It’s fine when preaching to the choir to dismiss the spirit driving the Trump phenomenon as racism. And while there are quite a few actual racists that stand out in their words, the millions of people behind it are not all literal white supremacists. Understanding what they’re upset about is key to talking to them instead of firing them up more.
Trump’s appeal does not lie in uncovering a latent belief in a huge minority of Americans that minorities are inferior. It is not racism in that sense. The ugly tone of the rhetoric is more like a Tourette’s tic with the racist language a taboo that feels good to violate.
But why is that a rewarding tic to scratch? Because from the perspective of these folks, it’s not a far left and politically irrelevant group of Berkeley liberals that are trying to impose their way of life on the, it’s one huge mass: the banks, the corporations, the government, and their tradition-destroying ways (you know, the revisionist defense of the Confederacy in a nutshell.) You cannot separate all of this if you want to understand these impressions. This isn’t to say these are correct, just to be crystal clear.
What liberals often fail to realize in the context of the culture wars (which they usually win) is that winning and “being right” don’t translate into permanent changes of outlook. Not many people honestly believe, for example, that things like gay marriage are going to be reversed, but that doesn’t mean everyone thinks it’s OK now and they were wrong then. They grudgingly accept (often in a self-martyring way) that this is the world now. This makes the next big change harder to accept. Progressives and conservatives are totally out of sync in how much change they are willing to accept. The problem comes when the progressives get out of sync with the majority (at least for them).
I don’t think that calling large numbers of people racists is persuasive even if it is true and especially even if it is only technically true. It’s also important to recognize that we have been screwed by the economy. Just because everyone isn’t sophisticated enough to figure out that the source of it is different or that the government isn’t really giving unfair advantages to undocumented aliens, blacks, and gays is a different issue.
So fine, when preaching to the choir you can wistfully marvel at the racist language coming out of so much of America. But to lead them, you need a plausible explanation that doesn’t involve shaming half the country for feeling like they’ve lost forward momentum in the last ten years.