>> Monday, November 14, 2016
So these Trump voters had a comprehension problem. But we were just as bad. We couldn't understand what they were saying to us. We refused to accept every signal about whom they hated, and how much. Why? Because Trump's voters were speaking a language that has been taboo in America for decades, if not forever.- Matt Taibbi, "President Trump: How America Got It So Wrong"Rolling Stone, November 10, 2016.
This bullshit is already getting tired. Hey, I like Matt Taibbi, and I don't blame him for trying to spin a DT victory that blindsided him as much as anybody else even though he was on the trail covering the race and probably feels like he should have called it better.
But the problem here isn't that nobody was listening to the DT supporters. Believe me, lots and lots of us were listening to DT supporters. We were listening to DT supporters who chanted "Lock her up!" and "Trump that bitch!" We were even listening when the less vitriolic supporters were talking about how DT's ideas--which often consisted of incoherent word salads--made sense.
We heard. We heard and we couldn't believe our ears.
One of the major reasons a lot of us were blindsided by DT's win, honestly, is that we gave a lot of our fellow citizens too much credit. I know: look at me here, intellectual elitist, being all condescending about my fellow Americans, and this is how I'm part of the problem. Yeah, sure--go back to Taibbi's Rolling Stone postmortem whine, then; have fun.
If you're still here and want to talk seriously: yes, a lot of us dumb, naive liberals honestly believed that Trump's support peaked around one third of the one quarter of Americans who show up to vote in the Republican primaries. We thought he had a ceiling that was much lower than it was, because frankly we thought other Republicans were smart enough and moral enough to be repelled by his rhetoric--which, to be fair, people like Mitt Romney deserve a lot of credit for standing up and trying to be heard. (Let me just digress to give props to members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, of all people: I'm not a big fan, but looking at the quarter of the population of Utah who weren't willing to vote for Clinton but cast their protest vote for Evan McMullin instead of deciding racist demagoguery wasn't a big deal--respect.)
We thought that being an incompetent bigot would be a deal-breaker, even for people who loathed Hillary Clinton. We thought, "Black President, Obergefell, Female Presidential Candidate--we're not there, but we've rounded the bend!" And that was a mistake, absolutely: we were wrong. Something around a quarter to a third of the voting population isn't racist in the showing-up-to-Klan-rallies sense, but they're what you might call racist enablers or endorsers: they don't care enough about how people of color are treated in this world to prioritize them over... whatever, gods only know; irrational hatred of Clinton, some kind of not-actually-factually-based ideas about global economics or national security, whatever.
The remaining DT supporters, the ones who actually got off on him getting away with language that everybody else in America regards as toxic at the very least? Well, yeah, "Basket of Deplorables" may not have been the most politically felicitous phrasing and it pissed a lot of people off, but it's arguably a pretty accurate and maybe even euphemistic description of people who believe Muslims are radicalized terrorists, blacks are lazy welfare cheats who only vote for Democrats because they get free stuff for doing so, Mexicans are job-stealing murderers and rapists, America gives away more money to countries full of brown people than it spends on defending its borders, global warming is a conspiracy, and all the other crap I'm overlooking right now.
Not speaking their language? How about not living in the same consensual reality? The problem isn't that Americans don't know how to talk about class, the problem is that factual disagreements have replaced political ones. A bit hard to have a policy discussion about the President's authorization of assassination-by-flying-robot when the other side is maundering about how said President is actually some kind of Kenyan Muslim sleeper agent trying to oh goddammit I don't even know what the fucking thread is here--I have a part time hobby of collecting absurd conspiracy theories and in all the years I've been doing that, never in my life until Barack Obama ran for President did I hear any frothing nutter spouting off about the damn Kenyan Muslims. Bilderbergs, Freemasons, Illuminati, Jewish bankers, Communists, I've heard everyone named and blamed for everything from the French Revolution to the moon landing, and now, suddenly, people are terrified of the Machiavellian machinations of the Kenyans? I can't even--
(Also, n.b. in the United States, Mr. Taibbi, and I feel like you know this: race is a historic proxy for class that we have been talking about for more than two centuries, admittedly poorly and haltingly and to less effect than might be hoped for; to the extent class exists separately from race in America, we of course have been talking about it, again poorly and haltingly and to less effect than might be hoped for, for maybe just a bit more than a hundred years; and also please n.b. that, to the extent we talk about class poorly and haltingly in America, that has a lot to do with the history of shooting people over it--it's a bit disingenuous to imply that Americans don't talk about class because liberal types have become isolated from the Great Working Masses when the stronger case is that we don't talk about class in America because people who talk earnestly about class in America get killed by strikebreakers and assassins. As I write this, I'm less than a mile from a bridge named after a Sheriff whose claim to fame is getting killed while murdering strikers from the Loray Mill. That kind of puts a sock in it. Martin Luther King talked about class, look where it got him. And the Republicans that DT supporters have a history of going for revere Ronald Reagan, by the way, who didn't actually murder the air traffic controllers, because they were white and it was no longer the 1930s, he just fired them and made them unemployable. Sort of a symbolic murder, if you think about what that did to their families. Meanwhile? Meanwhile pointy headed college intellectuals talk about this shit and class and gender and race and intersectionality all the fucking time, it's just that the conservatives who gave socialism a poison name did the same thing to having an education while they were at it.)
