Column
November 22, 2016

I lied

Last week, after vaguely apologizing for having stated so many times that there was no chance Donald Trump would win the presidency, I pledged to take a break from politics. But—hey, sorry, man—I still can’t get the election out of my head.
Lately I’ve been considering the divisions that have formed among Clinton’s supporters in the wake of Trump’s surprise victory. What is the correct way for them to think about what happened? Should they accept the results and give Trump a chance, or should they protest and advocate the same unconditional obstructionism that Republicans adopted under Obama?
One question has come up with notable regularity: is it OK for the anti-Trump side to characterize people who voted for Trump, en masse, as racists?
This question—along with related questions centering on Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, and sexism (they’re all really the same question)—feels important because, for many liberals, the unusually intense horror and sorrow that they’ve experienced since the election has stemmed less from the prospect of Donald Trump’s policymaking (which will be bad for everything liberals care about but probably no worse than if any other Republican politician had won the White House) than from the realization that Trump’s anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican, anti-woman siren song was, in fact, correctly pitched: his nativist demagoguery was not a losing strategy—in 2016, the United States of America was no better than he estimated. The truly sad part of all this isn’t Trump—the sad part is our family members and neighbors who supported him.
Is everyone who voted for Donald Trump a racist? Most reasonable, common-sense people would answer briefly: no, that’s ridiculous. They might acknowledge that there was a racist component to Trump’s campaign—that he courted the vote of the Fox News crowd and the alt-right, enflaming their fears of multiculturalism, illegal immigration, and Islamic terrorism—but another large segment of his base was surely motivated by his economic stances or his outsider status or the stench of corruption that surrounded his opponent.
Please don’t expect “common sense” from me, or from young people in general.
My own interpretation of what constitutes racism (or sexism) doesn’t necessarily include an element of malice. If you vote for a racist candidate not on account of his racism but simply out of self-interest, you are (whether you like it or not) contributing to a system of white supremacy in the United States. Your willingness to sacrifice the safety of minorities in America—as you support a candidate who, while threatening a ban on Muslims, calling Mexicans rapists, and denying that Black Lives Matter, promises a return to prosperity for the mostly white Heartland—makes you, in some sense, a racist by default, even if you don’t bear the tiniest bit of hatred for black or brown people. It doesn’t matter what’s in your heart; what matters is what you’re putting out into the world.
In this sense, yes, all of Trump’s supporters are racists—including (perhaps problematically) his black, Latino, and Muslim voters. But this reading presents its fair share of issues: a two-candidate race is limited in its expressive possibilities for voters—it does, necessarily, lead one in directions one doesn’t want to go. I don’t believe, for example, that all of Clinton’s supporters shared her militarism, even if, by voting for her, they (in theory) endorsed it. Many Democrats opposed her enthusiasm for regime change, but they still voted against Trump, just as lots of Trump’s supporters were primarily voting against Hillary. Why don’t they get passes for all the ways in which he’s abhorrent, if I don’t blame Clinton’s voters for everything that was objectionable about their candidate?
I can account for the double-standard only by stating that racism may represent a special case in the United States. It is our fundamental challenge, our original sin. It’s the air we breathe. My own impression is that, for most Americans, one must perform some unambiguously racist, hateful act in order to earn the label “racist.” But in the online discourse of Millennials, one is a racist until one proves otherwise. There is no presumption of innocence: innocence must be earned. Donald Trump’s supporters didn’t necessarily vote for racism, but they didn’t vote against it, either.
The next question is a pragmatic one: is it useful for liberals to label Donald Trump’s supporters as racists? Again, the popular answer here is “no.” One prominent post-election storyline was that the haughtiness of the politically correct coastal elites in Hillary’s camp only added fuel to Trump’s resentment-based antiestablishment movement. Ordinary Americans were tired of being chastised for failing to live up to the complex standards of race- and gender-related sensitivity developed in the “safe spaces” of our country’s most expensive universities. Instead of resorting to name-calling (as Hillary did with her “basket of deplorables” comment), Democrats must find ways to be more inclusive.
Yet even from a strictly practical perspective, spotlighting the ways in which the Republican platform is racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic seems essential in an increasingly diverse America—even if there’s also a substantial segment of the population that will feel alienated and offended as soon as one of those aforementioned terms is brought up. Rural whites of the Midwest and the South may vote against their self-interest if they feel attacked (a real concern), but the Democrats can’t simply refuse to denounce bigotry when they see it.
Indeed, the Democrats lost this election through an insufficiency of forceful progressivism, not an excess of it. Socially and economically, they must pursue their ideals without the deadening compromises that have characterized the Clintons. Are Trump’s voters racists? Basically they’re the same 60 million who voted for Mitt Romney, a fully beatable group. This loss isn’t about them, and it doesn’t matter much how we define them—it’s about us, and how we define ourselves. When we look at America today, do we truly want change? I do—starting with the Democratic Party.

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