A version of this article appears in the Fall 2016 edition of The Public Eye magazine.
This is, in some respects, a ghost story. A political ghost story in which the mythic, the symbolic, the demon archetype come to substitute for sustained engagement with ordinary human beings. Both major political parties love to tell scary stories about the other side, while offering their own followers a vicarious sense of power—of superiority—over those dehumanized opponents, those ghosts. It’s intoxicating stuff.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about what that means when it comes to Donald Trump.
The short answer: A lot more than one election and a fear- contempt- and ridicule-based campaign that demonizes not only Trump but his overwhelmingly White followers. Scot Nakagawa and Tarso Luís Ramos recently wrote at PRA about the need to increase the social justice movement’s capacity to disrupt and defuse the momentum of the Right, and to offer an appealing alternative to the likes of Trump:
We compete by going up against the Right and vying directly for the loyalty of those who make up the immediate projected base of their support: White working-class people. Most right-wing groups’ core support is drawn from the White middle class, but right-wing movements don’t stop there. They traditionally organize “down” the economic ladder and reach for working-class Whites, whose numbers are vital to their success. Successfully competing will require us to authentically express empathy and compassion to White poor people and to those who fear falling into poverty, and to do so while marrying economic justice to racial and social equity.
As it happens, I know something about winning over the Right’s rank and file supporters.
When I was growing up in southern Colorado, the daughter of “respectable blue collar” parents in a lunch-bucket steel mill town, I was an ardent teenage supporter of Barry Goldwater during his failed but pivotal 1964 campaign for the presidency. Pundits said, and many believed, that his loss dealt a death-blow to the Right. It was a premature obituary.
Just four years later, former Alabama governor George Wallace (“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!”) ran a surprisingly strong third party, right-wing populist campaign for the presidency, at one point polling a possible 23 percent of the national vote. Then Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, and Richard Nixon was elected president.
The Right had reinvented itself, but I’d changed, too. By this time, still in Colorado, I was a state college student, becoming ever more deeply immersed in movements to fight racism, support farmworker organizing, and oppose the war in Vietnam. My personal political transformation hadn’t been a “road to Damascus” epiphany. It was complicated and slow—often painful, always humbling, and sometimes shattering. But ultimately liberating.
I’m no expert in the science of political transformation, and I doubt that anyone is, or that there’s much science to it. Yet I believe my experience holds some relevance for the current political moment. Because even if Trump drops or is maneuvered off the Republican ticket tomorrow, or Hillary Clinton beats him by a landslide in November, this story won’t be over.
That’s because everything that Trumpism represents is so much larger and more complex than one man or one campaign. While the views of Trumpism are announced without the usual rhetorical filters and political sophistication, it isn’t an aberration. Its authoritarian and White nativist roots extend throughout all of American history; for decades, the conservative movement and the Republican Party have strategically stoked the racism and xenophobia animating today’s Trump phenomenon.
I don’t minimize the danger of Trump’s campaign, which is soaked in White supremacist and xenophobic fear, grievance, and suspicion, and blended with intense doses of braggadocio, narcissism, celebratory climate change denial, American exceptionalism, and triumphalism. Nor do I dismiss the influence of supporting groups of militant White nativists, “sovereign citizens,” and neonazis who constantly chum the political waters.
But here I’m talking about ordinary White blue collar and working class people who aren’t reflexively prone to racist violence or White supremacist fanaticism. Many of them just breathe in casual, normative racism like air, never thinking to question what is all around them. That’s what I did when I was growing up, as did my family and community—many of whom had been written off in a variety of ways for much of their lives, perhaps for generations. Pegged by society as losers or disposable workers, and treated with contempt and ridicule by those with greater social and economic status, they are recognized only at election times by opportunistic politicians struggling for greater standing.
Because a sense of belonging is especially important in a society where you know your life matters little except to those closest to you, appeals to group loyalty—and a willingness to name and persecute those who challenge that loyalty—often carry special resonance. White identity permits even White people in economic free-fall that sense of belonging. And because White identity is so significant (even if not consciously acknowledged), these are people whose racial anxieties and prejudices are easily inflamed and manipulated.
I’m not suggesting we appeal to the Right’s lay supporters on the basis of economics and class alone. We can’t excuse or minimize the enduring emotional power and elastic utility of overt and coded appeals to White identity. But we also can’t simply write these people off as “tools,” “idiots” or “morons,” and expect them to miraculously disappear or instantly reverse course based on sudden insight. (“Oh, damn! I’ve been voting against my own interests! I need to stop doing that!”) Without actual engagement, these communities will continue to gravitate towards leaders who scapegoat communities of color, queers, Muslims, and immigrants. Some other demagogue will always be on hand to tap into this reservoir of racism—usually blended with legitimate economic grievance—and another right-wing populist crusade will commence.
