determine.

I know a lot of my friends are so done with Trump voters that they are unfriending them, living abroad, and otherwise washing their hands of the whole situation.  And I understand that.  Breitbart trolls, hardcore alt-right fanatics, lifelong Confederates, gun nuts… the most hardcore right-wing voters, who are celebrating Trump’s every move right now, are not people it makes sense to focus our time on.  We will not convince them.  Those ideological splits are centuries deep in this country.  Most of Trump’s victory was indeed a reaction against eight years of the first black president, and against the possibility of the first woman president.

But:  the reality is that while Trump’s victory is enabling the biggest upsurge of racism since George Wallace in 1968, it is also one of the largest — by the time all is counted, probably the largest — splits between the electoral vote and the popular vote in history.  Trump is going all in on a scorched-earth white supremacist administration, while being the most unpopular president-elect in a century.  So there is opportunity here as he over-reaches.

The non-factual president: ignore his words, but watch his actions.

As terrible as Trump’s racist and sexist attitudes and actions are, I think there is something even scarier about him.

Trump won despite a historically unprecedented disregard for the facts.  He knows very well that identity trumps (ahem) reality in political thinking.

In fact, all politics works this way, but Democrats are increasingly the party that focuses more on what is actually true.

Trump won in large part because the GOP dug in so hard in resistance to Obama.  For eight years their top priority (stated repeatedly by Mitch McConnell, Senate minority leader the whole time) was to block everything Obama did.  Many of Obama’s policies were actually quite successful.  So in order to malign Obama to the necessary extent that would justify totally obstructing him, the right-wing mediasphere had to completely ignore and distort reality.  They did so with gleeful abandon.

This opened the door for Trump, who walked right into the vacuum of objectivity and proceeded to trample all the other GOP candidates, completely against the will of the mainstream Republican party.  Then he took the same attitude nationally, and squeaked out a victory.  Now he is following Putin’s playbook to the letter:  Russia is becoming a master of political confusion, and in fact directly contributed to Trump’s victory.

This leads to my main sanity-saving tactic for President Trump:

Ignore everything he says.

It is never clear with Trump at any given moment whether he is lying, or whether he is saying what he thinks people want to hear, or whether he remembers what he said previously, or whether he will change his mind in the next five minutes.  And this is entirely intentional.  Speech for him is a means of exerting dominance, of defining the debate in his terms only.  So literally nothing he says can be relied on or firmly believed.

However, now that he is president, his actions are public.  So this is the other critical tactic:

Watch everything he does.

His actions are what define his presidency.  For instance: on 60 Minutes recently, he told people committing hate crimes since his election to “stop it.”  Did he mean it?  Well, he appointed Stephen Bannon and Jeff Sessions as key members of his cabinet.  So, obviously not.

It is very stressful to have to ignore everything a president says and assume continual bad faith.  But it is less stressful than taking his speechifying seriously and trying to assess his actual beliefs.  Reality exists, facts measure it, and we have to stay grounded in that perspective while we work tirelessly towards returning our country to governance that cares about the truth.

This also implies that even if Trump takes actions that we liberals support (infrastructure spending, for instance), we must tactically support those actions without for a moment being swayed into thinking Trump is sane or consistent in any way.  He is a scorpion and America is the frog.

The Trump swing voters: how to respond.

The core voters who won this election for Trump are white voters in swing states who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012.  The questions for liberals, and especially white liberals, are:  why did these voters flip, can we flip them back, and should we?

It is natural right now to say, those people enabled Trump and showed their true colors, and we must now call them out as racists and show them the consequences of their vote.  Even if they did not intend their vote as racist, it has had the effect of empowering racists like no presidential election in history.  We must and will object to the racist and sexist actions of the Trump administration all along the way, as they are going to be fast, furious, and infuriating.  And we must make sure Trump voters see and own the bad actions of the Trump presidency.

But it is also a known fact that calling someone racist makes them stop listening.  If white liberals want to increase racial consciousness among white people in this country — and we should — then we have to recognize that persuasion requires us to engage racists without labeling them as racists.  This is not what seems morally right, and it is not what oppressed minorities call on us to do; we are encouraged to call out racism wherever and whenever we see it.  But if we want to actually persuade the relatively small minority of red state voters who are worth persuading, it’s the only effective strategy.

