Rick Salutin: You can't beat racist fear-mongering with moral superiority
Those poor U.S. pundits. Exit polls for Tuesday’s election showed most voters think “the economy” is doing well, so why — they asked — would anyone vote against Trump.
But, “How’s the economy doing?” should’ve been question one. The followup should’ve been: “How’re YOU doing?”
“The economy” has long since become a character in its own right, whose fortunes rise and fall separately from actual human beings who don’t get the same media attention.
Their fortunes rise and fall but mostly, during 40 years of neo-liberal policies, they fall. At best they stagnate. Trump hasn’t changed that. The sorriest U.S. cases are in the Rust Belt but it’s true widely. The pundits miss that, so they think all anti-Trump voters must be saying they don’t like “him.”
You see this failure to make connections elsewhere. Exit polls showed the No. 1 issue for voters was health care — by miles. Pundits were so perplexed that they ignored this and rushed on to rail against Donald Trump’s racism or “tone.”
But down there, health care isn’t about health or wait times, it’s about economics. You pay individually (unlike here), which prevents many people from saving for a house or just a vacation. Even under Obamacare — the apple in the eye of establishment Dems like House leader Nancy Pelosi — it’s private insurance firms who “do well,” via heavy payments and copays.
As for Trump’s racism, they miss a connection there too. Aside from his profound meanness, it’s also economic. His answer to why people are doing badly even in “good” times, is those brown-skinned immigrants from the south. Yes, it’s racist but at least he hears their concerns and responds. Calling them racist may be accurate, but it’s unresponsive to those concerns.
When Trump refused to run a feel-good ad on the economy in the final campaign days, and opted for a racist slur on immigrants instead, he wasn’t choosing race over economics, he was uniting the two. The reptilian part of his brain functions effectively, thanks, versus the rational or humane zones.
I’m not excusing racist voting but I’m saying it’s sometimes more complex than just race, it’s race tied to real economic fear. I also think it’s morally obligatory to reject racism even if you’re sure it carries a personal economic cost, but that’s asking a lot and people tend to try avoiding the choice.
So the problem isn’t “fevered rhetoric on both sides,” as someone said; it’s that there’s racist fear-mongering on one side and often mere moral superiority on the other. At least in situations where people feel existentially stressed, you’re unlikely to beat the former with the latter, as Democratic heavies like Obama (“The character of the country is on the ballot.”) keep trying to do.
It’s also dicey because proclaiming your moral superiority doesn’t sound very morally superior and because when you tell people they’re morally inferior, you don’t leave them anywhere pleasant to go. So when Hillary Clinton called Trump supporters “deplorables,” it was a gift to the dark side. Steve Bannon mentioned it often and lovingly during last week’s Munk debate.
But Democratic leaders seem content to reprise their moral virtue while relying on demographic trends to do the heavy political lifting. Eventually the “browning of America” will give majorities to women, minorities etc., and all will be well.
That’s pretty passive for people who are supposed to be political warriors and ignores what could happen meantime, like planetary destruction. It’s also a version of the good guys (us) vs. the bad guys, and tends to ignore the surprising mixes that occur within theoretically distinct demographic units.
Electoral politics is still basically about aggregating people, not dividing them — which the Democratic establishment does in a freakily similar way to what they accuse Trump of.
Fortunately, there are other anti-Trump forces, mainly local, like domestic workers who, Van Jones said on election night, knocked on doors after work to talk with voters about concerns like health care and wages, and who had much of the success that’s disturbing Trump’s self-satisfaction.
The pundits have focused instead on the “revolt of the suburbs” but I’m guessing it’s because most of them live there.
So you can’t beat racist fear-mongering with moral superiority. But it can be beaten.
Rick Salutin is a freelance columnist based in Toronto. Reach him on email: