Reprinted with permission from US News.
Given that Donald Trump won the election on a surge of turnout from white working-class voters in Michigan, Ohio and other states that campaign strategists for President Barack Obama once called a “Midwest firewall,” you’d expect the Democrats to compete hard for those voters in the midterm elections of 2018.
That is not turning out to be the case. Instead, party leaders have identified dozens of House Republicans who they believe are vulnerable. These Republicans represent affluent, white and nominally conservative suburban districts outside big cities, like New York City and Philadelphia, and in blue states like California, all districts Hillary Clinton won by a mile.
This strategy is no doubt baffling to some, especially progressives who have demonstrated power through grassroots direct action and through intense lobbying of Democratic senators who are now emboldened to filibuster Judge Neil Gorsuch, the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court. No doubt Bernie Sanders is pulling out what’s left of his hair. This party, he memorably said, has forgotten how to talk to working people. Of course, they are courting Republicans!
The so-called left will see the Democrats’ strategy as another instance in which the working man’s party betrayed the working man, and they will use it to defend their indefensible attacks against the only candidate in November who could govern responsibly, lead competently and do so in everyone’s name.
The so-called left will see the Democrats’ pragmatic play for GOP voters lukewarm on Trump as yet more evidence that the Democratic Party is sucking up to the international neoliberal order. That’s not just wrong, it’s insane, and what we can expect from a so-called left whose views of politics is purely and perversely theoretical. Even so, there’s something to this.
While targeting suburban Republicans in the short-term is prudent, the Democrats must find, in the long term, a way to reach white working-class voters without abandoning their anti-racist and anti-sexist positions. Despite the Obama coalition’s grave apprehensions, the Democrats must compete for every vote, even those of a white working-class that empowered a lying, thieving, philandering sadist who is on course to betraying them. I believe the Democrats can do it and they can do it without returning to bigotry-blind centrism.
First, let’s remember why white working-class voters supported Donald Trump: resentment. Resentment of female empowerment. Resentment of minority achievement. Resentment of the language of female empowerment and minority achievement (aka “political correctness”). All of the above are well-known, but less well-known, because it’s hard to see it through the smog of bigotry and white identity politics, is the resentment of class. To many Trump voters, Hillary Clinton was the distillation of all of the above.
She was powerful, rich and successful, but most of all, she represented an elite caste, a mysterious group of political power-brokers whose interests will lead to working-class ruination. Liberals may find this hard to comprehend, but I’ve come to think that, to many working-class voters, there wasn’t much difference between Hillary Clinton and a “vulture capitalist” like Mitt Romney. In other words, just as Obama in 2012 ran a populist campaign against a rich man, Trump in 2016 ran a populist campaign against a rich women.
That white working-class voters chose a billionaire as their class warrior is not ironic, nor it is reason to think white identity politics is the only thing binding Trump to his supporters. In their view, his wealth is different from Romney’s. Romney made his name tearing apart manufacturing firms that were the backbone of working-class communities. Trump made his name in real estate. It made him politically independent. It freed him of party loyalties and special interests. It gave him the means to smash the Establishment. Wealth wasn’t a liability, as it was for Romney. It was a key asset.
The Democrats can hurry that along. They can remind voters that this White House is packed with millionaires and billionaires. They can highlight the growing gap between Trump’s words and his deeds. But they can do something else, and it’s here where I see the Democrats finding a practical solution to their political paradox.
On the one hand, they must serve a minority base, voters appalled by white nationalists rising to prominence inside and outside the administration. On the other, as I’ve argued, they must find ways to reach white working-class voters. Luckily, the white nationalists offer a solution. It turns out that very prominent white nationalists are also very rich.
Steve Bannon is Trump’s chief strategist and former head of Breitbart News, the house organ of white nationalism. He’s a multimillionaire. Richard Spencer is the hip young face of white nationalism. He lives off his parents’ fortune, a fortune enriched by government subsidies. Samuel Jared Taylor is Spencer’s mentor and editor of American Renaissance, a white nationalist journal. Taylor is a proud graduate of Yale College.
To be sure, many white working-class voters saw nothing wrong with Trump’s overt bigotry, but I’m certain none would raise racism to the level of political philosophy, partly because philosophy is not what working-class people do and partly because working-class people would find almost nothing in common with the likes of Spencer, who lives off mommy and daddy’s bank account.
Republican strategy is so effective because the Republicans always manage the find a boogie man. The socialists. The government. The gays. The whatever. It works, because the Republicans win by dividing, not uniting, the opposite of Democratic needs. But this time, the rise of an extreme political ideology, white nationalism, has created a rare opportunity for the party of the people. The Democrats don’t need to choose between fighting the rich or fighting the racists. In this administration, they are one and the same.