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The strawman that will never die

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2019 Views

Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman have a new book about the reactionary turn in white rural America that has predictably generated a great deal of criticism that is large on personal attacks and hand-waving and light on substantive response, the latter of which I’ve mean meaning to get to. (In the meantime, the authors respond here.) In the meantime, I wanted to highlight this blog by Tom Scocca, who responding to an attempt by a critic to draw what AFICT is a non-empirical, analytically useless distinction between “rage” and “resentment” points out that Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” speech did exactly what critics of white rural rage thesis insist that Democrats never do:

The key difference, Jacobs wrote, is that unlike rage, resentment “is rational, a reaction based on some sort of negative experience. You may not agree that someone has been treated unfairly, but there is room to empathize.” And liberals’ belief in white rural rage gets in the way of that necessary empathy, he argued, continuing a “reflexive condescension and dismissal of rural voters that escalated during the George W. Bush administration and peaked with Hillary Clinton’s campaign and her dismissal of Trump supporters as a ‘basket of deplorables.’”

What would expressing real concern for rural voters sound like? Jacobs explained that liberals need to find a whole new way of looking at Trump supporters. Trump’s rural voters are

people who feel the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures; and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but – he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

Just kidding! That wasn’t Jacobs. It was Hillary Clinton, in those same remarks now known as the “Basket of Deplorables” speech. 

The whole point of the Basket of Deplorables speech was that there was more than one basket of Trump supporters. Clinton was telling her audience—the audience at the LGBTQ for Hillary Gala—that despite the visible, undeniable bigotry in the Trump movement, some of it directed specifically at them, not every potential Trump voter was a bigot or irredeemable. She was urging them to understand why ordinary Americans might be hungry enough for change to vote for someone like Trump.

And then the Trump movement responded by declaring that no, there was only one basket, that the racists and homophobes and xenophobes did, in fact, represent them all. The press, in turn, adopted the Trump position that Clinton had insulted everyone who supported Trump, and since her defeat has spent the next eight years, countless words, and who knows how much travel budget recreating exactly the message about understanding and empathy that Clinton had delivered in the first place—insisting, all the while, that no one had ever thought of it before. 

Eight years of asserting that Clinton said the nearly precise inverse of what she actually said has been very successful propaganda, and in the critics of White Rural Rage we see mostly futile attempts to square a familiar circle: i.e. 1)Democrats have made efforts to materially address the stated non-“deplorable” grievances of white rural America; 2)Republicans have not; and yet 3)white rural rage against Democrats and their core constituencies is both rationally justified and could be addressed by [insert vague underpants gnomes theory here] that Democrats stubbornly refuse to do because they regard all Trump supporters as deplorable. I will come back to this but it’s an exhausting cycle.

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