A week or so ago I posted about a question I had seen asked by a lot of people dismayed by Trump’s election – ‘is it really about the economy? or really about racism?’ I claimed that this is really two different questions wrapped together – a social scientific question, of what causes or explains what, and an emotional question, of whether to empathise with anti-establishment rage (even while thinking it misdirected) or not.
Multiple friends have pushed me to recognise that there’s actually more wrapped up in this question, and some of it is can be answered more confidently.
One big issue, perhaps the simplest and most direct, is about condemnation and exculpation. To say ‘voting for Trump is racist’ implies a serious moral judgement on voters. I think sometimes when people say ‘this isn’t really racism, it’s misdirected economic distress’, the subtext is that such a moral judgement is unfair. It’s an attempt to excuse and defend, not just one explanatory hypothesis among many.
But, as a friend of mine pointed out, the explanatory question is actually fairly irrelevant to this question of condemnation. Even if racist sentiment wasn’t the primary motive for an action, the action can still be egregiously racist – can still express and reflect a failure to see non-white people as fully human. And I have to say that I think voting for Donald Trump is an example of such an action.
If some supposedly economy-focused voter, who really just wanted more tax cuts or more infrastructure spending (or whatever Trump was promising that week), was willing to support someone who associated with, promoted, and inspired explicit white supremacists, promised to ban a religion from entering the country, and constantly associated undocumented migrants with a non-existent rise in crime… then they were expressing indifference to the obvious fact that electing this candidate would impose life-ruining costs on millions of non-white people. And that indifference is itself dehumanising and racist.
The other question is what to do. I think for some people saying ‘it’s really about the economy’ is a way of saying ‘what we need to do is reach out to Trump voters with a economically populist, but anti-racist, message.’ For others, saying ‘racism is the driving force’ is a way of saying ‘what would work best is more militancy, more confrontation, more active assertion of our opposition.’ Which of those two stances is correct isn’t a question about why things happened in the past but about what could happen in the future.
While I’m perfectly happy saying that voting for Trump is a racist thing to do, I’m really uncertain about that practical question. In part that’s because both sides can say, with some plausibility, that the other plan has already been followed and failed. Decades of politicians condemning racism in the harshest terms, decades of politicians promising the address the ‘very real concerns’ of anti-immigrant voters, and here we are.
Obviously the question of what is the best political strategies for progressives is an important one, but it’s a daunting one and I’m not going to try to answer it here. I think there’s some value in distinguishing the four different questions noted above, and in recognising their significant independence of one another – in particular, that even if economic factors are the biggest explanatory factor for why people vote for Trump, doing so is still racist.
(I should also note that the question of how progressives should deal with Trump-voters is a different and harder question than how they should deal with Trump and his government, which I think is another relatively easy question: oppose and obstruct it at every possible turn.)