Listen, Liberal White Guy

“Disenfranchised white men”? Is that even a thing?

The past two days have spawned endless analyses of the presidential election. I’ve heard and read dozens, mostly from progressives trying to figure out where “we” went wrong. A fine example was published yesterday in The Guardian, Thomas Frank’s essayDonald Trump is moving to the White House, and liberals put him there.” (Frank is the author of What’s Wrong with Kansas? and Listen Liberal.)

Like virtually everyone to the left of Trump, Frank asks:

What the hell went wrong? What species of cluelessness guided our Democratic leaders as they went about losing what they told us was the most important election of our lifetimes?

His answer also echoes that given by almost everyone:

Start at the top. Why, oh why, did it have to be Hillary Clinton? Yes, she has an impressive resume; yes, she worked hard on the campaign trail. But she was exactly the wrong candidate for this angry, populist moment. An insider when the country was screaming for an outsider. A technocrat who offered fine-tuning when the country wanted to take a sledgehammer to the machine.

My first response to that is to roll my eyes as yet another man blames Hillary Clinton for everything. Thanks, liberal white guy who lives in Washington. Also, thanks to all you other liberal white guys who live in major metropolitan areas in blue states. Without you reminding us, we might forget that it’s always the woman’s fault.

My second response is to want to ask Mr. Frank if he seriously believes that Trump voters are raging against the machine. That they are expressing some authentic populist anger, rejecting “politics as usual” in favor of some revolutionary, um, something?

My third response is to wonder if Mr. Frank has ever met a Trump voter. Seriously. Have you? More on this later.

But back to Hillary-blaming. After expressing his appreciation for the hypothetical sledgehammer of the Trumpians, Frank continues:

The American white-collar class just spent the year rallying around a super-competent professional (who really wasn’t all that competent) and either insulting or silencing everyone who didn’t accept their assessment. And then they lost. Maybe it’s time to consider whether there’s something about shrill self-righteousness, shouted from a position of high social status, that turns people away.

There are so many things wrong with this, I’m going to have to do this in steps.

1. “The American white-collar class.” Check the facts, Mr. Frank. White professionals (especially men) overwhelmingly voted for Trump. The Nation just ran an article summarizing that, by Monica Potts. The article is worth reading, but the short version is that this was not a case of affluent pro-Clinton whites against pro-Trump poor people. Rich white folks voted Republican, and “people who made below $50,000 voted for the Democrats.”

2. Hillary Clinton “really wasn’t all that competent.” This seems obviously wrong to me, and he offers no evidence. The evidence of her academic and professional record suggests a surfeit of competence – in the neighborhood of two or three times that of the men we’ve elected president in recent elections, which is about the bar for women having to succeed in anything.

3. “Insulting or silencing everyone who didn’t accept their assessment.” This also has no supporting evidence. Examples? I have plenty of examples of insulting and silencing committed by Trump supporters. We all do. But hey, they’re angry white guys. Locker room talk, and all.

4. “Shrill self-righteousness.” Women can read between the lines, but I’ll translate for the guys in the room. This means “Shut up, bitch.”

To sum up Mr. Frank’s argument, the rise of Trump is due to shrill and affluent liberals who insulted Trump supporters instead of “trying to understand what motivated them.”

Okay, about what motivates them. I have learned something from living in the South for over 20 years. Among other things, I am virtually certain that I know a lot more Trump voters than Thomas Frank does. They are my neighbors and coworkers, the people who stand in line with me at the grocery store, on occasion (but not very often) my students. I have yet to meet a single one who wants “to take a sledgehammer to the machine” – unless that’s the secret white guy code for “grab them by the pussy.”

I hope Mr. Frank will let me know when I get close to understanding the motivations of these disenfranchised white guys. In the meantime, I want to tell him a little story. I live in north central Florida, in a blue county in the heart of the deep red deep South. On Tuesday, I volunteered as an election monitor with Election Protection, a non-partisan group that works to protect voting rights. I was assigned, by coincidence, to my own precinct, in a diverse part of town which election watchers had identified as a place that angry populists might want to visit – presumably to show their sledgehammers and make sure that the machine didn’t vote the wrong way. My partner was my friend and colleague Vasudha, a U.S. citizen born in India.

