Here is an unsettling reality for many liberals following the election: It is entirely plausible that Donald Trump will succeed on his own terms, and will flourish politically for it.
There’s a real possibility that he will carry out his promises to punish some people (mainly nonwhite) as a way to reward others — and that keeping those promises will not only secure the loyalty of his supporters but make more white people more conservative on issues of race.
It’s entirely possible that the problem with the Democratic Party, or with anti-racism in everyday life, isn’t just tactical but strategic. It’s possible that opposition to Donald Trump’s most “deplorable” promises really is the minority position in electoral politics — or at least, that it’s going to be.
We’ve already seen how that tension plays out. Time and again, white people get chosen as the ones whose opinions and feelings matter. Nonwhite people are the ones who are told to put their feelings — their lives — aside in the name of building political consensus. What is popular trumps what is right.
Let’s not make that mistake this time around.
Who’s to blame for the victory of Trumpism?
You can already see it in arguments about how the Democratic Party can build a winning coalition again. They tend to bear a suspiciously strong resemblance to whatever the speaker himself thinks is most important.
Economic leftists conveniently conclude that the Democratic Party will win back voters if it moves to the left on economics; moderates just as conveniently conclude it needs to move closer to the center. Defenders of what’s clumsily called “identity politics” conclude that the party can win if it does even more to protect and advance the marginalized groups who make up its modern base — while opponents assert that the Democratic Party can reclaim a majority simply by doing less to impose liberal “elite” cultural values.
Somehow, these four arguments have gotten lumped together to a debate about whether and how to reach out to the “white working class” that’s presumed to have fled to Trump because they felt abandoned by the Democratic Party. And they’re getting tangled up in a separate debate — not about electoral politics, but about public discourse and interpersonal interactions — about whether the most effective tactic against, say, racism is persuasion or stigmatization. In the interpersonal debate, too, each side tends to act as if their preferred tactic will build a permanent anti-oppressive majority without a whole lot of sacrifice on anyone’s part.
This is overly optimistic. Indeed, it’s dangerously so.
Electorally, it presumes that pretty much everyone who didn’t vote for Donald Trump in 2016 is steadfastly opposed to his presidency — and that there’s next to nothing he could do that will change their minds. Interpersonally, it presumes that “wokeness” is a binary quality — and that, once awakened to the reality of oppression, people never go back to sleep.
Why only white people’s feelings ever seem to matter
The goal of electoral politics is to build a majority; the goal of trying to change social attitudes is to create a consensus around certain norms of behavior. Both of those require getting a lot of different people on board with each other whose needs are often in conflict.
Sometimes it’s a direct competition for scarce resources: What helps one group is a loss (or, at least, is perceived as a loss) for another. More often, though, it’s a question of whose feelings get to matter — who needs to be kept satisfied at all times, and who has to manage frustration or disappointment or delay in the name of sucking it up for the greater good.
In theory, this could be done equitably: spreading the disappointment around as broadly as possible, making sure that the people who were ignored and shunted aside in one election cycle or culture war are placed at the center the next time.
In practice, when it comes to race — whether in politics or in civic discourse — it is consistently white people whose feelings get to be a matter of public concern, while nonwhite people are forced to manage their own emotions on their own time and without expectation of sympathy (much less redress) from their ostensible allies.
This happens in politics time and time again: There’s a reason that the political tactic of distancing yourself from the wing of your party to appeal to the center is known as the “Sister Souljah,” and that people can understand what that means even if they aren’t intimately familiar with the 1992 controversy involving the musician by that name.
But it also happens in the media, and in public life more generally, as we’ve tried to take stock of America in 2016 in preparation for, and in the aftermath of, this presidential election.
For all the media’s failure to anticipate that Trump would win the election, it can’t be said that no one bothered to understand why people would support him. Time and time again, the story was told of a class of people who felt abandoned to suffer by elites, who felt that undeserving others were given a hand up but they themselves were not. The objective fact of an improving economy was treated as a paradox, not a persuasive rebuttal: The point was that these people were in pain and were going to reclaim their agency by voting for Donald Trump.
Comparatively less close attention was paid to the people who were most immediately worried about what a Trump administration would do to themselves and their families. Because elites across the ideological spectrum disliked Donald Trump, and because many of them opposed him outright, there appeared to be less urgency in understanding the pain of people who opposed him for different reasons (often more existential ones) than there was in understanding the pain of those who supported him.