My conservative Republican parents didn’t drag me into the 1964 Goldwater campaign. They weren’t rabid Right Wingers like the folks in the John Birch Society, whose billboards and literature denouncing Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights movement, and “the communist conspiracy” littered our civic landscape.
But our family was worried about the future; it seemed so tenuous. When I was very young, Dad lost a promising job that was supposed to be the first step on the ladder leading into the middle class, and he never got a better one. Mom, who was simultaneously furious over and humiliated by teachers’ inquiries as to whether my sister and I were getting enough to eat, went back to work, as a low-paid medical insurance secretary. And while my father was grateful for the lunch bucket job he finally got, monitoring gauges at pump stations for the local water works (a job he kept till he retired), he hated that he had to join the union. We desperately needed the benefits, but he believed guys on the way up didn’t belong to unions, that unions were for losers. He put on a good public front, but my father always felt like a failure. That was abundantly clear at home. Try as I might to feel optimistic, I often felt like a loser, too.
But even if we fell short in terms of economic status, at least we were White. Not Ku Klux Klan White, although the Klan once had an influential presence where I grew up. But the kind of Whites who thought Anglo domination was the right thing in a town that was probably almost half “Mexican” (as we said then), and which until 1963 still had a segregated black orphanage. The kind who, while not especially mean-spirited, nonetheless never questioned “respectable” expressions of bigotry or structural forms of racism.
When I was in ninth grade, a friend’s mother—who was a rabid Right Winger—seemed to sense my hunger to belong to something bigger and more powerful than myself. (For me, church and the Girl Scouts weren’t the answer.) She swept me into the 1964 campaign. As a young Goldwater Girl, I read endless right-wing screeds, poured hundreds of cups of campaign ginger ale (from promotional cans labeled “Gold Water”), and tromped from rally to meeting to state convention, alternately absorbing and parroting warnings about impending racial and communist doom.
Tailor-made for people anxious about their futures, Goldwater’s campaign was steeped in the fear of enemies. Civil Rights agitation, court rulings, and litigation constituted a criminal assault on individual liberty and states’ rights. The Civil Rights movement would produce a federal police state in which people, both Black and White, would lose the freedom to live their lives as they choose (that is, in segregation). Protest was framed as a breakdown of moral order and an indicator of criminal unrest. Such “welfare state” initiatives as Medicare (proposed at the time, but not yet enacted into law) and Social Security (longstanding) could only foster pathological and parasitical dependencies—primarily in Black communities, we understood. But vicariously, through Goldwater, we would beat back those enemies. We would win.
Liberals cheered Goldwater’s epic defeat. But their glee was misplaced. Even in losing, Goldwater changed mainstream political possibilities. He’d been willing to wage tactical nuclear warfare. His campaign helped set the stage for what would become the Republican “Southern Strategy,” which refined racist dog whistling to an art and ultimately delivered the historically Democratic South to the GOP. Fear, resentment, and the presumption of superiority were the glues that bonded people, including me, to his campaign. Paradoxically, to supporters, those sentiments had felt comforting, even hopeful. I was stunned by the magnitude of the loss, though I tried not to show it—our family ethos was “never let them see you hurting because they’ll think you’re weak.” That liberal glee, stamping me once again as a loser, cut to the quick.
My arc toward a more progressive direction began in 1965, during my last two years of high school, thanks to one courageous classmate and three remarkable teachers who challenged me to reconsider my views. They did it individually, in a multitude of ways, including sharing their own beliefs and telling me more about themselves. I never felt singled out as their conversion project. While often putting me uncomfortably on the spot, they were never demonizing, ridiculing, or demeaning. No one tried to tell me what I should believe. They listened as much as they talked.
One teacher said that if I could draw on credible sources to back up my arguments about Vietnam, and the history of French and American presence there, he would, every day for a week, announce before the class that I was right and he was wrong. After sequestering myself in the public library for many hours, I came away with piles of research that refuted my beliefs. But my teacher didn’t laugh at me. Rather, we sat together one day after class, and I talked to him about how much it meant that he took me seriously. When I could so easily have been a symbolic representation of everything they held in contempt, my classmate and these teachers looked more deeply and, with no guarantees, reached for the most human and the best in me. And at some point, I started to reach back.
