It’s about tribalism. You cannot work with Trumpists. Period. You must defeat them and then fix the problems that handed them control.
It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into. – Jonathan Swift
Since the moment of Campaign 2016 when it became clear that Donald Trump actually had a chance, a lot of people have done a lot of thinking and pontificating and punditofying and writing and hand-wringing about the reasons for his viability. On one end of the spectrum: Donald gave the drooling, racist, misogynist, xenophobic, ignorant, anti-intellectual, hillbillies a cynical, smirking, dog-whistling charlatan they could line up behind. On the other, we’ve had all manner of thoughtful, complex analyses about how economic anxiety (and utter despair) fueled the rise of a non-partisan populist backlash against a political establishment that has spent decades betraying those it represents.
Both versions are compelling because each was built on a measure of observable truth. Corrupt pols in both parties have aggressively helped the neo-feudalists loot the working class. Only an idiot can deny this. And only an even bigger idiot could watch the steaming vitriol oozing from one Trump rally after another without seeing the worst manifestation of America’s festering hatred of the other since the Civil Rights upheavals of the 1960s.
So we have two theories claiming to have the answer, and each has a point, as does any number of perspectives between the poles. All of the above, yes? But…
Sometimes things are a little true and sometimes they’re a lot true. In recent months, every time I see a progressive (or a sensible conservative) writer offering insight into how all those Trump voters can be reached (because we must overcome, in 2018 if possible and 2020 at the latest), my response is the same: it won’t work.
Understand them instead of condemning them. Won’t work. Talk to them instead of at them. Won’t work. Acknowledge the validity of their faith. Won’t work. On and on and on and on. Will. Not. Work.
We have seen, how many times now, their resistance to facts so blatantly obvious, so right in front of their faces, that a doorknob couldn’t miss them. Trump campaigned on draining the swamp – a soundbite he has said himself he never believed, he just used it because his staff thought it would work – then he stocked his administration with the biggest gators in the whole swamp. He hit Clinton again and again on her ties to Goldman Sachs, and then put as many Goldman Sachs pimps as he could round up on his own payroll. After criticizing Obama for playing golf and saying if he were president he might never take a vacation, he goes to Florida and golfs every weekend.
He lied about the size of his inauguration crowd even though there were pictures. He lied about winning the most electoral votes since Reagan, to a nation that worships Reagan, even though it takes three seconds to prove it false. He made up fake terrorism stories that were easily disproven.
Remember the economic anxiety argument above? Trump people are allegedly workers who care about opportunity and their position vs the economic elite. Their reaction to the spate of stories about Trump’s proclivity for stiffing workers? Crickets. People who hate the economic elite voted for a man born rich who pays workers – workers like themselves – if and when he feels like it.
Is all of this adding up for you? He doesn’t just lie – he lies about things that are obviously false and easily disproven, and he lies in his supporters’ faces about how he’s their savior. And they applaud, seemingly celebrating his cleverness at getting over on … well, them. You got me – boy, that was a good one.
What about religion? Trump dominated the evangelical/social conservative vote. These are people who reliably vote against their own interests because they care so much – or profess to – about issues of morality, like abortion, and homosexuality and the sacred institution of marriage. So there’s no way they could support a paragon of amorality like Donald. I mean, they spent years torching Bill Clinton for his infidelities. Many of them are still railing about it over 20 years later. We even saw, in this campaign, Trump supporters who seemed willing to blame Bill’s cheating on his wife, if that can be imagined (you know, the wife who did what she said she would in her vows and stayed in her marriage). For better, for worse, death do us part, etc.
And yet they lined up behind a man who avoids churches because they make his flesh sizzle and they gleefully voted for him even though he’s been divorced twice (sanctity of marriage, after all) and who has a credible list of infidelity accusations long enough to make anyone serious about their integrity avoid saying Bill Clinton’s name out loud ever again. That parade of women who stepped forward to accuse Donald of harassment – how could any woman who has lived with the entrenched sexism of American society her whole life vote for this pig?
Then came the moment of truth – the famous pussy-grabbing video. On tape, he described, in detail, how he pursued a married woman while he himself was married and then he pretty much confessed to sexual assault. Worse, he seemed to be explaining to his audience how to commit sexual assault. Rape 101 – grab ’em by the pussy.
If the religious right actually meant a word it has ever said about morality, that would have been the end of Donald’s campaign. But they didn’t, and it wasn’t, which means something isn’t what it appears to be.
