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If Trump Voters Don't Care About Their Own Material Circumstances, What Are We Even Doing Here?
An extremely common lament among progressives renders their own political stances incoherent, and leads to practical dead ends.
There’s an attitude—or rhetorical stance, or exasperated lament—that’s quite common across the left-of-center spectrum: Republican voters and Trump supporters are now, as one person put it to me, a “cult.” They live in an alternative reality; a hologram, a matrix, a bubble of information and perception created by some toxic mix of ideology, blind partisan loyalty, social media and rightwing news outlets. They are unreachable, and impervious to facts or suasion.
Most importantly, they are completely indifferent to changes in their own material circumstances: no matter how much Biden and the Democrats may do to concretely improve these voters’ jobs, living standards, incomes, quality of life or whatever, they will keep on cheering and voting for the racist orange authoritarian.
This all evolved out of the whole “economic anxiety” debate that started before Donald Trump even won the presidency in 2016: Could support for Trump be at all traced to rage and alienation over the collapse of good jobs and a decent future for working-class Americans? Or was that support purely driven by cultural reaction and racism? Folks who took the second interpretation concluded that Trump voters wouldn’t budge, no matter what Democrats, progressives, and the left did to improve their lot.
Last week, David Roberts popped onto Twitter—or the Website Formerly Known as Twitter—and reminded me that I wanted to revisit this whole question:
It's an interesting experiment we're running. Is there any level of jobs & investment & economic improvement that could break the hold of [rightwing] media on red states? Does actual, tangible governance matter *at all*? Is public opinion connected to material circumstances *at all*? I am... not optimistic.
Roberts was referring to a piece by Greg Sargent, about how many of the benefits from the three big economic bills President Biden has signed so far are going to states that have either recently switched from red to blue—and thus become crucial to Democrats’ future victories—or that went to Trump in 2020 and could shift. Trump talked a big game about reviving manufacturing during his presidency, but didn’t actually accomplish much. Now it looks like Biden’s bills kicked off a striking boom in manufacturing investment. Sargent was exploring, with cautious optimism, the possibility that all this is already lowering Trump’s prospects in 2024, and could “reverse the drift of working-class Whites away from Democrats by addressing the economic conditions that purportedly alienated them.”
I’ve never liked the attitude Roberts gave voice to—that rightwing voters (or any voters) are just impervious to material change entirely. I was already throwing down in favor of the “economic anxiety” thesis by the time Trump won in 2016. And frankly, it often seemed to me that your own commitment to left-progressive values was called into question if you didn’t agree that support for Trump and the GOP is basically an impenetrable cult.
So I tweeted back that, “One of the strangest developments in the last six or so years is the conviction among many that being a good progressive/leftist means dismissing one’s fellow human beings as unreachable aliens; that all is hopeless and the fascists are gonna win.”
Of course, the temptation to fire off snide asides when people annoy you is a big reason I don’t like Twitter (or the WFKAT), and why I’ve dropped off the platform in recent years. So I figured I should do what sensible people do, and deal with this in long-form, where one can afford some patience and nuance. So what I want to focus on here is a pretty straightforward and practical question:
Namely, if the view that Roberts espoused is right, what’s the takeaway?
If support for Trump really is unreachable cultism, what then should Democrats and the left do? I’m often told that, as unfortunate as the “unreachable cultism” diagnosis is, we need to be “clear eyed” about these realities. Well, okay. What path forward do we actually see with our clarified vision?
A Skepticism That Goes Nowhere
Like I said, I’ve always thought the “economic anxiety” explanation for Trump’s popularity was, while very crude, basically correct. I think a lot of the social science that was thrown around to debunk “economic anxiety” was bad, or interpreted sloppily and incoherently. And I think skepticism of it flies in the face of everything we learned from the last time the western world faced massive economic dislocations and rising fascist political movements.
But I’ll admit another reason I championed the “economic anxiety” view is that it did offer a concrete path forward: moving the U.S. economy in a left-populist direction, towards more equality and broadly-shared prosperity, would weaken the underlying rage and alienation driving Trumpism, sap the movement’s energy, and simultaneously flip some of Trump’s voters into the Democratic Party camp. Perhaps most crucially, it offered a way to accomplish all this without compromising Democrats’ progressive positions on social, cultural, and identity issues—or at the very least it would minimize the need for such compromise.
So for folks who thought the “economic anxiety” thesis was nonsense—who believe Trumpism is just a raw counter-reaction to rising rights and inclusion for racial, ethnic and sexual minorities—what’s their alternative path forward? If a left-populist economic agenda won’t get us out of the downward spiral into reactionary ethnonationalist authoritarianism, what will? I’ve seen a lot of people spill a lot of ink over the years debunking “economic anxiety,” but I’ve never seen anyone move on to answer this next, rather obvious question.
You get much the same problem if you focus, as Roberts does, on the effect of rightwing media specifically. If Fox News and One America News and rightwing Facebook posts have created an all-encompassing alternate reality for Trump voters, what are we advocating for here? A domestic terror campaign to blow up all the headquarters and servers and equipment of those companies and platforms—presumably when they’re unoccupied, “Tyler Durden” style? Sending in government agents to dismantle those outlets and platforms, shut down the companies and confiscate all the equipment based on some pretense or other?
