I drafted this piece last year, but didn't publish it. I hoped it would become out of date before the next election cycle. Because it isn't, I am publishing it now.
Timothy Egan wrote a provocative piece called “What if Steve Bannon Is Right?” In it, he quoted the parting words of the much-reviled presidential adviser: “I want [the Democrats] to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
Now no Democrat, or person who wants the Democrats to win, wants to think that Steve Bannon is right about anything. He’s certainly not right about race! But no matter how far I go in the world, it’s impossible to get away from the U.S.A. and what happened in the 2016 election. And I do think it was about “the economy, stupid.”
Like many people characterized as liberals and progressives, I have been guilty of sound bites implying that the election, and its aftermath, was about one thing. Racism, misogyny, evangelicals. And I don’t want to make that mistake again. Nor do I want to ignore other countries; it’s just that Canada, for example, is more liberal (in the classical sense) than most other countries right now, though not if the provincial government of Ontario has anything to say about it.
But I do think that if those who resist Tweeter and his agenda want to defeat it at the polls, they (we) need to be political about it, and that means thinking about what really works. It has become common to assume that everything he says is wrong, and that is a dangerous assumption. During the campaign Tweeter occasionally said something true that no rival candidate had said, and it worked wonders for him.
Unless you watched the Republican primary debates you probably don’t remember this, but there was a moment when Tweeter ridiculed Jeb Bush—who was once thought most likely to become the Republican candidate—for the George W. Bush “war on terror.” This was politically unthinkable. Never speak ill of another Republican, was the Reagan rule. (Of course Tweeter wasn’t a “real” Republican, like Bernie Sanders wasn’t a “real” Democrat. So what? In 2016 that didn't matter.)
But Tweeter saying the unspeakable resonated with people, because in this case, it was true. George W. Bush started the pointless war in Iraq and the endless war in Afghanistan, and most pertinently, was president on September 11, 2001. Even Tweeter wouldn’t try blaming Obama for September 11.
The moment Tweeter ridiculed Jeb Bush’s claim that “my brother kept us safe” was the moment we should have known that Bush, another neoliberal, would not after all be running against Clinton for the presidency. And the moment the G.O.P. failed to nominate a neoliberal was the moment the election was theirs.
It’s confusing because of the way Americans use the term liberal, but neoliberalism is the economic ideology dominant since the Carter administration. It would not have been possible for Hillary Clinton to distance herself from neoliberalism, given that Bill Clinton and every other president, Democratic or Republican, espoused it. Benjamin Studebaker wrote in January 2016: “[I]f this is the year when the voting public decides that it’s done with neoliberalism, the party that nominates a neoliberal candidate will likely lose.”
I have heard some Democrats still attacking Senator Sanders almost as if he were as bad as Tweeter. Blaming him and his “progressives” for everything. On the contrary, Sanders was, or should have been, Democrats’ canary in the coal mine.
If pointing out how outrageously Tweeter treats veterans and military families worked, the Khan family story would have sunk him. If pointing out misogyny worked, the p*ssy grabber scandal would have.
Nothing did. He won the election not by getting more votes but by winning the upper Midwest. States like Michigan, where Bernie Sanders “shocked” everybody by winning the Democratic primary.
The voting public in the states that counted did decide in 2016 that they were done with economic stagnation. They voted for Sanders in the Democratic primary and when that didn’t work, they voted Tweeter into the Oval Office.
Now lest I be misunderstood, I am not repeating the “white working class” theory. As has been widely reported, a larger proportion of well-off white Americans voted for Tweeter than white working people. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes provocatively that white identity is what propelled Tweeter to victory. I don’t dispute that this is true; I am questioning whether it is helpful.
The fact is that calling Tweeter racist didn’t work. And calling his supporters racist certainly isn’t working now. It should be impossible for a racist to win the presidency, but clearly it isn’t; race-baiting has worked many times before (Willie Horton, anyone?) I am as discouraged at anyone else if Coates is right, but the voters he is talking about do not hear the same things that we hear as racist dog whistling.