In short, all the “economic anxiety” and moral principles stuff we’ve been told about why voters supported Trump is bullshit. Yes, there is economic anxiety, but that’s not why Trump won. Yes, people have values, but their true values aren’t what they pretend.
The real reason all those folks voted for Donald? Tribalism.
I want to pause here and offer a note about my qualifications to speak on this subject. I’m an educated professional living in America’s 17th largest market. So that makes me one of those out-of-touch “liberal urban elites” who doesn’t know what it’s like to do a real day’s work and needs to get in touch with Jesus, right?
Not so fast. See, I grew up in the rural South, raised by working class grandparents who’d come up through the Depression. We always had what we needed, but extra money for wants was rare. I went to an elite private university, yes – after I earned a nearly-full-ride scholarship. I worked throughout college to make enough money to pay for things like books and to have a social life. I’ve never had anything handed to me – if I have it, I by god earned it.
I spent the a majority of the first 30 years of my life as a Southern Baptist, the first 18 of which were shaped by a devout, old-school grandmother. I still have the Bible I was given on my 12th birthday. I’ve seen modern social conservative values in action, and I assure you, I’m not impressed.
I said rural South. Specifically, I grew up in Davidson County in the northwest North Carolina foothills – an exceptionally red area by any reckoning.
- In last year’s election, the good folks back home handed Donald 73.4% of the vote.
- In 2012 the suspiciously moderate Mitt Romney only corralled 69.9% of the vote.
- In 2008 John “Mavericky McMaverickstain” McCain pulled 66.5% against the Obama Hopey Changey wave.
- In 2004 George Bush carried the county with 70.7%.
- And in 2000 Dubya managed 68% against Al Gore, a Southerner from right next door in Tennessee.
So when I tell you about Trump voters, about Southerners, about social conservatives, I’m not telling you about “those people.” I’m telling you about my people.
And here’s what I’m telling you.
You cannot reason with them because their opinions are not founded in reason.
You cannot show them, no matter what your methods, how their beliefs are at odds with what Jesus said because they know what Jesus said and if you show them different it’s because you’re twisting the truth. After all, even the Devil can quote scripture.
You cannot persuade them with facts, because your “facts” are liberal propaganda. They’re “book learnin’,” they’re tools to deceive you. Understand, in America, the only knowledge worth having is practical knowledge, a fundamental bias that we see expressed in the Land Grant Acts. (Note: see pp 121-2)
You can empathize all you want but you cannot make them empathize with you because you’re not one of them. You’re an outsider. (The dire mistrust of carpetbaggers has insinuated itself in the DNA of the Southern variety of conservative, and persists even in those who have no idea what a carpetbagger was.) You’re especially not one of them if you’re black. Or brown. Or gay. Or Jewish. Or educated.
Tribalism run amok: meet the Scots-Irish
The dynamic I describe, which by now you certainly recognize, is Us-vs-Themism in the extreme. They love America. Their America. They love Americans. Real Americans who look like them. They love God. Their God. They want better economic opportunities. For themselves. They love children. Children like them. They value community. Their community. They care deeply about truth. Their truth. And they could not care less if their truth runs counter to your facts. That’s just proof of all that is wrong with your way of life.
And right now they’re giddy. You lost. Get over it.
Here’s a thing that most of the more nuanced commentators, those explaining to us all the reasons why we need to work harder to understand our neighbors over in Trump County, don’t talk about. Maybe because they don’t know it. But these people – my people – do care about principle. Deeply. Although not in the way you think.
Many of them, especially in the upland South, in Appalachia, throughout the Deep South and across the plains – and beyond – emerged from the Scot-Irish immigration of the 18th and 19th centuries. Read this and think about where Trump found his most enthusiastic audience:
The Scots-Irish were a group of Scots who moved to Ulster, in Northern Ireland, before moving to the U.S. and first settling in New Hampshire and parts of Maine. Within a generation, they had moved down along the Appalachian spine, from western Pennsylvania and southeastern Ohio down into West Virginia, western Virginia, North Carolina, northern Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and large parts of South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee. Many moved further south and west, down to the Gulf Coast and out to Oklahoma, Arkansas, East Texas and beyond. Eventually they migrated out to the Bakersfield region of California (think The Grapes of Wrath), and up the Great Plains to parts of Michigan, Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado (James Dobson and Tom Tancredo territory, not Denver and Boulder).
What are these people like?
