Progressives Helped Create Donald Trump (And We Have To Clean Up Our Mess)

By opposing Trump supporters without educating them or attempting to understand their perceptions of injustice, we will have done nothing to treat the underlying condition; and, like a few cells of cancer infecting a small area of the body, prejudice and ignorance will consume our nation.
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New York, NY USA - July 16, 2016: Donald Trump speaks during introduction Governor Mike Pence as running for vice president at Hilton hotel Midtown Manhattan
New York, NY USA - July 16, 2016: Donald Trump speaks during introduction Governor Mike Pence as running for vice president at Hilton hotel Midtown Manhattan

Progressives, face it, Donald Trump is our fault.

In a speech on Friday, President Obama rightly claimed that Republican elected officials stood by silently as conspiracy theorists riled up the party's base and gave birth to the Trump candidacy. But we share some of the blame.

In the wake of the 2008 Democratic victory, we neglected millions of Americans and wrote them off as a declining fringe in U.S. politics. People in safely red states and districts tried to tell us they were hurting, but we weren't listening. So they found the loudest, most obnoxious voice on television to send as an emissary. Trump is not a fringe; neither are the prejudices of the Republican base supporting his candidacy. That is the reality progressives must face, even if Hillary Clinton wins her bid for the presidency.

Trump's candidacy for the nation's highest political office is a fever, an outward symptom of a much greater illness. Poverty, prejudice, and ignorance have continued to grow like a congenital cancer in the body politic of the United States for decades after President Lyndon Johnson declared them enemies of democracy. The violent bigotry seen over the past year-and-a-half as Trump has ascended to the head of the Republican Party is a manifestation of the cancerous tumors we have left untreated while the nation marched resolutely toward equality and opportunity for all. For the world's greatest experiment in representative democracy to survive, we must come together to treat the disease, not just break the fever. To be sure, Trump's candidacy must fail; but that is only the first step down a long road to recovery.

Recovery can only begin if we all admit the nation is suffering.

For the millions of men and women who support Trump's candidacy, this admission means confessing that the man they support and the ideas many of them propagate are inconsistent with core American values: freedom, equality, and democracy. Vilification of an entire religion undermines religious freedom for all people. Equating millions of immigrants and their descendants with murderers and rapists stokes discrimination. Threatening to go to war if a presidential candidate loses, as many Trump supporters have, violates the very essence of what made American democracy great to begin with--the idea that transitions of power can occur peacefully. And calling for politically motivated prosecution and incarceration of a political opponent, as Trump recently did, is the kind behavior one expects from a dictator in a banana republic, not the leader of the free world.

But blame for the rise of Donald Trump's candidacy and the toxic rhetoric embraced by his supporters lies squarely upon the shoulders of the progressive political class--myself included. I speak not to Trump supporters but to my fellow Democrats and progressives who will, I hope, be leading this country through the next four years of growth and recovery.

Progressives, we must admit that we neglected to answer pleas from the millions of people who live between the coasts (primarily in rural areas) and have continued to suffer despite our best efforts to stimulate recovery from the 2008 economic collapse. It panged me to read a September 2016 Politico article assessing the anxiety that President Obama's aides and Clinton's campaign staff felt as the Trump campaign gained steam: "[M]aybe the country isn't what they thought, maybe the resistance to Obamacare and gay marriage and the progress they're so proud of is broader than the vocal fringe they've always dismissed." For anyone who has spent any amount of time listening to average men and women in the middle of the country, it has been clear for years that racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and prejudice are mainstream. Too many progressives who live in the Beltway and on the coasts readily wrote off the Tea Party and Trump candidacy as sideshows, a "vocal fringe." Doing so disenfranchised the political voices of millions of American voters and allowed progressive minds to retreat to the safety of their own philosophical echo chambers. We largely abandoned any ground game in safely Republican states, and we were wrong for that.

Shortly after I moved from New York City, where I worked for a progressive civil rights organization, to Louisiana, where I went to law school, a local paper reported years of unconstitutional anti-gay sting operations by local police in Baton Rouge, the state capital. A year later, the same newspaper reported that another police department in the same city had been enforcing the same unconstitutional anti-gay-sex law. This was in 2013 and 2015.

In 2013, Duck Dynasty patriarch (and now Trump supporter) Phil Robertson made headlines for saying that gays are "full of murder, envy, strife, hatred. They are insolent, arrogant, God-haters. They are heartless, they are faithless, they are senseless, they are ruthless." The response I saw on television, news, and social media was to insult Robertson, get him (temporarily) taken off air, and treat his statement as nothing more than a throwback to the Jim Crow era. I wrote in Huffington Post that December, "America, you seem to be writing him off as just another racist, homophobic redneck. Maybe for those of us who are living or have lived on the coasts, it's easier to write off bigots as holdovers from days long past than to consider that they are very much products of the present . . . [Robertson] is the rule here in Louisiana, not the exception."

Phil Robertson's hauntingly violent diatribe was not the voice of a fringe leader. He was the voice of the police. He is the voice of Trump supporters and, according to reports, even has the candidate's ear. Robertson and others like him are not just anachronisms from days long past. They are part of the fabric of white America. I pray my plea for us to treat the bigotry and prejudice that plagues our country does not again fall on deaf ears.

