Trump's Election: The Simple Story No One Is Telling
James A. Lindsay -- @goddoesnt
President Donald J. Trump. How did this happen?
There are a lot of analyses of the surprising election return out there, and there will be a lot more of them. I will contribute to those eventually, as you will see. There's a lot of blame going around: the Right! the Left! the Democrats! the Media! the Republicans! the FBI! the Russians! the Alt-Right! the Social Justice Warriors! the Facebook! the Twitters!
Every one of those pointed fingers is pointed accurately. Messes of this proportion require perfect storms. Pretty much everyone is to blame.
There's a story that is not being told, so far as I can tell, and I want to give a few minutes to telling it. I won't make this long, I promise. First, I want to direct your attention to an essay I wrote back in June of this year: "Liberals, Want Trump to Win? Keep Calling Him Racist."
I'm not bringing that essay up to make this into a told-you-so piece. It also isn't one to bang on the Social Justice Left, the Conservative Movement, Berners, the DNC in all its hubris, or anybody else for bringing this staunch dose of political chemotherapy our way. That hobby horse will be ridden quite enough, and I will surely take a turn on it. The blame for what I'm about to write maybe falls both on conservatives in general and progressive liberals in specific, but blame isn't the right tone here. I just want to tell a story people are ignoring, so I'll quote a few lines from my June essay.
From the middle:
Social conservatives have been put under tremendous pressure to accept an awful lot of progressive social upheaval very quickly. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has pointed out, the Civil Rights movement was merely 50 years ago; the Gay Rights movement began just 20 years ago and is reaching its successful conclusion now; and, in just the last 3 years, most Americans have gone from almost complete unawareness of transgendered individuals to their identity politics being one of the most contested cultural and political battlegrounds in the nation. That's fast. (For comparison, it took the US from its time as a collection of British colonies until 1863, almost 250 years, just to end slavery and another 90 years to initiate a real effort for civil rights, and it needed nearly 300 years to give women the vote and another 70 to embrace the notion of women's equal employment outside of the home.)
Progressives often insist that there is great moral force in the fact that marginalized and oppressed communities cannot psychologically bear the oppression, and they're right. Social progressives seem simultaneously completely unconcerned that conservatives may face similar psychological difficulty with accepting change more quickly than they are able. Because of the difference in civil liberties at hand, I don't mean to suggest that there is complete parity between these circumstances; there's not. Still, demanding that one group deal with more than they can bear at the behest of the rights of another is precisely what makes identity politics so divisive, and the blade cuts both ways. (emphasis original)
And from the conclusion:
Their own party, the GOP, has slowly disenfranchized mainstream blue-collar conservatives (and middle-class white-collar ones too) politically and economically to the benefit of corporate elites. Their wages have stagnated; their jobs have evaporated; they work longer hours for less pay; their debt has increased; their opportunity has been stolen; and in return for it all, they've been given the roughshod heel of a rapidly progressing culture that holds them in contempt. That pinch hurts; and that contempt reciprocates; and these people are rightfully mad as hell. (bold added)
The story that isn't being told here is that progressive liberalism is moving too fast for conservative sensibilities (and has, in fact, gone utterly insane in the last few years), and progressive liberalism literally doesn't care.
The irony is as painful as it is exquisite. Progressive liberals are so acutely sensitive to the psychological suffering of marginalized groups that they demand safe spaces on campuses, attempt to strip the landscape of ugly historical context (including, once, ugly non-inclusive people [sarcasm] like Martin Luther King, and at another time, Ghandi), and act like petty dictators about Halloween costumes all to preserve the psychological comfort of people they believe may be under some kind of duress. The catch: they're sensitive so long as those people aren't some "toxic" combination of straight, white, and male. That group, "privileged" as it must surely be, cannot possibly be suffering any kind of meaningful psychological stress. They just need to grow up and get with the times. They need to shut up and go away. Their story has been heard.
Well, they just elected Donald Trump to the presidency to get the chance to retell it, and many of them knew exactly the risk they were taking to do it.
The story that isn't being told is that progressive liberalism wants to move too fast for conservative sensibilities to bear, and conservatives, in that they have as much right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as anyone else, deserve more breathing room than they're getting. From the right, this sounds condescending, but it's not. It's just what being socially conservative means, and it is a powerful stabilizing force on societies that shouldn't be rejected out of hand because it's skeptical of social progressivism. From the left, this sounds trite, and if you're a progressive liberal reading this, you're probably already childishly mocking the poor conservatives for their straight, white, male tears, wishing they'd grow up and get over themselves already. If that's you, that's because you don't understand why it would be so difficult to bear such changes, and because you don't care. (And if it's you, pause to note how much you hate it when they tell you to do exactly the same thing over offenses you don't like to bear.)