It's a mistake to think understanding Trump supporters is the most urgent task facing liberals. Your most important job right now is to help the people who are being attacked.

Shortly after we took up our post, a white guy drove up in a big shiny pickup. (Sorry to digress, but those things are expensive! Economic disenfranchisement must be working out all right for him). The white guy took some time to run two giant Trump flags up the flag poles he had carried in the back of his populist pickup. Once he finished that, he noticed that Vasu and I were speaking with a young African-American woman who had been turned away from the poll. She had been told that she wasn’t on the list, even though she had registered at the same time and address as her fiancé, who had been able to vote, and also been canvassed by volunteers who showed her a print-out listing her as registered to vote at her current address in our precinct.

As we were talking with her, Trump Man came over and asked what we were doing. I said, “We are helping this woman exercise her right to vote. What are you doing?” He glared at Vasu and said “I’m here as a U.S. citizen.” We told him thanks, but we didn’t need his help. And then – Mr. Frank, I hope you listen carefully, because I know you really want to know what motivates these people – and then this happened.

He stared at me and said, “You have a stain on your pants.” Because I live in a fact-based universe, I looked down at my ankles, which frequently do have bicycle grease stains.

He said, “No. Between your legs.”

Mr. Frank, perhaps you are thinking: “Way to take a sledgehammer to the machine, angry populist!”

But he didn’t smash the machine. He took his sledgehammer to three smart, articulate women, black, Asian, and white. And what he smashed was not “the system” but our physical and psychic security.

Since the election, reports are coming in fast and furious from people who are also being verbally assaulted by Trump supporters. And guess what? They are not yelling “Take down the machine!” to rich white guys. They are shouting “nigger” and “cunt.” At people who are not white and/or guys.

I’d say that they are empowered by Trump’s victory, but they have always had power. Black people and brown people have always known this, immigrants and religious minorities and queer people have always known this. Women have always, always known this. We have always been the victims, and we have always been the liberals. And Donald Trump is Not. Our. Fault.

Mr. Frank, you might be thinking that I am oversimplifying. That I don’t understand the nuance and complexity of this situation, that I am unable to see the big picture, that I am lumping all Trump voters together, that they are not all deplorable, blah blah blah. And even if you don’t think those things, Mr. Frank, then I can tell you that a lot of my progressive friends (mostly white guys, sorry) think them and are saying them.

Listen, liberal white guys: I am an academic. Complexity and nuance are my business. I know there’s no single or simple explanation for what happened. But right now it is a mistake to think that understanding Trump supporters is the most urgent task facing liberals. Your most important job right now is to help the people who are being attacked. And to recognize that they are being attacked by Trump supporters who feel that they have been given free reign to say nigger, to grab women, to paint swastikas, to pull off hijabs, and to tell Latino children that they are going to be sent away. They are doing all that, right now, and if you do not believe that it is your responsibility to help these vulnerable people, then you are not a progressive or a liberal. Or, sorry, a decent human being. And if you think you, in your safe white guy place, have the right to lecture us about understanding these people and empathizing with them, then you’re just another guy with power who thinks that victims always have the responsibility for understanding the problem and fixing it.

This afternoon I attended a gathering of scores of students, staff, and faculty at my university to “process” our responses to the election. Latina and Latino students cried as they talked about their fear for their families. A queer man cried as he explained that he was no longer allowed to talk to his young nephews – not for being gay, but for voting for Clinton. And I got brave and told the room about what had happened at my polling place. And almost everyone cried. And nodded. Because we all knew exactly what that felt like. To be shamed for being female or black, Spanish speaking or Muslim, queer or trans.

We know the feeling of fear and rejection in our bodies and our hearts, and that, Mr. Frank, is what the Trump “movement” wants to crush with a sledgehammer. The bodies, the hearts, the pride, not of smug liberals living in big cities, but of people who challenge their power. They aren’t going to take it out on you, Mr. Frank, because you’re a white guy and you live in Washington, and you can sit in your office and blame Hillary, blame smug liberals, blame the people who didn’t offer enough sympathy to the poor disenfranchised white men. (Did I just write that? “Disenfranchised white men”? Is that even a thing?)

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