Moreover, it is, I think, one of the core reasons Obama won the rust belt states that Clinton lost.  When Clinton made her comment about the “basket of deplorables,” she made a mistake Obama would never have made.  Obama did not call Republican voters deplorable, even when they were burning him in effigy.  This is one place Obama had more ability to connect with those voters than Clinton did.  “Deplorables” is now the blue equivalent of the red “libtards” — the pejorative that instantly shuts down conversation and persuasion.

I like this advice on how to deal with Trump using the strategy that worked on Berlusconi:  focus on whether Trump’s actions achieved what he said they would for the middle class, and focus on what Democrats can and should do for the middle class that will matter.  But do not make it a battle of good (liberals) versus evil (Trump voters) — that will only make the swing voters swing further away.  If our goal is to actually improve everyone’s lives in this country, then we need all of those voters we can get, especially if we get them with policies that we should enact anyway.

The red state economy: worse even than it looks.

Trump’s voters, and middle America generally, really are having a lot of problems.  If we ignore them because we think they are all deplorable, or if we take them for granted as Clinton did, we really hurt our chances of future majorities in this country — and we also fail to do what should be our job as progressives:  to help everyone have fulfilling lives regardless of color, creed, or gender.

White women are the only demographic group in America whose life spans are dropping now.  Small cities and towns are losing their industrial base across America.  This is leaving a lot of people out of work, and making them despair.  And despair leads to desperation, which leads to demagoguery and Trump.  Look at what the voters in swing counties said.  Remember, these are the voters who voted for Obama twice, yet still chose Trump over Clinton.

Two core reasons for the problems of the middle class came up throughout the campaign: globalization moving jobs abroad, and the super-rich taking most of the economic benefit of the last thirty years.  These are both certainly true.  Extreme wealth becomes addicting and drives irrational decision-making.  Once wealth becomes an end in itself, no amount is enough, and the policies that make the rich richer also make the middle class poorer.

But there is another critical reason that comes up not nearly enough:  automation starting to really take off.

Elon Musk, hero to techno-liberal urbanites everywhere, is about to release fully self-driving cars.  Soon after that, self-driving trucks — Uber already bought a self-driving truck startup.

What are the most common jobs in the various states of the country?  In 2014?

2014_jobs

In almost all the states Trump won (and some blue states too), truck driver is the most common job.  Elon Musk — and everyone else working on self-driving technology — is working to make all of those truck drivers unemployed.  After automation and globalization have already started hollowing out many of their communities.

And we wonder why so many of them are upset?

We urban liberals, especially technology workers, love the future.  But the future we are so eager for is looking increasingly nightmarish for everyone who’s not so comfortable there already.  And we have to be part of the political solution, because we are creating the problem.

The liberal agenda now:  where Trump and Sanders agree.

It is critical to remember that Trump didn’t only win the GOP primaries because of his horrible bullying and racism.  Granted, his bullying and racism are so horrible it’s almost impossible to see past them, and it’s entirely likely that they are the biggest reasons he won.

But we also have to remember that Trump has actually singlehandedly blown up the Republican party.  Despite the fact that they seemingly just won everything, he actually undermined the GOP’s main tenets.

For the last thirty years, the GOP managed to hoodwink its own voters, by persuading them that government was the enemy, and that if everyone just lowered taxes, the economy would boom.  Meanwhile, they did all they could to make the rich richer, while encouraging trade agreements that actually undermined those voters’ jobs.  The Democrats, as Bernie has made loud and clear, were scarcely any better.

Trump spoke out against this, far more forcefully than any other GOP candidate.  In fact, Trump and Sanders agreed on this.  Both of them clearly saw the plight of the middle class.  Trump crushed every other GOP candidate partly by steamrollering right over their lip service to the middle class, and pointing out exactly how hypocritical and ineffective they had been.  And he was exactly right about that.

Consider Bernie’s statement on Trump’s victory:

Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media. People are tired of working longer hours for lower wages, of seeing decent paying jobs go to China and other low-wage countries, of billionaires not paying any federal income taxes and of not being able to afford a college education for their kids – all while the very rich become much richer.
To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him. To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.

