If I were Bernie Sanders, I wouldn’t tout my desire to appeal to Trump voters. Perhaps I cannot conduct the multivariable calculus required to run a presidential campaign, but the argument that “some of the very worst people you know might also find me acceptable” strikes me as bad. I wouldn’t put that bumper sticker on my car.
But Sanders, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2020, is going for it. At his CNN town-hall event, Sanders said that his campaign would go into “Trump Country” and “talk to those people” and “expose Trump.”
He’s not lying about his intentions. Since 2016, Sanders has been seen in the usual suspect states for a presidential hopeful, but has also made stops and stumped for candidates in Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Texas, and West Virginia.
I don’t think that Sanders’s policy ideas are unrealistic or unfeasible. No agenda that seriously addresses climate change should be dismissed as “impractical” if we want to avoid climate disasters of our own making. Any agenda that makes Howard Schultz consider humiliating himself for our amusement should be taken seriously.
But the idea of running the Democratic primary in a way that appeals to Trump Country is dangerous. Centering yet another presidential election around the “economic grievances” of selfish white people is just about the dumbest thing the Democratic Party could do. Resting your path to victory on convincing Trump supporters who are historically resistant to facts is folly. I’d rather Sanders, Cory Booker, and all the other “Trump voters aren’t racist, they’re confused” candidates just promise every Trump voter 40 acres and a mule—and tell them Mexico will pay for it.
There’s scant evidence that economic grievance motivated the Trump voter. The media have searched high and low for the statistical signature of unaddressed economic grievance that was supposed to explain why 60 million Americans voted for a bigoted, misogynist con man, and they’ve come up empty. Economically distressed voters broke for Hillary Clinton, Wall voters broke for Trump. In study after study what’s been found is that racial resentment propelled Trump to victory, something nearly every black person told you when we were moved to tears on Election Night 2016.
Oh, but you have this “friend” who is “totally not racist” but voted for Trump to shake things up. Sorry to be the 1,000,000th person to break it to you, but, statistically speaking, your friend is lying to you. Having a “black friend” or “black employee” doesn’t prove anything, Mark Meadows. Racists are about as self-aware of their own racism as a yappy chihuahua is at knowing it is small.
Oh, but what about the people who voted for Obama and then for Trump? Sorry, voting for Obama doesn’t make you “not a racist” if you follow that up by supporting a person who questions whether Obama is even an American, campaigns on a platform of racial divisiveness, and then shuts down the government to carry out his racist promises.
Oh, but what about the black and Latinx people who voted for Trump, are they racist too? Yes. Absolutely. What white nonsense to think that black and Latinx communities can’t be extremely racist towards each other, new immigrants, Muslims, and other non-Christians?
You show me a Trump voter who is truly in their heart not racist and committed to a justice system that treats whites and nonwhites equally, and I’ll show you… a sexist, misogynist jerk who just couldn’t bring himself to vote for a woman.
None of that means that Bernie Sanders is wrong when he says he thinks he can get Trump voters to support his agenda. Sanders has no evidence that Trump voters aren’t racist or sexist or both, but he has a ton of evidence that those racist and sexist people prefer him to other possible Trump challengers. A study after the election showed that a potentially decisive number of Trump voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania were “disaffected Sanders voters” who went with Trump over Clinton.
Again, I wouldn’t be nearly as proud of that as Sanders seems to be. The fact that a bunch of racist people picked you or Trump, but not a woman, is not a feather in your cap, it’s an indictment of the people you now intend to campaign for.
Once you take away the argument that Sanders-to-Trump voters were motivated by “policies” (which you must take away, since there is no evidence those voters were motivated by policies, and in any event Hillary Clinton’s policies were much closer to Sanders’s than Donald Trump’s policies were), you’re left with the old saw “it was an anti-establishment vote.”
Which leads you right back to the racial and gendered resentment underlying the whole thing. The “establishment,” circa-2016, was represented by a black man and a white woman. Both Trump and Sanders campaigns could be read as promising to put a white man “back on top,” where he always thinks he belongs. Trump was doing that explicitly. For my part, I don’t think Sanders was trying to deliver that message, but it doesn’t take a leaping inference to see that’s the message a lot of these Trump voters took. When Sanders talked about health care for all to people who were voting to reject health care given to them by a black man, and those anti-“Obama-care” white people suddenly lapped it up, I knew what I was seeing.
Sanders could save his appeal to Trump Country for the general election, but he’s making it now before the primaries even start in earnest. Why? Is it because so many white liberal Democratic primary voters have parents and relations who voted for Trump?
I think so. I think y’all need to believe that your friends and loved ones can be brought back from evil, just like Frodo needed to believe that Gollum wasn’t totally lost to the Ring’s thrall. You can try to wrap it up in a package of “electability” as much as you want, but I see you. I’ve seen your face when I call Trump voters “racist” and you realize I’m talking about your mom.
All the other Democratic candidates are trying to tread lightly around your racist and sexist family, too. They differ about how hard they intend to hit Trump himself, but all of them are trying to “go high” when it comes to the… deplorable humans who have installed him in power.
Sanders didn’t invent this game. Sanders is just the most prominent white man in the race right now, and so he gets to be “best-positioned,” according to many media types, for winning over Trump voters, without any serious reflection as to why. If Biden gets in, they’ll talk about how he can appeal to Trump Country. But you don’t hear a lot of analysis about how Kamala Harris’s path to the nomination needs to include Trump Country. I wonder why.
Since Sanders is the front-runner among those who have announced, and the money leader, he can totally make this primary about the Trump voter, if he wants to.
But it seems to me that inspiring the 100 million people who couldn’t be bothered to vote—or weren’t allowed to vote—in the 2016 election is a better strategy than appealing to the 60 million people who were so inspired by the chance to vote for a pussy-grabbing bigot that they got all the way off the couch and trundled down to the polls. Sanders actually has one of the better arguments for how to do that, given his appeal with young voters. I’d rather he campaign for them instead of trying to convince Trump voters they’re backing a fraud.
The 2016 electorate was the most diverse in history, yet Hillary Clinton underperformed Barack Obama from 2012 with African-American voters, Latinx voters, and Asian-American voters. Maybe instead of going to Trump Country, Democrats could go to “black Twitter”? Maybe taking on voter suppression in Georgia is a little bit more important than taking on the wealthy Duck Dynasty class in Louisiana? Maybe pandering to Asian-Americans in Virginia is a better bet than pandering to people infuriated by their SAP buttons in West Virginia?
But, like I said, I’m bad at math. Maybe white votes in Ann Arbor count more than nonwhite ones in Detroit?
So, by all means, go forth into Trump Country. Print your “Democrats: Slightly Less Racist Than the Other Guys” bumper stickers. It’s not like Democrats need enthusiastic black and brown turnout to win national elections, right? I’ll probably still be here for you after you spend a year and a half looking at the white voters who want to destroy me the way Bradley Cooper looks at Lady Gaga.
You’ll have my vote, eventual Democrat nominee. If you intend to make this election about pissed off white people, you’re really going to need it.