Strong opinions, weakly held

Yes, Trump voters voted for white privilege

I’m here to write about an incredibly annoying op-ed that I saw in the New York Times entitled Sorry, Liberals. Bigotry Didn’t Elect Donald Trump. by David Paul Kuhn. In it, Kuhn breaks down the poll numbers to take down what I see as a straw man — the purported argument made by liberals that people voted for Donald Trump because he is a bigot. I suppose some people think that, but that’s not an argument that needs rebuttal.

Kuhn’s argument is, for all intents and purposes, the argument made by everyone who attempts to vindicate Trump voters, which is that they are economically disadvantaged and they voted for the person who promised change (the reasons why none of those promises will be kept should be obvious to anybody actually paying attention). Here’s the crux:

By 2016, Mr. Trump personified the vote against the status quo, one still not working out for them. A post-campaign study comparing the George W. Bush coalition in 2000 to the Trump coalition in 2016 found that Mr. Trump particularly improved in areas hurt most by competition from Chinese imports, from the bygone brick and tile industry of Mason City, Iowa, to the flagging furniture plants of Hickory, N.C. The study concluded that, had the import competition from China been half as large, Mrs. Clinton would have won key swing states and the presidency with them.

And here’s his description of how Trump is regarded by those who did vote for him:

Bluntly put, much of the white working class decided that Mr. Trump could be a jerk. Absent any other champion, they supported the jerk they thought was more on their side — that is, on the issues that most concerned them.

I agree with that! But here’s the thing. Kuhn just described what bigotry is! People didn’t vote for Trump to vote in favor of bigotry — they voted for him because his bigotry didn’t seem like it would harm them. They felt like they could afford to vote for Trump because they don’t really listen to or care about people who aren’t white or aren’t straight.

I would also make the argument that everything about Trump’s campaign signalled that his administration would maintain and even expand white privilege as a force in America. Trump himself is the personfication of white privilege — he’s a rich white guy who set out every day to show that he didn’t care about the norms established for Presidential candidates. He made it perfectly clear that the ethical standards applied to past candidates were irrelevant to him. He doesn’t think it is important for one prove they are qualified to hold a job in order to get it. If black people have to be twice as good to be recognized as successful at work, Donald Trump is living proof that there is no floor on how bad you can be as long as you can speak in bro code in a way that appeals to white people.

So yeah, white people don’t tell pollsters that holding on to white privilege (and male privilege) was a key issue for them in 2016. That is, however, what they told us when they went to the voting booth. It’s not that they saw Trump’s flaws as strengths, it’s that they felt safe ignoring them.

1 Comment

  1. Fantastic, succinct editorial. Thank you.

    I agree that outright bigotry is not the main factor Trump won. ‘White privilege’ does not entail that no ‘white’ people are poor and disadvantaged (many are, and many voted for Trump) but rather that most persons of color in the same material circumstances would be at an even greater disadvantage. All other variables being equal, would you rather be poor and ‘white’ in America or poor and ‘black’?

    Hopefully someday we can honestly say it wouldn’t make a difference. To that end, let’s be attentive to people’s notions of race but also point out how arbitrary they are. Who, exactly, is ‘white’ or ‘black’? Let’s admit that people perceived as ‘white’ tend to have advantages right now and challenge the legitimacy of the underlying perception of the racial category ‘white’ and others like it. Let’s celebrate skin color and our real attributes but abolish “race,” pointing out the real harm this sloppy, backward concept continues to cause. Both Ta-Nehisi Coates and people who don’t want any extra advantages just for being perceived as ‘white’ would agree on this. Keep it up.

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