Conservatives are good and decent people, but they, by definition, would like to conserve something akin to the status quo. It isn't that they don't welcome or even embrace change and even social progress; it's that they don't want things to change in ways they don't understand, don't trust, or don't like. That's not all bad, but it can be a problem, obviously. It kept slavery, resisted women's rights, resisted Civil Rights, and all the rest, and it continues to do so. Part of that problem is on them. People have to deal with change whether liberal or conservative, progressive or alt-right, and no matter what. Sometimes it's confusing, untrustworthy, or unpalatable. Lots of change has happened, and the sky hasn't fallen, and that's worth their recognizing.
This isn't about blaming them for being cautious or even downright regressive. What matters here is taking a hard look at why change of this nature can be difficult, and particularly how it can be more than many Trump-minded conservatives could bear in 2016.
When things change, particularly when the fabric of a community and its underlying moral framework changes, people who define themselves by it tend to begin to feel lost--rather like progressives feel now that Trump's election has repudiated the progress they felt under Obama. They lose a sense of who they are, and more importantly, they lose a sense of how to feel like a good person in a world that doesn't seem to see their way of thinking as good anymore, through no fault of their own. People don't like to feel lost, confused, or like bad people. When the culture is changing in ways that trigger this response, it's bad for those people. They worry. They don't know how to deal with it. They, if they are, in fact, good and decent people, fear that they'll be rude or hurtful to people without meaning to, or that because of that fear they won't know how to interact in society and may have to alienate themselves for no legitimately good reason.
When the people leading the charge for this kind of social change are doing so while heaping scorn, abuse, insults, accusations, and hatred upon them, it's much worse. They might fight back. Many of them did, and--because I've spent most of the week talking earnestly with them--I know they want you to hear them. Stop it. Give them room to breathe, cut some of the crap, and stop foisting increasingly insane rules and demands upon them.
People who moral philosophers would say favor "deontological" approaches to ethics--something roughly like knowing the rulebook and playing by it--are the most vulnerable to this kind of problem. They know how to be a good person their whole lives, and then suddenly they wake up one day and see something on the news, like the transgender bathroom explosion that dominated the news this year, and suddenly feel cut off from what allows them to feel good. They knew the rules, and then the rules came out from under them, often for reasons that don't mesh with their overall experience of the world. They feel like outcasts from their broader community and hole up with like-minded thinkers, distrusting outsiders exactly like social identity theory predicts a beleaguered group will. They feel confused and disgusted, and they don't know what the world is coming to. In fact, that's exactly what they say (and have said, over, and over, and over, and over). They also say things like, "liberals are trying to tear apart the moral fabric of our nation." Think about that for a minute. (If you're a progressive liberal and thinking "good, they deserve it," try thinking a little harder after turning up the empathy knob a little and muting the tribalism channel.)
Now pause to remember a few other points. They're in my essay from June too, so I'll quote them here instead of pointing them out afresh.
[C]onservatives engage in social change, but they do so far more slowly than social progressives (by definition and thus obviously). If you doubt it, pause for a moment to consider that once this election cycle's Republican primary race whittled down to the real "front-runners," other than Trump, they were Ted Cruz (Latino), Marco Rubio (Latino), and Ben Carson (black). Think about that. Three out of four of the last candidates standing in the GOP primary race were minorities - and nobody cared. (And, according to my conservative friends, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (black woman) retains enough popularity to have been a "shoo-in" to beat Hillary Clinton.) Whatever roles race and gender play in the social politics of conservatives, it has changed dramatically since the beginning of the century. (emphasis original)
That is, conservatives change their minds about old-fashioned social thinking. We are quite clearly not in a post-racist, post-sexist society, but the things the progressive left has been shouting for the last two years in particular bear no resemblance to reality, much less the conservative experience of it. Trump, to all appearances, even, is an atheist. That means all of the serious conservative front-runners this year except John Kasich were members of some minority group. Are there sexists and racists out there? Yes. Do many o them align with the Republican Party and vote for it? Yes. Are conservatives sexist and racist? NO! In fact, that they voted for Trump should be convincing that they would have voted for a man or a woman, black, white, Latin, Asian, or whatever, and I'll even add straight or gay, over Hillary Clinton (admittedly, whom they hate for a variety of reasons, many of which are not sexism).
