Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Asking Trump Supporters What They Think

When discussing elites I said I considered the connection between racism and thinking with your gut to be accidental. I hardly even mentioned racism in my last post about an unjust society leading to a certain kind of person being ready to accept anything that is presented as a solution.

But obviously racism is a huge part of what is going on with Trumpism and with Kellie Leitch in Canada, as well as with far right governments all over Europe. Dylan Matthews at Vox has a piece about how if we are going to take Trump's followers seriously, we need to take their word for it that they are racist. Most media narratives are about economic problems, but extensive interviews with Trump supporters don't seem to bear narratives those out.

Matthews has the following to say about projecting economic motives onto Trump supporters:
Insisting, as many journalists have, that his supporters aren’t voting for the white nationalist candidate because they agree with him on race seems like a way to be charitable to those voters. But the idea that voters are motivated by economic struggles and so are voting for a candidate who would make their economic situation far worse is much more insulting than accepting they are uncomfortable with racial equality.
This has an air of truthiness to it. We should respect other people enough to listen to them when they tell us something really odious about themselves. But I'd like to stop and consider the following: How much do you trust yourself to know why you are doing what you are doing?

Strangely, many people will say they trust themselves a lot to know why they are doing what they are doing. I say, "strangely," because I would think we'd all have the opportunity to know better. I don't trust myself to understand my own motivations very well. And when you talk to people who aren't you you get to add in a hundred other factors that might confuse the idea they are expressing. Basically, taking other people's word for what they think and feel isn't respectful, it is dumb. Taking their word as a data point that can be used to make a best guess about what they think and feel is respectful.

And when it comes to Trump supporters the idea of listening to their words to find out what they think is transparently senseless. These are people who say that Trump is definitely going to win and that Clinton is definitely going to steal the election by cheating. If you think you simultaneously think that: 1) they are inconsistent and illogical; and 2) that you can put together a consistent view of their thoughts by taking their word for it; then you might be just as good at compartmentalizing as they are.

When my four-year-old has a meltdown near bedtime, it is usually about being tired or hungry rather than what she says it is about. I don't say this to infantilize Trump supporters, but rather to infantilize all humans including myself. We are not so much smarter or more in tune with ourselves than we were when we were four.

Some of the factors used to discredit the economic argument are very poorly thought out. Trump supporters are wealthier, less likely to be unemployed than the average of the people who live around them. They themselves are doing okay. But the places where they are living are not doing all that okay.

Back in March, during the primaries, The Washington Post printed a piece on the relationship between white death rates and support for Trump. It also cited a few other things that were correlated with Trump support in a county: fewer people working, fewer bachelor's degrees, and a decline in manufacturing jobs. I did the numbers myself to check is state support for Trump is correlated to suicide rate, the correlation was only about 0.25 so I'm not going to make a big deal of it, but the graph has this distinct upward-slope look to it, with Vermont's unusually high suicide rate sticking out in the lower right:

The two data sets - one showing that Trump supporters are largely doing fine and one showing that Trump supporters live in areas that are not doing fine - are only at odds because we have a strong cultural bias to think about everything in terms of what is in it for the individual. But we know that Trump supporters lean heavily authoritarian, and looking for selfish decision making in authoritarian followers makes little to no sense. Lack of work leads to support for Trump even though Trump supporters are more likely to have work in the same way that white death rates lead to Trump support even though Trump supporters are highly likely to be alive.

In order to support Trump you have to be basically okay with his racism or compartmentalize that from your other positions. The fact that we know people are great at the latter makes it strange to conclude the former.

The problem with authoritarian followers isn't that they are bad on the inside, it is that they will do bad things at the drop of the right person's hat. It isn't that the majority of people who support Trump want to live in a world where white people are given advantages over black people or Americans given advantages over Mexicans. Many actively deplore the idea that they would get ahead in a way that is fundamentally unfair. But in the name of a leader who says Mexicans are the problem, they will be violent towards Mexicans. In the name of a leader who says we need more police killing instead of less, they will cheer on police murder. If a leader came along who said we needed to round up all the authoritarians, they would join the posse to round themselves up.

To be clear, I am not saying that Trump supporters are not racist or that they are not more racist than those who don't support Trump. They are probably a lot more prone than average to in-group, out-group distinctions and to looking after people who are "like them" while leaving others to look after themselves. But if their communities seem healthy, that in-group, out-group distinction takes on a much more live-and-let-live character. Dissipating this isn't about getting jobs for Trump supporters, it is about caring for the people who live in their neighborhoods, or the next neighborhoods over. If characterizing a group as both altruistic and racist sounds contradictory, then you need to go meet more people.

So I think the idea that somehow we have to "honestly acknowledge" that the concerns of Trump's supporters are heavily about race as a starting place for a discussion is silly. Trying to address the raced based rationalizations for anxiety will have predictable and depressing effects, much like acquiescing to that tired four-year-old. Give Trump supporters everything they are asking for and they will end up confused and upset, asking for something else entirely and angrier than ever.

When it come to Trump and racism, what we do need to acknowledge is that the effect of Trump's campaign will be more hateful words, more open discrimination in workplaces and housing options, and racist violence. It's those effects we have to worry about.

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