The Goldwater folks taught me to build community by defining myself against enemies, but when you do that, you’re always anxious about anyone who isn’t just like you.
I began to see what was obvious, but what I’d never really paid attention to before. Poverty was widespread in my hometown, and it was intensely raced, as was every aspect of civic, social and economic life. The Red Scare was a way to avoid facing injustice at home while barricading yourself against danger and creating a military on steroids. The Goldwater folks taught me to build community by defining myself against enemies, but when you do that, you’re always anxious about anyone who isn’t just like you. There had to be a better way to exist in the world. These realizations gave me the motivation and psychic space in which to re-examine my (increasingly shaky) convictions—to see my community, and the world and other people, through new lenses.
It’s excruciating to feel your own edifice of defense begin to crumble, to see your own beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors in a clearer, harsher, light. But those three teachers and that classmate made it possible for me to come through it without feeling so cornered that I had no choice but to hit back out of anger and shame. What could have been only mortifying was instead mortifying and transformative, within a context of building genuine, trustworthy relationships.
This is why I think it’s so important to try, as progressives, to compete for the part of Trump’s audience that may be reachable. People didn’t write me off. I must do the same.
Beyond Goldwater, Wallace, and Trump
In 1968, in the wake of the assassinations of King and Kennedy, so-called “race riots” broke out in more than 100 U.S. cities. Anti-war protesters at the Democratic National Convention were met with violent responses from Chicago police. And George Wallace ran for president as an independent. Although he ultimately lost, I was shocked by how much support he elicited in my hometown, then a reliably Democratic stronghold. (I shouldn’t have been. The political center was already shifting to the right. Nixon won the local vote that year.)
Although many of Wallace’s supporters were openly racist, some people I knew personally were not and did not think of themselves as bigoted. But most of them, including many of the same blue-collar people who’d voted for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, were responding to the racial and economic anxieties that formed the taproot of Wallace’s campaign. Where Goldwater had stood at something of a remove from working class White people—relying on coded phrasing to convey his racial views, largely ignoring class—Wallace spoke bluntly and emotionally, directing his message to blue collar Whites in ways that honored them, even as they reinforced racist themes.
From the outside, Wallace’s right-wing populist crusade looked like nothing more than crude demagoguery. But people I knew who supported Wallace felt that he alone understood their struggles and fears. The local steel mill, a huge employer, was already feeling the discomfiting stirrings of what, in a little more than a decade, would become a full-fledged steel market crash. Simultaneously, an emergent Chicano movement for cultural self-determination, political and economic power, and reclamation of stolen lands was making itself known. Anglo supremacist norms were being challenged. The world they knew was coming apart, and they desperately wanted someone to put it back together. In Wallace’s vision, their lives became meaningful, their futures more hopeful. Unlike Goldwater, Wallace played directly to people whose lives were of no concern to those who dominated the political discourse.
I see so much of Wallace in Trump. Like the former governor, Trump has an instinct for tapping the same racial and economic anxieties in emotionally-charged and, to many, compelling ways. But ghost stories, whether told by the Right or the Left, only amplify anxiety. They don’t produce more just societies. Demonizing Trump’s followers won’t dismantle White supremacy, or transform an oppressive criminal legal system, or produce the kind of economic justice that extends beyond the middle class. (Nor will a Democratic victory produce these things just because it stands in opposition to Trump. But that’s a discussion for another time.)
Somebody’s got to do the work of engaging ordinary White folks who support Trump, as well as other right-wing agendas.
Somebody’s got to do the work of engaging ordinary White folks who support Trump, as well as other right-wing agendas, and initiatives from both major parties that solidify the racial and economic status quo. If we don’t, right-wing populism will reappear again and again, in forms that have evolved to adapt to changing conditions. White people—including me—bear primary responsibility for this task.
It’s not sexy work. It requires a kind of radical compassion that resists the easy politics of contempt and dehumanization. And it can’t be our only work. Even as we compete, with imagination and persistence, for the loyalty of blue collar and working class White people, we must balance that with support for anti-racism and anti-Islamophobia struggles, immigrants’ rights, Indigenous sovereignty, environmental protection, and more.
It would be so much easier to simply distance ourselves from people we’ve come to regard as bigoted, benighted, and lost—the “basket of deplorables,” if you will. But “easier” never created political transformation. And believe me, as someone whose almost 50 years of progressive activism speaks to the power of engagement with real human beings rather than demonized ghosts, I know that it can be done.
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