And the whole time, The People, whose intentions we were wondering so hard about, were all around us, listening to themselves being talked about like some wild, illiterate beast.
Well, you don't say? Acted like it, too, didn't they? Taibbi quotes, in a way that manages to come off as weirdly approving, a DT supporter from Pennsylvania:
"When [Trump] talks, I actually understand what he's saying," a young Pennsylvanian named Trent Gower told me at a Trump event a month ago. "But, like, when fricking Hillary Clinton talks, it just sounds like a bunch of bullshit."
We're to respect that? I'm sorry, policy is hard. The real world is complicated. The fact is those we send to Washington to represent us in the legislative and executive branches have to make really complicated decisions based on data sets that often manage to be at once paradoxically overwhelming and insufficient. In the context of defense policy, that incomplete and too-comprehensive mess gets the wonderfully apt label "The Fog of War" and it's often the same thing in economic policy or agrarian policy or energy policy--all of which all too frequently become fused, e.g. when we start talking about corn subsidies, an unholy and godawful cluster fuck of agriculture, energy, economy, and national defense.
Oh, yes, we've insufficiently educated our voters in a country where public education has quietly transitioned from something everybody once agreed was necessary to produce informed voters to a budgetary bargaining chip whose value is now measured in some large part by how many competent laborers it can produce for the American workforce; it's no longer as important to be able to find the Middle East on a map or to know who lost the American Civil War as it is to have "suitable job skills for entering the competitive marketplace of the 21st Century," gag, choke. Perhaps we need some great communicator who can cut the tangled complexities of the modern world into bits that are easier to process.
But, funny thing, educated and informed people who listened to DT thought he was an idiot. It's not that we didn't hear what he was saying: we heard, and its informational content was negative. Whether it was thinking "Two Corinthians" was a book in the Bible and not the setup to a religious joke ("Two Corinthians walk into a bar, and the first one...") or clearly not knowing what the nuclear triad is, or not knowing what is in the Constitution at all, or his uninformed boasting about being smarter than American generals, or, or, or whatever--I don't know that there has been a more fundamentally ignorant Presidential candidate in our history; Andrew Jackson, who was mocked as a rube, and Harry Truman, who was mocked as a rube--they were better educated men than DT.
Which isn't to say that poor Gower is wholly wrong about Hillary Clinton and bullshit, mind you: look, I watched and listened to the debates, and there were undeniably times that Clinton was bullshitting. Mostly in predictable and routine ways. Yeah, she pivoted on questions she didn't like; yeah, she ducked issues she thought she was politically vulnerable on. What she didn't do? What she didn't do was sound like she didn't understand the questions she tried (often successfully) to avoid answering. She didn't sound pathetically uninformed, incompetent, out of her depth, clueless, a hopeless idiot, where'd I put my thesaurus?
I can get being a little turned off by that, what I can't get is someone actually saying, "When Trump talks, I understand what he's saying." Because there's nothing to understand--I kind of wish Taibbi hadn't named names with this guy, because for several years now, I've tried to be kind here towards people who aren't famous; in the early days of this blog, I sometimes punched down and I shouldn't have, but it's so hard, wanting to reach through the screen and shake Mr. Gower and shout, "Donald Trump makes noise but he doesn't say anything, you poor sack, and if you think he's saying something and you think he's making sense, it's because you have no fucking clue, you poor bastard!" A DT debate answer is an exercise in pareidolia; fucking ELIZA would have given Clinton a tougher fight at the debates. If you understand what Donald Trump is saying, you, sir, are as big an idiot as he is.
