It's Not Our Job to Understand 'Trump Voters'

Rebecca Solnit, whom the New York Times once tagged as the “Voice of the Resistance” (I’m not sure the “Resistance” has a single, or even a particular “voice,” but be that as it may...) is an American writer and contributing Editor at Harper’s magazine.

This past month she wrote an essay for the Literary Hub which correctly flags one of the most persistent and pernicious myths propagated by the media and other cultural markers in this country--that there is a hardscrabble, homespun “Real America” out there that we as liberals need to be paying more attention to. That this explains why we liberals fail to connect with the needs and outlooks of those who occupy the “flyover” country so casually dismissed as “rural America.” That ultimately explains why we’re currently saddled with the most despicable and venal President in modern history.

It’s the idea that we must “accommodate” a certain cultural icon that has been mythologized over and over by the media as somehow possessing superior, and therefore more valid, “values” than those we share in more urban, cosmopolitan settings (“cosmopolitan” itself being a derogatory, dog whistle term favored by those on the right when speaking of people of other colors, cultures, or sexual orientations):

The common denominator of so many of the strange and troubling cultural narratives coming our way is a set of assumptions about who matters, whose story it is, who deserves the pity and the treats and the presumptions of innocence, the kid gloves and the red carpet, and ultimately the kingdom, the power, and the glory. You already know who. It’s white people in general and white men in particular, and especially white Protestant men, some of whom are apparently dismayed to find out that there is going to be, as your mom might have put it, sharing.


It is this population we are constantly asked to pay more attention to and forgive even when they hate us or seek to harm us. It is toward them we are all supposed to direct our empathy.

Solnit proceeds from the observation that 80% of Americans now live in urban or highly suburban locales, as opposed to rural areas. Los Angeles and New York City themselves have greater populations than many American states combined. And yet the “story”, repeated ad nauseum throughout some of the more highly respectable media since the 2016 election, has been that we need to understand the emotions of our (nearly wholly) white, economically struggling and culturally starved brothers and sisters living in an imaginary “real” (and implicitly “small town”) America of Chevy pickups and an “honest day’s work.”

As if our own openness to cultural enlightenment and tolerance and our own work ethic is something more suspect than the attitudes these folks embody in “working-class, small town white Christian America:”

More Americans work in museums than work in coalbut coalminers are treated as sacred beings owed huge subsidies and the sacrifice of the climate, and museum workers—well, no one is talking about their jobs as a totem of our national identity.

My grandfather was a coal miner, and my mother by default became a “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Both moved out of the mines as quickly as their economic status would let them. But it is the reflexive impulse to “accommodate” tiny minorities such as “coal miners”  that masks the fact that they are the ones who really ought to be “accommodating” us:

Perhaps the actual problem is that white Christian suburban, small-town, and rural America includes too many people who want to live in a bubble and think they’re entitled to, and that all of us who are not like them are menaces and intrusions who needs to be cleared out of the way.

Solnit acknowledges the obvious--it’s not all rural residents who are mean-spirited, racist or possessed of feelings of “entitlement.” And if it were just such rural dwellers then Trump would have lost the popular vote in a landslide instead of three million or so votes. Many suburban and urban residents of varying economic status contributed to his unfortunate victory. And yet the narrative has constantly reverted back to small-town America and the white “hinterland,” again as if huge immigrant populations, huge populations of people of color, women in general,  Non-Christians or agnostics, and the white liberals of both sexes who interact and mingle with them every day are not as deserving of consideration.  As if the needs, values, and cultural tolerance demonstrated in more urban settings are not of equal or more importance to the society as a whole. And as if “economic anxiety” wasn’t something that hits people of color in urban areas with double the impact felt by poor rural whites (check out black unemployment statistics if you doubt this).

She notes even Bernie Sanders clucked his disapproval of the notion that Trump voters were “racists, sexists and homophobes” --when many Trump voters turned out to be exactly those things:

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, we were told that we needed to be nicer to the white working class, which reaffirmed the message that whiteness and the working class were the same thing and made the vast non-white working class invisible or inconsequential. We were told that Trump voters were the salt of the earth and the authentic sufferers, even though poorer people tended to vote for the other candidate. We were told that we had to be understanding of their choice to vote for a man who threatened to harm almost everyone who was not a white Christian man, because their feelings preempt everyone else’s survival.

Nor has this “pro-bubble” impulse to “accommodate” white males been limited to discussions of political allegiance. In the aftermath of the “#MeToo” movement we were treated to article after soul-searching article about how men ranging from Matt Lauer to Matt Damon must navigate this treacherous “new” environment of women standing up for themselves. In the aftermath of the Parkland and other school shootings involving troubled white males we were treated to “analyses” of their psychological problems which bordered on sympathetic, or questions about what may have happened had someone treated them “nicer.” And we see columnists such as misogynist Kevin Williamson (who wanted to kill women who have had abortions) being given the royal treatment of due process for their twisted belief systems. 

Not coincidentally, all of these objects of our concern are male, most often white male.  But they are no longer the majority, and that’s the point. Soon—very soon—people of color will outnumber white males as a portion of the electorate. Women already outnumber men in terms of sheer population. It is their interests, and the necessary tolerance for multiple cultures that permits the coexistence of these diverse populations—the same tolerance that Trump voters spit on as “politically correct”—that is the narrative that matters. And it is that narrative, that “story” that should not and will not be denied.

We are as a culture moving on to a future with more people and more voices and more possibilities. Some people are being left behind, not because the future is intolerant of them but because they are intolerant of this future. White men, Protestants from the dominant culture are welcome, but as Chris Evans noted, the story isn’t going to be about them all the time, and they won’t always be the ones telling it. It’s about all of us.


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