Obviously, no one’s advocating either option, because they would be insane and immoral and destructive and shred the liberal constitutional values that are supposed to make the function of America’s cultural and moral pluralism possible in the first place.
If we’re not doing any of that, what else is there? Everyone sitting down with their GOP-voting family members over Thanksgiving dinner and having it out over politics? Perhaps the slow, arduous work of door knocking, movement building, and persuading GOP voters one person at a time? Maybe a bunch of small-bore experiments in new civil society or nonprofit projects, or new ways to reach people via social media?
And to be very clear, I’m all in favor of on-the-ground movement building! I think Democrats could do pretty well just by taking their marching orders from Jane McAlevey. But it is, at minimum, exceedingly strange to think the cultural hologram of Trumpist ideology cannot be pierced by Biden putting a few thousand dollars in people’s pockets every month, or by Biden getting them employed by a public infrastructure project stamped with his name, but it nevertheless can be pierced by some earnest conversations on doorsteps and local movement organizing. Just imagine asking a local union organizer or activist if the job of persuading Republican voters would be made harder, easier, or neither by Biden and the Democrats passing a universal child allowance? I think we all know what they’d say.
If Trumpism Is Impenetrable Cult, What Are The Realistic Solutions?
The most supremely bizarre part of the whole “economic anxiety” debate to me was always that, if you do reject it as an explanation for Trumpism, there’s actually a very obvious alternative solution: the Democrats should slow their roll on social and cultural issues, moderate back to the center, and give anxious conservatives some of what they want on immigration and transgender issues and other identity battles. If Trumpism is purely driven by reactionary rage at progressive social change; if there’s no other agenda outside social issues that could dissipate and break up Trump’s coalition; and if continued victories for Trumpism is an existential threat to American democracy; then the only remaining option is to sacrifice enough on the social issues front to contain Trumpism, while preserving as much as you can.
That’s actually what writers like Eric Kaufmann, Ross Douthat, and Matt Yglesias have all advised doing, to various degrees. I think Yglesias is a particularly interesting case, because he strikes me as someone with genuinely progressive social values (unlike Kauffman and Douthat) but who also genuinely believes the “economic anxiety” thesis is bunk. He then followed those premises to their logical implication.
Yet my impression is that most folks in the David Roberts’ camp are actually furious at Yglesias for going down the road he’s on. So the most logical strategy that flows from rejecting the “economic anxiety” thesis is also a strategy that’s morally abhorrent to the very left-progressives who most loudly rejected that thesis. Which creates a genuinely weird set of stances: You’re asserting, on the one hand, that progressive social and cultural change is antagonizing reactionary white Americans, essentially poking the sleeping bear of fascism. Yet you’re simultaneously asserting that we are all morally duty-bound to keep those changes going; to keep poking the fascist bear until it actually awakens from its slumber and devours us.
Of course, it’s not impossible that this is an accurate assessment of our situation! The world is a broken, fallen place; there is no reason to assume all good things go together; sometimes all your options suck. But this is also an incredibly tragic vision. It’s just plain fucking weird that so many people who seem to earnestly want a more progressive-left world nonetheless stump for such tragic assessment with such conviction.
If you want to talk about rightwing media specifically, there’s a similar disconnect between premise and solution.
I actually think there are two plausible things Democrats and progressives could do to break, or at least weaken, the psychological hold the conservative media matrix has on GOP voters. The first is to sue outlets like Fox News into oblivion, either by more aggressively enforcing the anti-defamation laws that already exist, or changing those laws so the legal bar for proving defamation is much lower. The Dominion case, but multiplied over and over again.
Now, I don’t actually like the idea of loosening the libel definition, but it seems like it could have real, material consequences. Amusingly though, the only people who seem to be seriously thinking about this are Republicans, because Trump is personally obsessed with the idea, and because both Trump and his followers don’t seem to grasp the maelstrom they’d be plunging their own outlets and platforms into.
The other thing you could do is either scrap, or at least drastically reform, Section 230—the law that says internet platforms like Twitter and Facebook are not legally responsible for the stuff people post on them. I think it’s fairly obvious that the algorithms these platforms use to push content and juice user engagement—leading to more views, revenues, and profits—have also accelerated rightwing radicalization. So you could just change the law to say that if platforms use algorithms to push content and engagement, they lose Section 230 protection. Basically, tell platforms that people’s feeds should only show the content they’ve chosen to follow, in the order that content was actually published.1
But again, I don’t get the impression that the people lamenting the hold of rightwing media on Trump voters are particularly interested in reforming Section 230. Most of the energy in that regard seems to be coming from camps like the American Economic Liberties Project, and folks like Steve Randy Waldman. And they all strike me as pretty sympathetic to the “economic anxiety” argument.
To get back to Yglesias one last time, I have my disagreements with his whole “popularism” project. But I do respect it. Because Yglesias strikes me as someone who’s genuinely trying to find a way out of a very nasty impasse. I think he’s wrong about the factual nature of the impasse. But I think he’s really trying to understand the impasse and, based on how the impasse works, figure a way out of it.