Gods only know: I know that liberals wrongly mocked George W. Bush's intellect. Wrongly, because I really don't think--and I said this when the man was in office--that even a Legacy coasts through Yale and Harvard; I think Bush was incurious and trusting, was insufficiently skeptical of the people he surrounded himself and didn't ask the kinds of tough analytical questions Obama seems to. In a lot of unfortunate ways, G.W. Bush was probably a bit like another Texan President, LBJ, who possessed a lot of savvy but allowed himself to be intellectually intimidated by people who weren't really any smarter than he was, they just carried off the pretense of being intellectuals tragically well.
But Bush, Bush could answer a damn question; oh, sure, he might mangle the grammar. He didn't have the most orderly mind. But you could tell where he was trying to go with his thought. There was undeniable comedy in the way the thought got lost in the brush, sometimes, but you knew where it came from and you could see where it was supposed to come out, and if he accidentally spliced in a Pete Townshend lyric, say, well, that was worth a good laugh. But DT? He does not give great answers. He does not give the best answers, the very best. People do talk about his answers, but they are not saying nice things, the best things, the very best things, great things, about his answers.
Admittedly, it appears we were wrong that Clinton's basic competence would shine through and persuade even if she sometimes shoveled bullshit in what we took to be traditional, conventional, commonly and historically accepted ways. "Naturally, she's a bit unsatisfactory about speaking fees and a bit dodgy on taxes, but who hasn't been since we started televising these things in 1960? Hate the game, not the player, right? We're comparing someone who has spent her life preparing for this job to someone who apparently doesn't know what he's auditioning for." We said, and assumed, and we were wrong, undeniably we were wrong.
But I'm not sure we should be blamed for that. The sin was in giving people what turned out to be too much credit: I can see what's going on here, surely everyone does. I wouldn't vote for a racist over a competent non-racist, wouldn't you? Okay, so there's a whiff of corruption in the whole speaking fees department and the e-mail server thing probably wasn't criminal but wasn't a hundred percent kosher, either, but this guy brags about not paying taxes for nearly twenty years because he lost a billion dollars that wasn't even his money, plus he's being sued for fraud and have you looked at his trail of bankruptcies? To vote for this guy, you have to be okay with misogyny and racism, if not actually a misogynist and racist; you have to favor exotic and extraordinary displays of corruption and criminal behavior over the merely banal and typical; you have to be charmed by obvious ignorance and incompetence and somehow actually offended by someone who can demonstrate a broad grasp of myriad technical issues.
It's one thing to side with laugh with the bully and pick on the nerdy kid who didn't just do all last night's homework but actually spent the rest of his evening reading books that weren't even assigned. Oh, hell: no it isn't, either. Kids are little assholes when they do this kind of thing, and we adults tend to yell at them when we find out they're doing it. What I meant, really, was that we sort of expect kids to do that kind of crap and take it accordingly. And we expect those kids to grow out of it sometime around their late teens, when they start going to college or entering the armed forces or getting jobs or whatever it is they're going to do with themselves. There's a not unreasonable expectation that adults are supposed to be impressed with experts at some level, and that these experts in whatever field they're found in will rise to the top of it. I know, doesn't actually work out that way in real life all the time, and maybe less than you think or hope; but it's not unreasonable to think that in the adult world, the bully will be ostracized and the nerd will receive some kind of respect.
And really, what's the answer if Taibbi's right (he isn't)? Pandering to racists? Dumbing down the discourse even further? Telling the same lies DT tells, if you can even call some of the random catchphrases he pops out lies? (Does a statement have to have a meaning before it can be evaluated for truth or falsity?) Saying that this is entirely, or even largely, a breakdown in communications is to imply that there's some validity to voting for DT, and is suggesting that the problem is that the complaints weren't heard or weren't understood, as opposed to heard, understood, and rejected.
Maybe we didn't lose because we didn't listen. Maybe we lost because America is simply a worse place than we thought it was.