“The Scots-Irish were a herding people, while people from the north [of the U.S.] were English, German and Dutch farmers. Herding people are tough guys all over the world, and they are that because they have to establish that you can’t trifle with them, and if you don’t do that then you feel like you’re at risk for losing your entire wealth, which is your herd. This creates a culture of honor, and the Scots-Irish are very much a culture of honor, and they carried that with them from the Deep South to the Mountain South, and then out through the western plains.”
Honor culture. In this passage I hear the society of my youth in the northeast corner of a very red county described perfectly. It was tough and often hardscrabble, but no matter how little you had, you had your honor. Nothing was worse than being thought dishonorable (no matter how dishonorable a person you may have been in reality – and few people were more belligerent about their honor than those who had none).
Honor culture. If you want one of the greatest stories of American honor culture, let me introduce you to the saga of the Hatfield and McCoy families.
Honor culture. I know these things intimately because I’m describing myself. I’m Scot-Irish from North Carolina. To this day, nothing gets my hackles up quite like an affront to my integrity. I recognize this as a character weakness and I have worked on it for many years, but I won’t tell you that it’s been conquered.
With people like this – my people – the concept of appealing to their best interests, appealing to their rationality, appealing to whatever is pointless. Noting that their boy Donald is fucking them over is meaningless. Because thanks to Donald, they won. You lost, you and your smart-ass big-city liberal socialist friends, you fucking lost.
That’s everything to people who have never won. They never had anything to start with and they don’t have anything now, but finally their tribe won. They will suffer whatever they have to for this moment of victory because it speaks powerfully to their sense of honor. Donald may screw them, but they don’t care. They got to see those they hate lose.
In short, there is nothing you can do, now or ever, to win these people over. Their hearts are closed to anyone outside their trusted circle of people like them. Their minds are closed to any utterance that does not square immediately with what they already believe to be true.
They are unreachable by any strategy you can devise. Even former charismatic fundamentalist preacher Frank Schaeffer’s idea – “toss a lit match into the gas can of Trump voters’ perpetual anger” – seems suspect to me because so far these people have seemed immune to irrefutable proof of Trump’s betrayal. My cynical side, which has been watching this carnival for decades, tells me that if you manage to prove, 100% and conclusively, that Donald has sold them out, they will conclude, reflexively, that it was the fault of either the Clintons or Obama or the “liberal media.” After all, a disturbingly high number of Louisiana Republicans blame Obama (then just a junior Senator), not President Bush or “Heckuva Job” Brownie, for the government’s botched Katrina response.
If you can’t join ’em, beat em
If you cannot connect with this large, disruptive segment of our political reality, what can you do?
For starters, build stronger relationships with the rest of the electorate. You do that by committing to progressive, pro-human policies and you nominate candidates who represent the sorts of values you want the society to grow around. You appeal to younger and minority voters – so much of Trump’s strength is with aging whites. Younger Americans are far less susceptible to divisive appeals. They’re the most multi-cultural generation in our history and they should feel empowered to raise their voices against what they know is wrong. And too many minorities stayed home last year because they didn’t hear a message from the Democrats that compelled them. I know – if you saw footage from Trump rallies and somehow decided not to vote, that’s on you. But right now, the opposition needs to be making sure that there’s a message uniting all of our constituencies.
Once you get a leg up on the government, you have to start implementing laws that work for the people. You dismantle corporate welfare. You do something about individual tax structures so the wealthiest pull their weight. You provide for the health and physical well being of all citizens. You build jobs programs. You emphasize education as a way to assure long-term opportunity.
For instance, the GOP won 241 of the 435 seats in the House. If you do the math, that adds up to 55% of the seats. But they only earned around 49% of the vote. In 2014 the Republicans managed 56% of the seats on just over 51% of the vote. And in 2012 they won 53% of the seats on less than 48% of the vote.
More recently, we saw a Supreme Court nominee approved by a Senate “majority” representing only 47% of the country.
If we’re going to have a representative government, it should be representative, don’t you think?
For starters, anyway. The list of things you’d really need to do goes on all day. But the items noted here, and especially the gerrymandering issue, are central to eliminating the toxic effect of an ignorant, hostile, irrational minority on the life of the republic.
In other words, you don’t win them over. You don’t start a conversation with them. You don’t waste energy acknowledging their curious ideas about “faith” and you don’t drag the country deeper into the muck pandering to them.
My people are intractable. You don’t work with them. You beat them. And then you destroy the artifacts by which they have been allowed to hijack the system.
Enough is enough. War has been declared on the real America. It’s time the real America recognized it.