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Dumb Bigots Vs. Typical Liberals: The High Cost Of Political Tribalism

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Dumb Bigots Vs. Typical Liberals: The High Cost Of Political Tribalism

Trump voters

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.

Gene Lyons

Gene Lyons is a political columnist and author. Lyons writes a column for the Arkansas Times that is nationally syndicated by United Media. He was previously a general editor at Newsweek as wells an associate editor at Texas Monthly where he won a National Magazine Award in 1980. He contributes to Salon.com and has written for such magazines as Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, Entertainment Weekly, Washington Monthly, The Nation, Esquire, and Slate. A graduate of Rutgers University with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia, Lyons taught at the Universities of Massachusetts, Arkansas and Texas before becoming a full-time writer in 1976. A native of New Jersey, Lyons has lived in Arkansas with his wife Diane since 1972. The Lyons live on a cattle farm near Houston, Ark., with a half-dozen dogs, several cats, three horses, and a growing herd of Fleckvieh Simmental cows. Lyons has written several books including The Higher Illiteracy (University of Arkansas, 1988), Widow's Web (Simon & Schuster, 1993), Fools for Scandal (Franklin Square, 1996) as well as The Hunting Of The President: The 10 Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton, which he co-authored with National Memo Editor-in-Chief Joe Conason.

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  1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth April 6, 2017

    Very appropriate article, and the author’s use of the term political tribalism is most appropriate. I too share a visceral disregard and loathing of Trump’s behavior, but I don’t “hate” him. I despise any and all whose stated ambition and focus of attack is against whole groups, and using crude language to smear women, Mexicans and Muslims as a group, or insist on perpetuating myths borne out of the ignorance of racialist philosophies. I also despise anyone who denigrates any of the Messengers from God, or look down on any cultural group’s Traditional values. And most of all, I abhor and will go ballistic on those who insist on being bullies who like to intimidate those less able to defend themselves, or who feel obliged to be reticent in the face of verbal and physical assault.

    As for those who are enamored with buffoons and bullies, I feel both anger and pity.

    1. dbtheonly April 7, 2017

      There’s a doctrine in Christian philosophy “Hate the sin, love the Sinner”. It seems applicable.

      I wish to reach out to the Trump voters and see if we can heal their pain.

      But not at the cost of core values. If the cost of reaching someone is hating you for the color of your skin; I’ll do without them.

      1. Aaron Zanzibari April 7, 2017

        I’m glad you point that out. I try to keep that in mind, but in the heat of a conversation with someone who insists on being a churl, I forget.
        What you cite is a theme running through all the Religions, but often overlooked or ignored.
        There was a Muslim man in a particularly awful section of what was then Palestine, and who had an intense for the Baha’is who had been consigned in Akka as prisoners in the Great Prison. After Abdu’l Baha(‘A.B.’ afterwards), then the recognized head of the nascent world Baha’i Community, was released from the prison, he would walk down the streets helping the poor, speaking with Ottoman officials about making improvements in the city’s infrastructure. This particular Muslim would berate and harass him every day, would attend the local mosque, which A.B., out of deference and respect for Muslim customs, would attend. The man would always arise and denounce A.B.and the Baha’is every week. This went on for over a year, and he would always greet this Muslim and show kindness in return. One day, the man wasn’t out on the street to perform his ritual verbal assaults—A.B. inquired from someone where the man was, and was told that the man had fallen ill.
        Abdu’l Baha purchased some medicine, and with a doctor paid a visit to the home of this Muslim; the man would take the medication but would refuse to even look at A.B. or even thank Abdu’l Baha for the kindness and attention shown. At some time after a year’s passage, the man walked up to Abdu’l Baha, fell to his knees, and asked forgiveness him for his past behavior, which He did.

        I and my friend in a neighborhood children’s class we held on Sunday mornings taught the children this story and had costumes made to have the children enact this story for their parents at the end of the Sunday sessions. It was much appreciated by the parents.

        1. dbtheonly April 7, 2017

          I’m not going to sign off on accommodating the Trumpistas until I know the cost.

          Because “Love the sinner…” is predicated on some measure of repentance and discontinuance of the sinning behavior.

          I welcome discussion with the Trumpistas on economic issues. I will try to reach the goal of affordable health care with them. I’ll listen to why bombing Syria is brilliant for Trump but a disaster for President Obama.