What bugs me progressive pessimism with regard to Trump voters is that most of the people expressing it aren’t like Yglesias. For all the supposed need to be “clear eyed,” that pessimism usually doesn’t enable a search for solutions. If it did, then by now it would’ve produced some ideas that are actionable and morally agreeable to most progressives. Instead, what we’ve actually been doing is… trying to get enough Democrats into office so that we can pass policies to make American voters’ lives materially better.
You Can’t Afford Nihilism When You’re Trying To Hit This Small a Target
Two final observations about the David Roberts tweet that set me off on this essay, both of which I think are indicative of how this larger debate generally goes.
First, there’s an imprecision around exactly what population we’re talking about. Roberts just says “the red states,” which implies all GOP voters, or at least a whole bunch of them. But the Republican Party contains a lot of tribes, giving Trump over 74 million votes in total last time. So what portion is unreachable? All? Half? A third? That some molten core of Trumpist ideologues are beyond anyone’s aid but God’s, I do not doubt. But if they’re only 25 percent of Republican voters, who cares? Plenty of GOP voters just like Trump, rather than love him, or simply prefer him to the current alternative options. And the Democrats only have to peel off some of those voters, depending on where those voters are located, to dramatically change their own presidential and congressional prospects.
The other thing Roberts’ tweet implied is that Biden’s economic agenda represents, as I put it, “the far maximal edge of what policy could do to improve people’s material circumstances.” When you call Bidenomics an experiment in whether public opinion is connected to material circumstances at all, you’re saying it will eliminate that variable. And again, I think this is a common refrain when people lament the cultish nature of Trump supporters: Look how far left the Democratic Party has moved on economics since the Obama era! If this doesn’t convince those voters, nothing will!
But Biden’s policies obviously don’t represent that far maximal edge. That Democrats’ economic agenda could move so dramatically leftwards since Obama, and still be pretty tepid compared to the scope of what’s possible, just shows how deep in the neoliberal hole the Party’s thinking has been. And what worries me—as much as I appreciate Greg Sargent’s cautious optimism—is that Democrats just haven’t done enough to make people’s lives better.
Now, I actually think Roberts would actually agree with this. (Everyone’s allowed to be a bit flippant on Twitter, or the WFKAT). But what’s important here is that there’s a big difference between policies that materially help voters in any old way, and policies that materially help voters in ways they can quickly recognize and attribute to particular political actors—policies that will both inspire voters’ trust and loyalty, and help them to engage more with politics, so that we can keep growing the coalition and move on to bigger and better things.
I think there’s a real science and objective, ecological, structural logic to identifying the policies that will do the second thing, and not just the first. As glad as I am to see the Democrats taking bigger swings, I don’t think they’re sufficiently attuned to that distinction. They’ve focused on pouring money into the economy in a grab bag of discreet ways, and encouraging an investment boom through tax credits. But most everyday voters probably aren’t going to trace the causal chain from Biden’s tax credits to a private company’s investments to the new job they just got.
Where are the job projects with Biden’s name plastered all over them? Are there checks going to people with Biden’s signature on them? The American Rescue Plan brought a dramatic expansion of the child tax credit, but it only lasted a year, and it still suffered from all the ways that distributing benefits via the opaqueness of the tax code knee-caps political movement building. The whole thing was just a massive missed opportunity. And given all that, I don’t think it’s surprising that Biden’s job approval on economic matters is still in the tank.2
I know Biden and much of the Democratic Party were willing to go bigger. And they really do face a lot of ridiculous structural barriers: the design and very existence of the Senate is insane; the filibuster is a ridiculous archaic deadweight dragging down American governance; Krysten Sinema and Joe Manchin are difficult, cantankerous sphinxes that almost single-handled held back a more expansive agenda.
I get it. But that’s also life. Shit is hard, and there are no prizes for almost saving the republic.
There are a number of policies that materially benefit Americans. Then there is the smaller number of policies that materially benefit them in ways that grab their attention, and build the mass movement to go even further. Then there’s the even smaller number of policies that do all that, and can slip through the gauntlet of structural barriers thrown up by America’s bizarrely-designed system of governance. It’s a small, precise target to hit. And it’s a big fucking boulder that will only start rolling very slowly, and we’re gonna have to push hard for a while before it picks up speed.
But that’s what Democrats, progressives, and the left gotta do. There’s simply no other option. That is something we need to be clear eyed about.
You could also throw conservatives a bone, and tell internet platforms that if they want Section 230’s protection, they have to follow the U.S. constitution’s free speech norms in terms of what they do and don’t censor. I think that would expand the coalition of support you’d get for the total legislative package—and it would also be the right thing to do on the merits.
I’d also add that there’s a distinction between between economic policies that actually build political coalitions, and general good management of the macroeconomy. And I do think there’s a good chance Biden and the Democrats will be vindicated on the second point. The big burst of inflation we say post-COVID is coming down, real wage growth is returning, unemployment is still very low. Biden still has plenty of time to benefit from voters’ good will, assuming those trends continue through 2024.