When they hear “Make America Great Again,” they do not think of the 1950s as a dystopia. Make no mistake—for many Americans, black and gay for instance, it was. But that is not the dystopia that Tweeter supporters imagine. They are thinking of the dystopia whereby San Francisco software developers live on hills so that “homeless” do not crawl in front of their self-driving cars.
I heard from such people on my travels as well. It was shocking. The have-have not gap is getting wider in many parts of the world, and that is what drives economic fear and insecurity.
I do not mean to suggest that racism is not a problem, or that we shouldn’t protest it, or talk about it. But to quote my friend Scott King, if we fight the next election on “gay sex, ‘lazy’ Puerto Ricans, and kneeling football players,” we are on Tweeter’s ground. He and Bannon and the rest of the white supremacists want us to lose.
Hillary Clinton has often been characterized as more careful than honest, but when she made her “deplorables” comment the opposite was the case. It was politically unwise for her to make that statement; that doesn’t make it untrue. But Clinton didn’t lose in states like Tennessee, where Republicans would have won no matter who or what they nominated. She lost in states like Michigan.
In The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett show how deepening economic inequality drives all kinds of problems in societies. Even the appalling level of gun violence in the U.S. is linked to its high levels of inequality, although we tend to speak of the gun issue as though it were about philosophical differences around the Second Amendment. The fact is, when economically insecure voters in Michigan voted for the non-neoliberal (i.e., against Hillary Clinton), they were fearing the dystopia of greater and greater economic inequality. That was the only common area between the egalitarian Sanders and the nationalist Tweeter. Sanders, and I would have thought most Democrats, want healthcare for all Americans; Tweeter wants to take away what Affordable Care they have.
And the dystopia they fear is more likely to come true than the one we fear.
We should all fear it. None of us should desire a world in which fewer and fewer people have meaningful work. Even those who design “apps” for a living have to live with the rest of us. It is entirely possible that there will be fewer and fewer jobs for people and more and more wealth concentrated at the top of the economic food chain.
Tweeter won because he said the right things about domestic air conditioning plants and September 11 and China. The fact that he hasn’t done anything about factory jobs, and the fact that no president probably could, does not change the fact that that’s why he won the electoral votes he needed.
About the only thing I agree with his supporters about is that China is a rival to the U.S. This should be bleedingly obvious, but president after president before him had told us China was a strategic partner. Traveling across Africa makes it abundantly clear that China, not the U.S., is invested in the continent. The U.S. stopped being interested in investing in Africa when no longer engaged in a proxy Cold War. Now, I don’t think there’s a country in Africa where the Chinese aren’t building roads and railroad lines. They may not be doing it to the standards we’d wish, but they are there! As far as Africans are concerned, China is not the superpower of the future; it is the world’s superpower.
And does anyone seriously believe that North Korea’s nutcase, Kim, could point nuclear missiles at the U.S.A if China didn’t want him to? Again, that doesn’t mean Tweeter is doing anything about China, and it certainly doesn’t excuse his lack of diplomacy, which risks the lives of millions if not billions of people. He and Kim are both sociopaths who couldn’t care less about any human being besides themselves. But that doesn’t make everything he says about China false.
Egan's piece reiterates that "racial resentment was the strongest predictor of whether a voter would flip from supporting a thoughtful, intelligent Democrat to a boorish, mentally unstable Republican." It's real, and Tweeter said and continues to say demonstrably racist things--and that wasn't enough to defeat him. “As long as Democrats fail to understand this," Bannon said, "they will continue to lose."
It sucks. Racism should be enough to sink a candidate in America, and it still isn't. But unless the Democrats, and opposition parties in countries with similar problems, make a serious effort to avert the threat of economic dystopia, they will continue to lose. And deserve to.