          But blatant racism is a price I’m unwilling to pay.

  2. Theodora30 April 6, 2017

    Why is everyone so focused on the “hillbillies”? White suburban women voted for Trump in large numbers. Sadly four of them are in my extended family and quite a few more are in my neighborhood. They are educated but they get their information from Fox News and right wing radio or worse, they get it from their husbands who get their news that way. Democrats need to figure out a way to cut through the right wing propaganda machine to talk directly to those women. Social media, television ads, etc. that make it clear that the Republican agenda is anti women and anti family need to be aimed at them now, not just in the next election cycle.

    And I would appreciate some sympathy for Democrats who have watched their candidates get trashed by right wing lies and far too often by the mainstream media. Before Monica ever happened on the scene the NY Times, Washington Post and other mainstream media outlets were pushing the completely bogus Whitewater scandal. When they couldn’t defeat Clinton the media then turned on Gore, falsely accusing him of lying, deriding his every move – including his choice of clothes colors all the while praising Bush as a reg’lar guy who was more fun to have a beer with and ignoring Bush going AWOL from the National Guard, his bankrupt businesses, etc. The media seemed more outraged by John Kerry’s windsurfing (since when is that a sin?) than they were by the Swiftboat Truthers’ vicious lies about Kerry’s war heroism.
    Luckily for us the media got a “thrill up the leg” from Obama so they pretty much left him alone. But they were back with a vengeance, playing footsie yet again with right wing smearmeisters who were leaking lies and exaggerations to trash Hillary. In the spring of 2015 the Times and WaPo actually inked deals with Breitbart author Peter Schweitzer to use his “reporting” in his book “Clinton Cash” to trash the Clinton Foundation. Other media outlets debunked the charges fairly quickly but a lot of damage was done. That same media waited over a year, until late in the campaign to even bother to examine Trump’s scam of a foundation. The media also played along with Trey Gowdy’s email witch hunt. I never once saw or read any journalist or pundit point out that the fact that Trey Gowdy was not outraged that Colin Powell had not only also used private email, had classified info in them and had openly admitted having every last one of them destroyed – a violation of the Freedom of Information Act. The fact that Gowdy and pals shrugged off Powell’s behavior is proof that they were conducting a politically motivated attack on Hillary and could not have cared less about emails or the public’s right to know.
    I cannot tell you how frustrated, angry, frightened and heatbroken I am that decent, qualified Decratic candidates are defeated because of smear tactics by the right and a compliant “liberal” media. Don’t ask me to feel sympathy for Trump voters when they are harmed by their foolish choice for President.

  3. Sand_Cat April 6, 2017

    Mr. Lyons, I have to wonder if you have ever really tried to “bring around” the kind of person these supposedly nasty liberals are talking about. I have, and in the end, all I got was “all you can do is parrot all the liberal lines; I thought you could think for yourself.” You make valid points, but we’re looking at people who – in my opinion – have brought the country closer to Fascism or even Naziism than it ever has been, who appear to swallow and vigorously defend the most embarrassingly transparent lies, who seem eager to support violence against their political opponents, who genuinely seem absolutely unreachable. Perhaps you haven’t noticed that liberals have been rolled over and over and over for periods spanning decades by trying to find that rational core in, and work with, Republicans who act as if a one-vote majority is a massive “mandate” to completely destroy everything sane and good about our government. Just because a few of them won’t support the absolutely most insane ideas ever proposed – the really nasty town hall meetings and polls showing it wasn’t just a few malcontents who showed up combined with the most elementary survival instinct might have something to do with that – doesn’t mean they’re even close to being reachable other than by threats of electoral disaster.

  4. The lucky one April 7, 2017

    The concept of “memes” applies here. If one group’s meme is that those who disagree are naive or evil and need to be dealt with forcefully, even destroyed, while the opposing group’s meme is that opponents are misinformed and misguided and just need to be properly informed and guided it’s not hard to guess which group will become dominant.

    There is also the dominant cultural meme that America is special and justified in imposing our will on others rather than dialoguing and reaching consensus so those who assume the title of being special, like “I’m the only one who can make America great” Trump will feel justified, and will convince non-critical thinkers like his followers, that he is justified in imposing his will.

  5. Gaetano April 8, 2017

    A direct consequence of the two-party tyranny perpetuated by the Electoral College.


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