Could we have believed this of them a decade ago, or two, or four? Maybe, but I doubt it, to be unapologetically frank in my guess about something I can't know. My case here is that conservatives, based on everything I know from living among them and counting very many of them as my close friends, adapt to tectonic social changes more gradually and cautiously than do liberals, especially progressive liberals. (And this isn't an evil trait. It's merely a kind of cultural caution.) Give them time, particularly before (a) foisting another one on them, (b) going insane, and (c) deciding to push that bigot button.
Let me help your empathy knob a little, I hope.
Imagine yourself a good and decent person who, for the first time in their lives, is suddenly confronting the fact that the rules now say that there are not two genders but dozens of them. They must accept not only this confusing change, immediately and totally, but also that the number of genders and the definitions of those genders themselves will be changing regularly. Many of the terms sound like they came out of the appendix of a complicated science textbook, and almost none of them sound remotely like everyday words. Fail to accept all of this, learn all of its impossible minutiae, and make every effort to get it exactly right at all times, and you're a bigot. Almost everyone reacts to this in a way an academic leftist progressive cannot comprehend: What the hell is going on here?
Imagine yourself a good and decent person who has absolutely no problems with Mexicans, knows many, works with them, likes them, and all the rest (although is suitably uncomfortable with illegal immigrants), who then learns that assuming someone who is apparently Mexican is a Mexican is no longer an honest mistake to be corrected, but rather some kind of bigoted transgression of enormous offensive magnitude. That person, since you know nothing about them except a Hispanic heritage (supposing that's true) is "Latinx." Not Latino or Latina. You can't know that for sure, however the person presents. Latinx. Almost everyone reacts to this, not only with confusion about the point of such care and precision in the use of language ("There ain't anything wrong with being Mexican, so why can't I just call them Mexican?") but with complete rejection-grade perplexity. How do you even say "Latinx"?
Imagine yourself a good and decent person who is told that everyone has unique "gender" pronouns, and that not only must you never assume these (which puts you in a double bind because for far more people than not, checking their gender before assuming it is more insulting than the other way around), but you also must memorize this small catalogue of details about almost everyone you meet and never get it wrong. Add to this difficultly that there are lots of them, and most of them aren't remotely like real words, involving odd letters like x, y, and z in unseemly proportions. That's ridiculous!
Imagine yourself a good and decent person who happens to find out about otherkin. (You might be one of those right now, and I'm sorry. It was a bumpy ride for me too.)
The least you can say in any of these circumstances is that you want to be a good and decent person, but you now live in a minefield of offensiveness, rudeness, and thus not being that good or decent a person. Your rulebook is outdated, the new one is beyond anyone's comprehension, and it will be out of style to the point of being something-ist before the next iPhone comes out. And it's all of them. At once. Everywhere. And people are losing their jobs, being harassed endlessly online and off, and being otherwise bullied for committing too many of these transgressions or rejecting their status as transgressions at all. And every single such story of outright insanity of that kind made the news.
If you are that person, you are going to feel unmoored from the community you thought you belonged to, and, because you're good and decent, you'll probably make some attempt (maybe after some initial grumbling) to import some of the more comfortable elements. If that isn't good enough, or if you feel all that nonsense is forced upon you, you're going to reject it. Plain and simple. Steal the voice of people who are telling you they're drowning, and they'll kill you if they can just to get back on the boat.
So, one crucial element that is being completely left out of the forces that led to the rise of Trump -- and I reiterate that it is just one force among several -- is that the progressive left wanted all of its change done yesterday so badly that it acted like it was yesterday's news even before it happened, and between some major successes and some unfortunate resistance (in the rise of white nationalist groups while Obama held office), it accelerated in this drive beyond the boundaries of decency, civility, and sanity. In addition to whatever else, it unmoored many good and decent conservatives from feeling like a part of a society that can accept them, see them as good and decent. In return for that shoehorning out of their esteem and reckoning, it then heaped shame, scorn, ridicule, and a list of demands for even more "change," much of which doesn't even make sense by any objective standard (e.g. Social Justice ideological b.s.).
Say whatever you want about the imperative of progress, the suffering of the oppressed, and all that. You're wasting your breath if you yell them at me. I already understand it. (I'm a liberal with strong progressive attitudes but enough sense to realize that there are better and worse ways to achieve them.) The thing is, one of the ways to induce precisely the kind of "I'm not allowed to live as I am" psychological breaks in someone with a culturally conservative mind (which, by the way, seems to have some genetic basis) is to make society leave them behind and then stigmatize them over their discomfort.