 

So Bernie is ready to work with Trump, whenever Trump actually tries to put his money where his mouth was.  It looks like Senate Democrats are going to do likewise.  I support this:  if occasionally aligning with Trump lets us get changes passed that actually do bring jobs back to middle America (and elsewhere), that is a good thing and is something Democrats should push even harder in future, leveraging the chasm Trump has opened up in the GOP.  Democrats always tend to compromise more — and that reflects our core values of understanding other perspectives (where they are not purely hateful), and considering them sincerely.

Unfortunately for the middle class, Trump’s stated policies are actually going to make the economy very much worse.  His scapegoating of immigrants has almost nothing to do with the actual forces causing job loss in this country, and his tax plan is going to make the rich richer while doing very little to bring jobs back to the middle class.  In future, Democrats will be able to leverage this to their advantage.

Blue cities, red countryside: the whole government is gerrymandered.

Hillary won the big cities to an unprecedented degree.  Trump won everywhere else to an unprecedented degree.  This map really says it all.

Speaking glibly and generally, America is splitting in two:

  • Big cities: more liberal, with a population which is much more diverse, more racially and sexually integrated, overall more educated, with more access to a wider array of jobs and opportunities.  In the big cities, you don’t know most of your neighbors personally; you expect the government to provide more of the services you depend on, and expect it to do well; and you are near to a lot of different ways to learn and work.
  • Everywhere else: more conservative, with a much less diverse population that is much less racially and sexually integrated, overall less educated, with less access to a smaller number of jobs and opportunities.  In most smaller cities and towns, you do know most of your neighbors personally; you don’t expect the government to do much for you, you expect your community to help you out; and you have only a few nearby opportunities to learn or work.

The country is so split geographically at this point that it creates almost an inevitable bubble.  The odds are much, much higher now than fifty years ago that you live near no one who disagrees with you politically — at least, no one who is willing to admit it.  Combined with social media’s “amplify the loudest voices” effect, and the country is polarizing more and more.

Moreover, the class divide between educated and less-educated people is becoming more extreme.  This article explains it well.

Compounding the anxiety, and helping to morph it into humiliation, is the false national narrative that the US is a meritocracy where anyone can advance with the right education, and hence failure is because of being dumb or lazy.

But in communities I visit, the right education is often beyond most people. Many residents often fail to go beyond high school, and if they do, it is an education cobbled together by night classes and community colleges, together with a concoction of loans, programs and overwhelming debt.

This all helps explain how it is that Republicans could win control of the entire government (both houses of Congress and the presidency) despite actually losing the popular vote by a historically large amount:  big blue cities are an electoral disaster for Democrats.

In 2010 the Republicans did a great job of capitalizing on an anti-Obama election year to redraw GOP districts to concentrate Democrats in a few heavily populated areas, while maximizing the number of sparsely populated Republican districts.  Likewise, the Senate is dominated by Republicans in large part because there are many sparsely populated states, but relatively few states with big cities.  So the “red vs. blue” state map, and in fact the entire composition of Congress, greatly distorts how the actual popular vote looks in this country.

The concentration of liberals in the cities is a new development which wasn’t anticipated when this country was established.  And it means that demographic changes which favor liberals are having a lot less effect than anticipated, because if those changes don’t increase the number of liberals in the countryside, they barely move the needle in our government.

So Democrats need to go all in on making our government more representative of the popular vote:

In an era where a non-factual Republican Party is destroying all ability to have a reality-based discussion about government in this country, Democrats must do what we can to restore true democracy and representation — and we must select policies that genuinely do help all Americans.

It’s The Economy, Stupid, version 2.0.

Bill Clinton famously used the “It’s the economy, stupid” slogan in his nineties campaigning, to great effect.  Obama did likewise in 2008.  It works for Democrats to champion the middle class.  And Democrats can do this while holding the line on racism, by proposing programs that address all segments of society.

The red state work ethic is so strong that going on welfare is seen as a personal failure that can lead to depression and suicide-by-drugs.  And in general, red state voters have an attachment to the past that can barely be shaken by any events whatsoever.

-Their economic situation is largely the result of voting for supply-side economic policies that have been the largest redistribution of wealth from the bottom/middle to the top in U.S. history.

