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Saturday, October 21, 2017

To many people, politics is essentially tribal, an Us vs. Them struggle between cartoon enemies. Scarce a day passes that my inbox doesn’t contain a message like this:

“I must be one of those deplorables that they talk about. By reading your column I figure you are wealthy, old money, college educated, but cannot turn a screwdriver, typical liberal, pro LGBT, gun-fearing, pro-abortion, everything that someone told you should be, so not to offend…If this country doesn’t get back to, God-fearing, gun-toting, conservatives, we’re going to be fighting are wars with pink camoed soldiers prancing around the battle field passing out flowers. Sorry if I offended you, just kidding fag.”

That’s comparatively civil; there are frequent threats. But never once to my face. So I treat such messages as unwitting guides to their authors’ fears. People who obsess about strangers’ sexual practices usually have something to hide.

But it’s not just right-wingers. Check out reader comments to a recent Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times expressing empathy for loyal Trump voters in Oklahoma who stand to lose their health insurance, senior centers, job-training programs, etc. should the president’s draconian budget proposal be enacted. (Fat chance, but hold that thought.)

“Some of the loyalty,” Kristof wrote “seemed to be grounded in resentment at Democrats for mocking Trump voters as dumb bigots.” Offended readers denounced what one called “Kristof’s continuing delusional campaign that Trump voters need to be understood.”

Another thought “dumb bigots” an understatement: “Our country is being held hostage by resentful coal miners who are never going to get their black lung disease-causing jobs back. It’s being held hostage by undereducated, evidently opioid-addicted, underemployed white men across the Rust Belt…[and] by mean-spirited Religious Right fanatics who want to impose Christian Sharia law on the rest of us.”

Elsewhere, pundit Frank Rich contributed an essay to New York Magazine titled “No Sympathy for the Hillbilly.” The flamboyantly embittered scribe thinks it “a fool’s errand for Democrats to fudge or abandon their own values to cater to the white-identity politics of the hard-core, often self-sabotaging Trump voters who helped drive the country into a ditch on Election Day.”

Precisely which Democrats empathize with Klansmen isn’t clear, but Rich’s personal animus couldn’t be clearer. “If we are free to loathe Trump,” he concludes “we are free to loathe his most loyal voters, who have put the rest of us at risk.”

Or, as Joseph Conrad wrote in a different context “Exterminate all the brutes.”

My problem with this tribal loathing is twofold: first, bedrock Americanism as explained to me by my working-stiff New Jersey father. “You’re no better than anybody else,” the old man would growl, “and NOBODY’S BETTER THAN YOU.” If he stressed the last bit in reaction to the “Irish need not apply” signs of his youth, he also meant the first part. Me too.

Second, my experience of living most of my adult life in Arkansas, an historically “blue” state recently turned deepest “red” without changing its essential character very much at all. How Bill Clinton happened was that after 1968, when the state narrowly gave George Wallace (a cornpone Trump) its electoral votes, Democratic moderate Dale Bumpers saw that the hardcore segregationist vote was about one third. The old order was on life-support.

Stressing economic progress and social tolerance, Bumpers laid the political foundation for several Democratic governors to come: David Pryor, Clinton, Jim Guy Tucker and Mike Beebe. Even Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee—installed by legalistic coup during independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s farcical “Whitewater” investigation—governed as a moderate.

Progress was palpable. When Bumpers took office in 1970, per capita income in Arkansas was 43% of the national average; today it’s 82% and rising. If it’s far from paradise, local patriotism here runs very strong. (Go Hogs!) It’s tempting to observe that Arkansans finally got rich enough to turn Republican. The GOP ran the table in 2014, electing former Rep. Asa Hutchinson governor and taking control of the general assembly.

Did the election of a black president help seal the deal? No doubt, but only at the margins. Trump won 61 percent of the state’s presidential vote in 2016. But if the state legislature has recently devoted itself to largely symbolic absurdities involving guns and public bathrooms, neither has it fundamentally altered the state’s political culture. Gov. Hutchinson has resisted the Trump administration’s attack on Arkansas’ Medicaid expansion; even far-right Sen. Tom Cotton vigorously opposed the Trump-Ryan Obamacare repeal.

Very broadly then, the center appears to be holding. And while I yield to no man in my visceral contempt for Donald J. Trump, I’ll be very surprised if Congress enacts his anti-community budget cuts. Trashing cartoon liberals is one thing; shutting down Meals on Wheels quite another.

As for cartoon conservatives, Democrats should keep in mind that bringing even five percent of them back around would constitute a revolution.

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