When reached for comment about the Democratic Party’s self-defeating quest to recapture the white Trump voter, Captain Ahab said: “Believe me, chasing white blowhards all over the map could cost the Democrats everything.”
Look, I get the obsession. I understand that it is difficult for Democrats, white Democrats especially, to believe that over 60 million Americans voted for an openly bigoted, misogynist lunatic because he was an openly bigoted, misogynist lunatic. They want to believe that these people were “tricked” or “misinformed” or “reacting to economic grievances.” Some of these people are in their families. Like Frodo talking to Gollum, they need to believe that these Trump voters can be educated, redeemed, or saved.
And they believe it’s smart electoral politics. If you could win back just a small percentage of these white Trump voters, you can maybe win back Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. You can put Ohio, Iowa, and Indiana back in play. If you could just get maybe 5 percent of these Trump people to be a little less racist this time, and nonwhites continue to dutifully vote for Democrats because they have no better options, then you’re looking at an electoral landslide.
The rewards of appealing to white Trump voters are so tantalizing that, evidently, some Democrats are willing to trample black and brown voters in order to chase them. These Democrats are willing to show up to the dance with minorities but will leave us at the bar if Becky is out on the floor looking lonely.
The Democratic Party rejected a debate to be televised on Fox News, but some Democratic candidates have decided to fill the void by holding town halls on the network. Bernie Sanders already has. Pete Buttigieg announced that he will. I won’t be surprised if Joe Biden shows up there at some point. I’m sure all the other 2020 candidates are considering it. The ones who do will say that they are trying to reach out to Trump voters on the only network they watch. Those candidates will talk about bridge building and big tents and other platitudes meant to disguise their desperate chase of the mythical racist with a heart of gold.
The problem is that Fox News is white-supremacist television. I know some people will have a problem with me putting it that way, probably because that’s what your dad watches all the time. But I challenge you to take the Black Turing Test: If I’m listening to Fox News from the last two or three years in one ear and modern white-supremacist propaganda in the other ear, how would I know the difference? What would be the tell to let me know I was listening to Tucker Carlson and not David Duke? If a reasonable black person can’t reliably distinguish between the two, then what’s the operative difference between them? One side really means it while the other is just saying it for ratings? Let me tell you, if the lynch mob comes for me, I won’t really care who’s just there for the ratio.
Being willing to engage with and legitimize this network and its audience, during the Trump era, feels like a slap in the face to me and all I’m fighting for. Fox News has invited me on the network too, and I haven’t gone on since it became Trump News Now because I refuse to engage with people who act as if kidnapping brown children is one policy choice among many. I know that other black people are cool with Democrats pandering to Fox News viewers. And I’ll admit that I’d probably be more inclined to give a pass (though still deeply disagree) to a minority candidate who decided to challenge them on their home turf. At least I’d believe that she was on there fighting for me, instead of flirting with my enemies.
Are there gettable white voters who watch Fox News? Probably. But one way you can tell the difference between those people and the “real” racists is that the gettable voters get information from places other than Fox News. The gettable ones read! The gettable ones participate in community activities instead of just watching TV all the time.
If you simply must appeal to white Trump voters, go find and talk to them when they are doing something other than receiving the white-grievance drip provided by Fox. Buttigieg is from Indiana, for God’s sake! If he wants to reach Trump voters, he just has to go down to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and start talking. He’ll find some of them there—a swath of Trump voters with nothing better to do than watch cars drive around in a circle. Go ahead, convince them.
If you can’t see the moral difference between trying to reach Trump voters and using Fox News to reach Trump voters, perhaps the economic issue will be more obvious. Without getting too much into the weeds of how media works, (here’s a good thread on it if you are interested) you need to understand that right now is what used to be called sweeps for the networks. Fox News is currently trying to sell the ads that will sustain it through most of 2020. Much work has been done by progressives to put pressure on advertisers to stop buying ads on this network.
These town halls by Democrats desperate to appeal to Trump voters are undoing much of that work. People have been trying to put Fox News on the ropes and in danger of missing its numbers. Fox News isn’t reaching out to Democratic candidates based on a newfound commitment to present both sides of political debate. It’s reaching out to hit a rating and show its advertisers that it’s a legitimate news network. Fox News isn’t in danger of going away, but applying economic pressure to make the network resist its white-supremacist tendencies has been a long-term goal of many activists. The Democratic candidates who go on are blowing up a lot of that grassroots effort, throwing Fox News a lifeline while others have been trying to set it adrift.
Every moment a Democrat spends trying to do Fox News a solid and appeal to a white Trump voter in Ohio is a moment that candidate is not spending invigorating progressive grassroots and inspiring a black woman in Georgia. I promise you, the Democratic primary is not going to be won on the strength of white turnout in Iowa; it’s going to be won by inspiring black voters in South Carolina and Latinx voters in Nevada.
These people going on Fox News now will remember that before the end. They’ll spend all this time playing footsie with Trump voters, talking about how “all lives matter,” and giving back rubs to police chiefs all across America. Then, two days before the primary, they’ll come crawling back to my phone, talking about how I have to get out and vote and bring a friend. When I text back, “Go jump in a lake,” they’ll think me an unsophisticated voter who was probably always going to just vote for the black candidate anyway.
Whatever. I’ll vote for the Democratic nominee in the general election, whoever that turns out to be. Enthusiastically, given who the person will be running against. I’m a black man in America, having to pick the least awful white person is the choice this country gives me, more often than not.