There are two main theories of Trump’s support. One is that a large minority of Americans — 40 percent, give or take — are racist idiots. This theory is at least tacitly endorsed by the Democratic Party and the mainstream liberal media. The other is that a large majority of this large minority are good citizens with intelligible and legitimate opinions, who so resent being regarded as racist idiots that they’ll back Trump almost regardless. They may not admire the man, but he’s on their side, he vents their frustration, he afflicts the people who think so little of them — and that’s good enough.
It’s disappointing that Charlottesville hasn’t changed their minds — but then it hasn’t changed my mind either. I still think the first theory is absurd and the second theory basically correct.
The first theory, if it were true, would be an argument against democracy. If tens of millions of Americans are racist idiots, how do you defend the popular franchise? That isn’t a sliver of reprehensible people who’ll be safely overwhelmed when elections come around. And there’s plainly nothing, according to the first theory, you can say to change their minds. Why even go through the motions of talking and listening to those people?
This sense that democratic politics is futile if not downright dangerous now infuses the worldview of the country’s cultural and intellectual establishment. Trump is routinely accused of being authoritarian and anti-democratic, despite the fact that he won the election and, so far, has been checked at every point and has achieved almost nothing in policy terms. (He might wish he were an authoritarian, but he sure hasn’t been allowed to function as one.) Many of his critics, on the other hand, are anti-democratic in a deeper sense: They appear to believe that a little less than half the country doesn’t deserve the vote.
The second theory — the correct theory — is a terrible indictment of the Democratic Party and much of the media. Why aren’t the intelligible and legitimate opinions of that large minority given a hearing? Why must their views be bundled reflexively into packages labelled “bigotry” and “stupidity”? Why can’t this large minority of the American people be accorded something other than pity or scorn?
Those who scorn Trump’s supporters might argue that none of their opinions are in fact intelligible or legitimate. After all, don’t their views on immigration boil down to racism and white supremacy? What about their idea that the Charlottesville protesters and counter-protesters were morally the same? Or their morbid fear of change? Or the hypocrisy of their opposition to “big government,” when everybody knows that Trump-voting states such as West Virginia are the biggest net recipients of federal money? If you read the New York Times, you know they have an endless supply of stupid, evil opinions.
In fact, this automatic attribution of stupidity and bad faith is just another kind of bigotry.
I’m a liberal on immigration — but it isn’t racism to favor tighter controls if you believe that high immigration lowers American wages. It sure isn’t racism to believe that the laws on immigration should be enforced, and that “sanctuary cities” violate that impeccably liberal principle. It isn’t racist to say that many of the Charlottesville counter-protesters came looking for a fight. Casting Trump supporters as fearful of change is risible — he was hardly the status quo candidate. And I cannot see what principle of political economy makes it stupid to be a fiscal conservative if you live in West Virginia.
It’s worth pondering that opposing the removal of Confederate monuments may soon make you a racist, if it doesn’t already. After Charlottesville, PBS reported that 86 percent of Americans condemn the rhetoric of the white supremacy movement, while six in 10 Americans, including a narrow plurality of African Americans, believe the statues of Confederate leaders should remain. This would seem to refute the suggestion that opinion on the statues has much to do with white nationalism. These findings were presented under the inviting heading “Confederate Statues and White Nationalism.”
For what it’s worth, I think the statues should go — read Ramesh Ponnuru on this — but most of those who support leaving them in place aren’t racist. It’s sad that this should even need saying.
Democracies that work make space for disagreement. You can disagree with somebody in the strongest terms, believing your opponents to be profoundly or even dangerously mistaken. But that doesn’t oblige you to ignore them, scorn them, or pity them. Deeming somebody’s opinions illegitimate should be a last resort, not a first resort. Refusing to engage, except to mock and condescend, is both anti-democratic and tactically counterproductive. Proof of that last point is the dispiriting tenacity of Trump’s support.