-Immigrants haven’t taken their jobs.  If all immigrants, legal or otherwise, were removed from the U.S., our economy would come to a screeching halt and prices on food would soar.

-Immigrants are not responsible for companies moving their plants overseas. Almost exclusively white business owners are the ones responsible because they care more about their share holders who are also mostly white, than they do American workers.

So what can or should Democrats do to try to make social plans that can actually help people who deny the actual causes of their situation, and who reject any input from Democrats whatsoever?

My friend Ramez Naam had a good post recently about how to persuade people from different ideological backgrounds.  Here he’s talking about climate change:

What works, IMHO:

1. Find out what resonates with them. “Clean energy” resonates more in a bi-partisan way than “climate change”. “Energy independence” resonates with conservatives. “Clean air” and “clean water” similarly resonate far better than “climate change”. Lead with those.

2. Frame things according to the audience’s values. “Conserve nature”. “Leave a better world for our kids and grandkids”. Those work with conservatives. “Innovate in clean energy” works a lot better than “drive less” or “government regulations”. Lead with the framing that works.

3. Don’t insult them. Don’t antagonize them.

4. Don’t hyperbolize or exaggerate. It alienates the audience.

5. Use messengers they identify with, if at all possible. Conservative leaders. Religious leaders. Military leaders.

So if we want to provide job and social help to red state voters who are accustomed to thinking the government and Democrats are the enemy, how do we frame it?  (Remember: we white liberals are driving this because it’s on us to do what we can to swing the pendulum back, and because it’s the right thing to do to help people who need help.)

First we need to take the red state work ethic seriously.  This article provides some good insight, though the author overlooks a couple of key points.  The 1930s through the 1970s were the key industrial boom in which America had tons of industrial jobs for everyone — red state voters pining for booming factories everywhere will have a long time to wait.  The Black Lives Matter movement absolutely needs to be supported more than she admits, and red states are more racist than she admits.  But this suggestion has merit:

A modern industrial policy would follow Germany’s path. (Want really good scissors? Buy German.) Massive funding is needed for community college programs linked with local businesses to train workers for well-paying new economy jobs. Clinton mentioned this approach, along with 600,000 other policy suggestions. She did not stress it.

Another key area liberals have to reconsider is their bias towards welfare.  For example, Elon Musk sees universal basic income as a necessary step to deal with roboticization:

Computers, intelligent machines, and robots seem like the workforce of the future. And as more and more jobs are replaced by technology, people will have less work to do and ultimately will be sustained by payments from the government, predicts Elon Musk, the iconic Silicon Valley futurist who is the founder and CEO of SolarCity, Tesla, and SpaceX…

Also this summer, President Obama addressed the idea of a universal basic income in an interview with the Director of MIT’s Media Lab, Joi Ito, and Scott Dadich, editor in chief of WIRED: “Whether a universal income is the right model — is it gonna be accepted by a broad base of people? — that’s a debate that we’ll be having over the next 10 or 20 years.”

In red states, the idea of being paid just for being alive would be anathema.  The work ethic is too deep.  There, an infrastructure-rebuilding jobs program would be much better received, or the “community college for all to teach more modern vocational skills” would also go further than “free liberal arts college for all.”

This is why Obama rightly thinks the debate has to be broader than just universal basic income.

Democrats should also be prepared to ask states to come up with their own plans for whether social programs should provide jobs or should provide money.  Different states will greatly disagree on this, and more latitude for that disagreement would be welcome from Democrats.

We also should consider labor protection for jobs that are being roboticized.  As with trade agreements that historically didn’t include nearly enough for retraining and for supporting workers whose jobs were sent abroad, we need to ensure that industries which are roboticizing take a large portion of their savings and use it to support retraining for workers who have been replaced by robots.  Alternatively, we may need to institute job protection for such workers, to allow those who don’t want to retire to continue in their jobs.  Robots should be strictly lower priority than humans in the coming transition, and the huge profits that will flow from a self-replicating economy should be used to directly support people — not necessarily via universal basic income, but by funding infrastructure jobs programs, small business loans, free community college and vocational college access, and more.  This needs to be front and center in Democratic debate as we move to rebuild our party.