To treat the cancer, we must first identify its origins. Prejudice, poverty, and ignorance have always been part of American culture. We made great strides toward equality during and shortly after the Civil Rights Movement, but the cancer has remained just below the surface in this country. As the United States has progressed toward better civil rights protections for women and minorities, a more open and inclusive social sphere, and better opportunities for all people, whites in the South, Midwest, and Western states have been, to some degree, neglected by the governing class. I've watched this from the inside. Colleagues on the coasts, in government and public interest, wrote off the Tea Party as a fringe group of white racists reacting to the election of the first Black president. A year-and-a-half ago, colleagues and the governing class wrote off Donald Trump's candidacy as the lunacy of a megalomaniac celebrity. Today a Tea Party member is the Speaker of the U.S. House, and Trump sits atop the party of Lincoln.

Our progressive hubris, self-righteousness, and the euphoria of victory allowed us to push aside the pain felt by millions of our fellow countrymen. Donald Trump's presidential campaign brought us back to reality and brought the real pain of millions to the surface.

What is at the core of Trump supporters' pain?

Many people, particularly lower-class whites, believe the country is leaving them behind economically and socially. In many ways, it is.

Corporate agriculture and economies of scale have decimated the small family farms that used to provide a decent living for people across the United States. The oil, gas, and coal industries that, a generation ago, allowed men like my uncle to comfortably send three daughters to college are sputtering as the world awakens to the threat of global climate change and cleaner energy becomes cheaper to produce. Air transportation and digital communication made the world much smaller and allowed blue-collar employers to move operations overseas where they can exploit cheap labor and pad the corporate coffers no matter the cost to Americans or the people who work in deplorable conditions overseas. Between the 1950s and 2010s, lower skilled jobs in manufacturing and agriculture collapsed. The economic depression Barack Obama inherited from George W. Bush only hastened the exodus of decent manufacturing jobs and worsened the economic plight of millions. When Obama's recovery began, many men and women--particularly those in rural areas--did not see the return of the livelihoods they had lost.

While it is true that to the privileged, equality feels like oppression, these men and women do not perceive their privilege. Many poor whites, including people I have known since childhood, did what society told them to do to succeed socially and economically. They graduated high school. They went to college. They got a degree. But when they returned home, there were no jobs. There were no opportunities. They looked around and saw that opportunities for women and minorities had broadened, and, being human, many of them began to assign blame for their competitive disadvantages. For many, blame rested on those variables that were different from the variables when their parents entered the workforce--minorities, women, and the progressives in Washington seemed to be doing jobs that used to be done by white men. Expanded opportunity, many poor whites concluded, was the result of favoritism and hand-outs to minorities. It is our duty to help these people understand not only that their conclusions are wrong but also why their conclusions are wrong.

By opposing Trump supporters without educating them or attempting to understand their perceptions of injustice, we will have done nothing to treat the underlying condition; and, like a few cells of cancer infecting a small area of the body, prejudice and ignorance will consume our nation.

Trump supporters' social pain is, perhaps, less sympathetic and harder to diagnose. On the east and west coasts, we take diversity for granted. In New York City, people ride the subway, work, live, and socialize with people from all walks of life. There are lively communities representing virtually every religion, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, and belief-system imaginable. But throughout much of the United States, communities, schools, and workplaces are relatively homogenous. People are socialized in pockets of likeness. Growing up in rural Louisiana, my socialization occurred in a world divided between Black and white. The first time I recall meeting a non-white or non-Black person was when a Latina transferred to my junior high school. She left after only a couple of years. I never met a Muslim until becoming a state officer in a high-school-student organization. I was in college before I met a Jewish person. The socialization of my youth was predominantly in a pocket of whiteness, with the occasional venture into the Black community. It was because I went to a major university and studied human geography that I began to expand my awareness and socialize with others. For the men and women back home who never went to college or could only attend local colleges, encounters with other religions, nationalities, ethnicities, sexualities, or belief systems never occurred. That lack of awareness has allowed prejudiced pathogens like Donald Trump and vitriolic viruses like Milo Yiannopoulos--both men of diverse socialization--to capitalize on people's fear of the unknown. That's not to justify the hate, bigotry, and violence spewed by many Trump supporters. Rather, it's the reality progressives must understand in order to treat the disease that threatens our national identity as a diverse society.

A small step toward the cure would be to initiate truth and reconciliation commissions across the country, in which people have a forum to present the history of injustices against them and can build a first-person record of this country's tradition of exclusion. For Blacks, African-Americans, Native Americans, women, and other minority groups, such commissions will help them build a historical case against the discrimination and violence levied against them predominantly by white men through history. For poor men and women of all races who live in rural areas, truth and reconciliation commissions will be a forum for listening to and socializing with others; and it will give them a safe space to air their grievances against the governing class and wealthy elites who have gained power on the backs of the poor. Once we build the record of injustice, we can work together to manage our national illness.

I purport to have no specialized long-term treatment to eradicate the country's cancerous prejudice, poverty, and ignorance. But the first step to recovery seems clear: We must begin to understand one another. We must listen more and shout less. We must step back from the echo chambers and hear out those who disagree with us. As I tell my Introduction to U.S. Government and Politics students, listening to others does not mean we have to agree with or condone their beliefs. It means we respect them as human beings. In return, they respect us. Call me a naïve, but from that small step, I believe we progressives can begin to cure the nation of the scourge of bigotry and eradicate the fever of Trumpism.

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