Maybe Frank Rich was just having one of those days and needed to take it out on Trump’s base. Probably not. But I am having one of those days and will work it out on Rich’s latest discharge, “No Sympathy for the Hillbilly.”
Rich seems to have concluded that Democrats may well be better off allowing Trump’s base to vote for policies that kill them, and worked backwards from there.
Seriously, Rich concludes that if Trump is unsuccessful: “Maybe… they’ll keep voting against their own interests until the industrial poisons left unregulated by their favored politicians finish them off altogether. Either way, the best course for Democrats may be to respect their right to choose.”
He considers any efforts by the Left to leave its bubble in an attempt to understand Trumpers to be “Hillbilly Chic,” which he deems “an inverted bookend to Radical Chic, the indelible rubric attached by Tom Wolfe in 1970 (in this magazine) to white elites in Manhattan then fawning over black militants.”
Rich displays no indication that he understands who Trump’s base really is, as opposed to the image portrayed Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash and J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, though it’s not clear from his rant that he’s read either of them.
But even if one takes the Trump base in fairly negative terms, it’s telling that Rich would compare Dems trying to understand (or condescend to) long-term unemployed, opiate addicted videogamers on Social Security disability benefits to liberal elites celebrating the Black Panthers, who were ultimately a murderous and totalitarian cult.
He also deems it a waste of time for Dems to chase these “unreachable voters.” It’s a fairly bizarre claim to make in the face of data showing Trump won 209 counties Obama won twice and 194 counties Obama won once. Some on the Left, such as David Leonhardt and Sean McElwee, try to downplay this demographic by looking only at 2012, instead of 2008 — the last open seat election, when Obama was still the man of Hope and Change, rather than a disappointment.
As NYT data-cruncher Nate Cohn noted after the election, millions of votes were at issue. He also smartly observed that even Obama’s 2012 campaign worked hard to target the white working class.
To be sure, I doubt the Obama campaign thought they were going to do nearly as well with the WWC in 2012, but they understood the value of the effort. Dems have been increasingly losing this bloc for decades, but candidates more competent than Hillary Clinton understood you couldn’t lose it too badly.
This was understood, in fact, by many of the same Dems who came up with the Emerging Democratic Majority theory to which Rich seems to subscribe, though it has been controversial among the propeller-heads for years, and has been doubted by one of its chief architects.
Even McElwee, in arguing that Obama-Trump voters may express high levels of racial resentment, is also inherently making the case that such resentment did not make Obama inaccessible to them.
Rich then manages to be schizophrenic on the state of the Democratic Party. He notes that even a terrible candidate like Hillary (and he’s right that she was terrible) won the popular vote and narrowly lost states needed to win the the Electoral College. But in the next paragraph, he reminds us that the party is a “wreck,” that “rules no branch of federal government, holds only 16 governorships, and controls only 14 state legislatures.”
He seems to believe that a party of Young Bernies of Color would be the answer here, but never gets around to making the argument for it. After all, this column was not about thinking, it was about emoting.
Instead, we get the third act, in which Rich rehearses all the lame arguments about false consciousness popularized by Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? and more recently rehashed in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. The latter managed to get called condescending even by the Washington Post, though I think the review at Forbes succinctly captures the problems in the book.
Rich, in his typically puerile partisanship, manages to display none of the nuance I’m sure he fancies himself to possess. He wants to compare Trump’s base to Black Panthers. He wants to be “free to loathe” them. And if they brought about their own deaths, that would be just peachy for him.
It apparently does not occur to him that he’s displaying the sort of ignorance-leading-to-intolerance that he sees in the Rust Belt as viewed from a Manhattan office window. Or that his mindless indulgence of his hatreds and stereotypes mirrors his indictment of them.
I wouldn’t say this is How We Got Trump. But I would note that there’s a lot of wishful thinking involved in the theory the Dems will pick up more votes in swing states by moving further left than Obama.
Of course, it’s Frank Rich, so if I ever met him I wouldn’t even ask him about it from that angle. What I’d really want to know is whether he thinks he’s being original here, or simply collecting a paycheck.
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