Remember, the idea here is not to bend over backwards to make red state white voters happy at the expense of everyone else.  The idea is to understand how to implement social programs that fit their culture better, while retaining the flexibility to address other communities in ways that work for their culture.  By doing this, we have the best chance of swinging some of those “Trump Democrats” back to being actual Democrats, and of actually helping the red state people who genuinely need it, while holding true to our ideals of equality and justice for all.  This is not about ignoring racism or condoning it; it is about reaching out to those voters who we can reach, while holding firmly to our principles.

Personal evolution away from conservatism happens slowly and individually, and on a time scale spanning generations.  But Democrats have a lot of room to remain true to their ideals while coming up with plans that can reach red state voters as Obama did, and we should aim for nothing less if we want to save our democracy from non-factual authoritarianism and fascist white nationalism.

The 2020 Opportunity.

Trump’s whole campaign was based on nostalgia — “Make America Great Again.”  I believe most of his voters are diehard Republicans for life (single-issue abortion voters, or full-on white nationalists) who genuinely want America to return to its 1950s social condition.  Trump’s certainly going to do all he can to roll back the clock on civil liberties and personal freedoms, which will make those voters happy; and there is almost no way any of those voters would ever swing Democratic.  But that bloc is only about 38% of 2016 voters, not enough in itself to keep him in power, especially as his actions activate the minorities who are being oppressed.

The other nostalgia Trump evoked was economic, for the days when a high school degree meant a good job in town for life.  Trump’s economic plan will do exactly nothing to bring those days back, and it is just a matter of when this will become clear to the rest of his voters, including all the Obama swing voters.

The best scenario is that Trump’s plans fail to deliver for the people who desperately wanted better jobs and renewed industry.  In that case, we could see a Democratic wave election in 2020, which would be the best possible year for one.  If we can get control of the Senate in 2020, we can steer the country’s redistricting to reduce GOP control of the House for the next decade, and potentially make lasting changes to the electoral college as well.

First we will have to survive the next four years.  But if we keep our eyes on the horizon, we focus on actually helping the middle class, we push back with all our might against incursions on our civil liberties and civil protections, and we dare to be more liberal even than Bernie Sanders… then we just might emerge from the Trump era stronger than ever before.

Trump’s overt racism is poisoning the GOP for the next generation.  Here is how voters aged 18 to 25 voted in this election:

clinton_vs_trump_millenials

So at least we can expect the next generation to be more liberal yet, partly in reaction to their first taste of a truly reactionary president.  But we can’t wait for that sea change; we have to:

  • Resist Trump’s attempts to drive us back to the past by all means.
  • Ignore what he says, for our own sanity; but watch what he does like a hawk.
  • Reshape the electoral map to restore democratic representation based on the popular vote.
  • Engage fully with the changing economy and the need to help people buffeted by it (regardless of, but sensitive to, class, race, and gender).
  • Where national progress is impossible, work at the state level.
  • White liberals especially:  Understand how to walk the incredibly difficult line of talking to Trump voters as respectfully as possible and finding common ground where possible, without condoning or enabling their racism.

The road will be long and hard, and it’s not at all clear Trump won’t try to actually start a war to entrench himself in power.  If he does that, we are looking at George W. Bush 2.0, with Pence as Dick Cheney and some other Mideast nation as Iraq.  (The only good thing there is that Trump spoke out forcefully against GWB’s war — it was one of his rare points of consistency — which just might make it harder for him to start one of his own.)

But one thing is for certain:  Trump is a petty narcissist, motivated mainly by revenge, with a historically small mandate and a party that is split by his very presence.  He is no megalomaniacal Hitler; he is not nearly focused enough nor passionate enough for that.  He is likely to wind up wildly unpopular even in his own party, and completely ineffective due to opposition from both establishment Republicans and most Democrats.

Democrats can reverse the Trump swing, if we focus on the economy and avoid being too smug about how smart we are.  We not only can do this, we must do this — America’s promise as a home for everyone, and our political system’s ability to deal with reality, both absolutely hang in the balance.

Godspeed to all of us.  Thank you for reading, and I welcome comments, though I will use John Scalzi’s moderation policy and enforce good faith in all discussion.

 

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