The two sins revealed by this election
For those of us who opposed Donald Trump, the response to Tuesday’s vote could be anger or honest reflection. I’m not by nature an angry person, so I will try the latter.
Trump remade the political map with a huge surge of support from working-class whites, particularly in rural communities. Let me be honest, this is a world I don’t know — and many people probably don’t know very well — and that’s part of the problem. We have all managed to ignore the pain of rural America.
An essay on the satirical website Cracked, by David Wong (who grew up in a small town in Illinois), gives voice to the rage of rural Americans. “The whole goddamned world revolves around [America’s cities],” he wrote. The vast majority of the country’s pop culture is all about city dwellers. Most new movies, shows, songs and games are about New York or Los Angeles or Chicago or some fantasy version of them. Nearly every trend comes from a metropolis. All the hot new industries are in hip cities. “If you live in [rural America], that f---ing sucks,” he wrote.
Cities get disproportionate attention from media and other elites, who also all live in and around a handful of cities. Wong writes that Hurricane Katrina, in the popular imagination, is all about New Orleans. “To watch the news (or the multiple movies and TV shows about it), you’d barely hear about how the storm utterly steamrolled rural Mississippi. . . . What’s newsworthy about a bunch of . . . hillbillies crying over a flattened trailer? New Orleans is culturally important. It matters.”
“To those ignored, suffering people, Donald Trump is a brick chucked through the window of the elites. ‘Are you a------- listening now?’”
In fact, many more people died in New Orleans than in rural Mississippi, and the bulk of physical destruction took place there as well. And there was a lot of coverage of the devastation of rural areas. But the broader point is true: Cities capture our attention in ways that rural communities do not.
Over the past three or four decades, the United States has sorted itself into a highly efficient meritocracy, where people from all economic walks of life can move up the ladder of achievement and income (usually ending up in cities). It is better than using race, gender or bloodlines as the key to wealth and power, but it does create its own problems. As in any system, some people won’t ascend to the top, and because it is a meritocracy, it is easy to believe that that’s justified.
A meritocracy can be blind to the fact that some people don’t make it because they have been unlucky in some way. More profoundly, it can be morally blind. Even those who score poorly on tests or have bad work habits are human beings deserving of attention and respect. The Republicans’ great success in rural communities has been that even though they often champion economic policies that would not help these people — indeed, policies that often hurt them — they demonstrate respect, by identifying with them culturally, religiously and emotionally.
So, the great sin of the modern left is elitism. But another sin was also highlighted in this election: racism.
Trump won among whites without a college degree by a staggering 39 points, but he won those with a college education by four points as well. He won working-class whites but also middle-class whites. As Nick Confessore and Nate Cohn put it in the New York Times, “He electrified the country’s white majority and mustered its full strength against long-term demographic decay.”
In this respect, Trump is not unusual. Right-wing populism is on the rise across many Western countries. It is rising in countries in Northern Europe, where economic growth has been robust; in Germany, where manufacturing jobs have stayed strong; and in France, where the state provides many protections for the working class. The one common trait everywhere is that white majority populations have faced a recent influx of immigrants.
Perhaps the phenomenon might be better described as a cultural reaction to change, but it often expresses itself simply as hostility to people who are different, and usually brown and black. Consider, for example, that 72 percent of registered Republican voters still doubt that Barack Obama was born in the United States, according to an August NBC News poll.
Donald Trump’s political skill was to speak defiantly about both of these sensitive issues — elitism and race — in simple, direct and politically incorrect ways that connected with white voters, particularly white men. But in doing so, he also terrified tens of millions of other Americans. It is important that we have a serious conversation about elitism and rural communities. But it is also important that we not shy away from a conversation about race. There are other ignored and suffering people in the United States as well. We all need to be listening to each other now.
(c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group