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Trump’s Voters Are More Sophisticated Than You Think

But their mindless acceptance of his bigotry is unforgivable.

Joe Raedle/Getty

Imagine the perfect progressive U.S. presidential candidate: She is promising single-payer healthcare and free college, and has a way to actually make these things happen. She’s plugged in on environmental issues, and will drastically reduce income inequality. She’s pristine on gun control and reproductive rights. She knew going into Iraq was a mistake. She has no skeletons in her closet. She can offer you—yes, you—a better life.

You’d vote for her in a heartbeat. Except there’s one little thing: She’s just not really into people of Finnish descent. At all. She thinks they’re too blond; and also, Finland’s kind of close to Russia. “Helsinki” sounds like it begins with ‘hell’!  No, there’s no good reason for her prejudice. It’s just her thing.

My question, then, isn’t whether you’d vote for such a person—I’d like to think you would not. Rather, it’s what you’d make of the fact that others would vote for her, despite her obvious bigotry. Let’s say this candidate was winning primaries across the country. Would you conclude that Americans sure do hate Finnish people? Or would it more be that Americans (that is, the non-Finnish ones) could overlook anti-Finnish-ism if it happened to appear on an otherwise appealing platform? 

In the Guardian, Thomas Frank makes an altogether convincing case that Trump’s supporters, thought to be motivated by rabid bigotry, are actually a bit more complex than that:

When members of the professional class wish to understand the working-class Other, they traditionally consult experts on the subject. And when these authorities are asked to explain the Trump movement, they always seem to zero in on one main accusation: bigotry. Only racism, they tell us, is capable of powering a movement like Trump’s, which is blowing through the inherited structure of the Republican party like a tornado through a cluster of McMansions.

Frank doesn’t dispute that Trump is running on a platform that includes overt bigotry, nor that members of Team Overt Bigotry in today’s culture wars prefer Trump as a candidate. The nuance Frank brings to the discussion is that Trump’s supporters aren’t the racist bumpkins they’ve been caricatured as in the press, but are in fact a thoughtful and informed portion of the electorate, and one that has been disproportionately impacted by free-trade deals that Trump opposes. Frank writes that he “noticed something surprising” in Trump’s rhetoric:

In each of the speeches I watched, Trump spent a good part of his time talking about an entirely legitimate issue, one that could even be called leftwing. Yes, Donald Trump talked about trade. In fact, to judge by how much time he spent talking about it, trade may be his single biggest concern—not white supremacy.

Frank is right that there are understandable reasons why a working-class white person might support portions of Trump’s platform, as it is. This doesn’t mean Trump is the real progressive or something like that, but it means that he’s picked up on certain concerns that some other candidates have not. Free trade is bound to sound different to someone whose job was moved overseas than to someone whose skills and qualifications make them a natural fit at the top of this economy. This doesn’t quite get at why someone would favor Trump over Sanders. But it explains why a Republican might prefer Trump. And Frank’s very right to call out that cringe-inducing Kristof column, in which Kristof ‘debates’ a folksy Trump voter of his own feverish invention.  

But honestly it’s enough that voters are willing to overlook overt bigotry. Being OK with an openly racist and sexist candidate, with one who has actually built bigotry into his platform, is itself a statement about the bounds of acceptability. The rabid-racism question is irrelevant.

OK, fine, it’s not entirely irrelevant. It’s just hard to get too worked up about people who are fine with bigotry—as long as they get everything else they’re promised—being maligned as enthusiastic bigots rather that the passive bigots they are; the people, in other words, for whom maintaining white supremacy is only the tenth most important political issue, and the first nine are fantastic and thought through. But really, who cares? Nuanced bigotry is still bigotry.

Let’s return to our otherwise flawless anti-Finnish candidate. On some level, one would have to be more understanding of the people who support her due to their own struggles. Let’s say you really need free college, free healthcare, and here’s someone offering what you need… but with a side of ugh-Finnish-people. But this is explain-but-not-excuse territory. It has to be, or else the thing you’re supporting really does wind up being… fascism. Which, historically, tends not to go so great—not for the proverbial Finnish, not for opponents of the regime, and, indeed, not for anyone in the nation, once (ideally) non-fascist forces (I’m picturing Trudeau armed with baby pandas) swoop in and remove the fascist regime.

I’ve argued that there’s a “myth of pretext-free anti-Semitism,” by which I mean there’s a myth that back in the day, Jews were hated only for religious-minority status, for being downtrodden, when in reality anti-Semitism has basically always been about the construction of Jew-as-oppressor. Frank’s piece makes me think there’s also a myth of pretext-free fascism. Because if you go by some super-caricatured version of what “fascism” entails, which pretty much amounts to voting Republican, saying racist and misogynist things under the guise of telling it like it is, and dressing like a budget-less Alex P. Keaton, then it’s shocking and nuanced and contradictory and worthy of note when a fascist politician brings in elements of the left and the right. But in fact, it’s none of those things, because this is how it went before. As Zeev Sternhell explained in his 1983 book, translated from French as Neither Right nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France, fascism has roots on the left as well as the right. While this doesn’t mean one needs to go overboard and conflate socialism with National Socialism, it’s still important to remember that elements of progressive platforms are, in fascism, fused with anti-modernity and reactionary politics. The colloquial use of “fascism” to mean “really, really conservative” thus seems to throw people off.  

While I do highly recommend reading Sternhell, the book’s essential idea (well, the one relevant for our purpose here) is also found in Rick Perlstein’s recent In These Times piece about fascism and populism: “Every fascist achieves and cements his power by pledging to rescue ordinary people from the depredations of economic elites. That’s how fascism works.”

Perlstein—who also, crucially, notes “that Mexicans and Syrians are also ‘ordinary people’ who struggle in the modern economy,” spells this out (emphasis Perlstein’s): 

Under fascism, economic protection for the goose accompanies dispossession of the gander. White people prosper in part because minorities suffer—whether, under Hitler, by taking away property from Jews, or as Herr Trump expects, by taking back ‘our’ jobs from ‘them,’ whether the them is immigrants or our supposedly duplicitous trading partners.

 Ultimately, whether a Trump supporter came for the bigotry and stayed for the trade-critique or vice versa is not all that important. And it’s that much less central when you factor in the extent to which the promised utopia is posited as depending on the oppression of one or more disfavored groups.