From Feb. 24, 2017
I posted this article earlier without comment, but I think it warrants some comment. I’ve seen a lot of articles like this, in which liberals go out to Trump America to find out what people really think. And, while this is certainly a good thing (and this article in particular does a good job of collecting some of the relevant comments), I’m always struck by the one-sidedness of this project. I have yet to see anyone suggesting that those in Trump America should go out and talk to liberals, to find out what really concerns them. Maybe this has happened, but I’m struggling to think of a single example.
Now, there could be several reasons for this, none of them really convincing. One is that Trump won, and so winners don’t need to care about what losers think. That falls apart – we had these calls for understanding long before the last election, all through Obama’s presidency. And, the protests since January 20 have been sharp enough that you’d think someone might just want to find out what people are so worked up about. When the Tea Party was in the ascendancy, there were plenty of calls to understand just what their grievances were. Now, nothing analogous.
A second reason is that everyone, conservatives and liberals, have internalized what I call the “Sarah Palin” account – Trump America is “real” America and liberal America is not real America, and so we need to understand the real. This is something like an article of faith, but its force comes from a metaphorical frame about the country which is itself contested. In other words, the one-sidedness of calls for understanding might rely on an implicit idea that many are willing to buy into, that white rural America is the authentic America. Clearly, I do not buy into that frame for the country, but it would explain the one-sidedness here. And, it is racist.
There’s that word that came up over and over in this article. People resent being called racist. And yet, if the grievance is always that no one in power understands rural white America, but at the same time there is no need to try to understand any other parts of America (or worse, to treat them as less authentic, less deserving, less part of the formative culture of the US), I don’t know what other word to use.
There’s a third reason, which is that Trump America already fully understands liberal America, whereas liberal America does not understand Trump America. I only partially buy that – I think none of us really understands much of anything, but we all think we understand a great deal. Maybe its the Socratic in me, but I wish we could all admit that we know nothing, and start from there to find out. Standing on knowledge we think we have is standing on ideology.
What strikes me in reading the summary of comments in this article is that there is an overwhelming sense that those who were interviewed are claiming a lot of knowledge for themselves about the rest of America. They know what liberals think. They know the motivations and lives of others. The core problem is that no one knows or cares about their motivations and lives. They know. But how do they know? Is it from direct life experience? No, it is from media, and in particular from Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and similar outlets.
So, they are very sure that they are being relentlessly mocked in every way by liberal America. Is that true? Not in my experience. In my experience, many of the grievances they raise are exactly the same ones others would raise. Is the concern about money taking over politics limited to the right? Of course not. Is the concern that Wall Street investors can get rich while everyone else languishes limited to the right? Of course not. Is the concern about available health care limited to the right? Again, no.
They are not being relentlessly mocked. But they are being told that they are, and they are believing that. The problems they identify are often the ones that everyone else has identified. The solutions, though, are another matter. Where they are being mocked is in the solutions, the ones which assume that white America is the only real America, that all problems come from the outside (or the insiders who are really outsiders). Blacks. Gays. Muslims. Mexicans. College-educated. They are being mocked when they want to view everyone else with suspicion, but reserve for themselves the unquestioned status of virtue.
I would love to see a push on the right to try to understand the concerns of the left, rather than assuming they already know. Yes, we need articles like this one, which re-articulate the reasons for the right’s grievance, using its own words and from its own point of view. But there was little new for me in those quotes. My guess is, though, that if a similar exercise was done, there would be a lot new to those who are demanding to be understood. Understanding has to go both ways. Anything less is, to quote George W. Bush (for perhaps the first time ever), the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
ADDITION: It occurs to me that there might be another component, which is a difference in epistemology, or perhaps better, in cognitive strategies. We could see this in how Trump is treated by his supporters. Many know that he’s a problem, but they recognize in him someone who understands them. There is an intuitive sense there, a gut feeling. It’s not exactly Colbert’s “truthiness”, although it is related. It is “like recognizes like”. It is the inner light, the Protestant version of the Holy Spirit that confirms the authenticity of something for believers. Of course, there’s also still a priestly class at work here, but what’s noteworthy is that something like Fox News was very ambivalent about Trump before the election. Hannity, of course, was a huge cheerleader, but others were not. Trumpists, though, say that he speaks directly to them, even when by any objective standard he is lying. So, this cognitive strategy of just recognizing the truth is at odds with the strategy of having to go out and find evidence before you believe something.