Trump’s “failures” to help his supporters might be less important than his successes in hurting nonwhite people
In the weeks after Trump’s election, you can already see this beginning to happen again.
There’s a temptation to think of “People who voted for Donald Trump are going to do badly under his presidency” as a killer app against Trumpism. Reporters cover administration appointments of former Goldman Sachs bankers and lobbyists as violations of Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp,” or tell the stories of people who voted for Trump but are now worried about losing their coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Democrats are spoiling for a fight over Social Security and Medicare — programs that Trump voters benefit from, but most Republicans (including the ones leading the legislative branch) are itching to overhaul.
Hypocrisy stories are always easy stories to tell. And there’s a political argument that if you want to defeat Donald Trump in 2020, this is the story you want to tell: After all, if you can get people who voted for Trump once not to vote for him again, it’s a lot easier to win an election.
But it’s not the whole story — or arguably, even the most important one.
When it comes to Social Security, Trump might be a failure. But when it comes to a “law and order” crackdown that will disproportionately hurt communities of color, he’s lining himself up for success.
Trump’s administration may fail to build a literal, physical wall across the entire US/Mexico border (advisers have hinted both before and after Election Day that the barrier might be more of a fence, and might not extend literally all the way across). But it’s extremely likely to succeed in removing the restrictions that made it harder for immigration agents to deport some unauthorized immigrants, and nearly certain to deport more immigrants who have lived in the US for years than Obama has done for the past few years. Even before Trump’s inauguration, he’s already succeeded in returning millions of unauthorized immigrants and their communities to a state of anxiety and fear.
The Trump administration is extremely likely to impose strict monitoring of people coming to the US from Muslim-majority countries — possibly not just when they arrive, but while they are here. He’s likely to restore a Bush-era program that had chilling effects not only on the Muslim men it targeted, but throughout the communities in which they lived.
Trump and Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions are likely to oversee an era of aggressive rollback of voting access in the name of preventing “voter fraud,” by declining to challenge state and local voting restrictions (or even using federal resources to encourage them). Nor are they likely to investigate police use of excessive force, or patterns and practices of discrimination — emboldening police officers who think the way to reduce crime is to act more aggressive toward the nonwhite communities they police.
None of these things would hurt Trump’s supporters directly. Indeed, many of them voted for Trump specifically because he would do these things. Cracking down on nonwhites will reinforce Trump’s central populist appeal of being “on the side” of his supporters against nonwhites and “elites” — making him more popular among his base.
It would not be good for America if, say, voter disenfranchisement became widespread and entrenched, or unauthorized immigrant parents were afraid to send their US-citizen children to elementary school. But any way you look at it, policy or politics, it would be a success for Donald Trump.
Under the logic of consensus, progressives should abandon — or even attack — nonwhite resistance to Trump
Here’s the nightmare scenario: Research suggests that making white Americans, even liberal whites, more aware of racial difference tends to make them more conservative on issues of race. That makes it totally plausible that some white voters who currently oppose Trump might be brought over to his side by four years of talk about how racist Trump’s administration is.
In that case, talking about Trump’s successes (on immigration, voting rights, policing, or surveillance) would not only fail to erode his electoral coalition — it would strengthen it. Accordingly, working to improve interpersonal race relations (and disabuse white Americans of racist views) on the individual level would only serve to entrench white racism.
That’s a persuasive argument for downplaying those issues, even as Donald Trump and his administration shape millions of lives permanently by transforming federal policy on them.
This isn’t just a question of what tactics Democrats or would-be anti-racist citizens adopt in the age of Trump. It’s a question of who they ally themselves with and who they defend.
There is going to be resistance to Trump. Full stop. The people likely to be directly affected by his policies are going to continue to mobilize against him and the abuses he encourages. And that resistance is, itself, extremely likely to trigger awareness of race (and more anxiety about nonwhites) among some, even many, white voters.
Black Lives Matter activists aren’t going to stop protesting police shootings of unarmed men just because the research suggests it might “prime” some whites to blame the activists themselves for stirring up trouble and making it “about” race. But that’s exactly the effect that such protests are likely to have — especially in a political environment in which the president is calling them traitors and thugs.
The question is how other people and institutions that theoretically agree with those activists about injustice and racism are going to respond.
Morally, they will feel compelled to stand up alongside the resisters. They will recognize that protesting existing racial injustice isn’t creating racial divisions where none existed before, just pointing out something only some people have heretofore been able to see. Politicians will want to issue statements of solidarity. Progressive citizens will want to speak truth to their stereotypical racist uncles.
The risk of permanent disenfranchisement
For many, the solution is not to abandon nonwhite Americans to the ravages of the Trump presidency.
Imagine four years of late-night comedy hosts perfectly willing to mock President Trump for his business entanglements or the agenda of his Congress, but not to mention the actions of his Department of Justice. Imagine Black Lives Matter protesters covered as “controversial” by mainstream outlets for raising fists of black power and blocking lanes of traffic, rather than media covering the events that sparked the protest. Imagine California Attorney General Xavier Becerra declining to bring a suit against the federal government’s attempt to defund “sanctuary cities” because it would reinforce the narrative of urban versus rural division his party was trying to transcend.
This doesn’t just deny support and resources to the Trump administration’s nonwhite victims at exactly the time they need it most. It robs them of agency.
It’s impossible to shift cultural attitudes when no one is amplifying your message and spreading it to the people who need to hear it. It’s impossible to pressure politicians for political change when you have no allies willing to associate themselves with you.
And when the federal government is doing things that have the effect of excluding nonwhite people from public life — that preclude African-Americans from voting, that make it risky for Latinos to drive their unauthorized-immigrant relatives around, that punish Muslims on student visas who speak their minds about US foreign policy — they are simply not going to be able to push back successfully on their own.
A political coalition that makes its decisions about who to include based on the fear of white backlash is a political coalition that risks abandoning nonwhite people to full disenfranchisement: They will be unable to speak on their own behalf, and no one else will be interested in speaking for them.
This is unlikely to succeed in building an effective political coalition — the votes it would lose through aggressive voter restriction could easily dwarf the votes it would recoup from no-longer-racially-triggered white voters. But it would be extremely difficult to reverse.
What if the things you think are right aren’t actually popular?
It is entirely possible, though, that this is politically a no-win situation. If it’s untenable to abandon a commitment to nonwhite empowerment, it may very well be impossible to retain white support while professing it.
It might, in other words, be the case that something progressives believe to be true and important and right may nonetheless not be popular.
There might be a way to square this circle. In the wake of the election, both Jamelle Bouie of Slate and Vann Newkirk of the Atlantic have pointed to models of broad progressive coalitions that didn’t downplay race: the Jesse Jackson “Rainbow Coalition” of the 1980s and the contemporary Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, respectively.
Newkirk’s piece is particularly persuasive because it reflects a movement that managed to gain strength in the same national environment that elected Donald Trump: North Carolina was one of very few states to give Trump its electoral votes but (pending the certification of its gubernatorial race) elect a Democrat to statewide office.
Their “Moral Movement” expanded its ranks not by appealing to a class-based ethos, but by casting economic, social, and political issues as moral dilemmas and emphasizing empathy. “When we started in 2007, there were 1.6 million poor people in North Carolina,” Barber says. “That’s a moral issue. We had not had a raise in the minimum wage. We did not have health care. We needed to strengthen our civil-rights laws in this state.” Though the voter suppression laws put the political focus squarely on questions of race, the Moral Movement managed to both explicitly address its racial animus while simultaneously expanding its reach beyond people of color.
Maybe this will scale nationally. Maybe it won’t. After all, appealing to morals only works if people believe that everyone really does have the same interests at heart, and what hurts one group really does hurt all. That’s exactly the contention that the zero-sum identity politics of white backlash rejects. To the people who believe that elites have given too much to nonwhites and not enough to poor whites, the Moral Monday frame might as well be Greek.
Obviously, progressives who care about these issues should be trying to figure out how to square the circle: how to talk about what’s right in a way that is popular.
But too often, that can become a way to avoid the possibility that is always very real: that your beliefs aren’t actually shared by the majority of people, that what is right (to you) is not popular.
That if you want to speak to others in a political context, you will have to choose one or the other: to be persuasive or to be right.
If you insist, you can wait to make that choice until you’re faced with it, until you actually have the power to decide whose feelings matter. But it’s too important to put off. You need to be willing to accept the possibility that Donald Trump will in fact succeed — and either gird yourself to start doing the right thing even when it’s politically counterproductive, or explain to yourself, and to the nonwhite Americans you’re abandoning, why you won’t.