Donald Trump Is Marion Barry for Rural White People

Here's a thought that occurred to me during one of this week's sleepless nights: Donald Trump is Marion Barry for rural white people.

That's probably too cryptic for a lot of people, since I'm now an old man who yells at clouds, but what I'm referring to is Barry's second election as mayor of DC, the one after he served time in federal prison for being busted smoking crack. Even prior to the bust, Barry was pretty much a disaster due to his drug problems, so when he ran again it was widely seen as a joke. But then he won.

I was in grad school at Maryland at the time, and remember a lot of shock and disbelief that the DC electorate would vote for such a walking disaster. And very quickly after his re-election, most of the DC government was put into receivership (the Republican Congress elected in 1994 was not a fan of Barry...). I recall lots of people asking each other "How could they vote this clown back into office? Don't they know that he's a wreck?"

The most persuasive explanation I heard of this was that yes, the voters of DC were perfectly aware that Barry was a disaster, but they didn't care. They voted for him because they viewed it as a way to send a message a system that was screwing them over in numerous ways. If anything, his cartoonishly awful behavior just made him more attractive as a way to shock and horrify the elites who really ran things. And, sure enough, after one terrible term as mayor, the next few mayors were more traditional politicians who got the DC government back into reasonably functional shape. (By DC standards, anyway-- none of them have really been paragons of virtue, but at least they're in charge of their own affairs again.)

I think-- and this is not a terribly original opinion-- that a lot of Trump's success stems from something similar, on the part of rural white people. That is, they voted for Trump not because they necessarily approve of his awful behavior, but because they wanted to send a message. And just as with Barry, in some ways the awfulness of his behavior was a feature, not a bug. There are a lot of people who feel like they're being screwed by a system run for the benefit of people in big cities on the coasts who sneer at them as ignorant, racist hicks. Some of them positively relish the chance to vote for a vulgar buffoon who horrifies people from the coastal elites, even when they themselves would not behave a tenth as boorishly as Trump does.

Looking at it this way explains a lot of stuff that otherwise doesn't make much sense. A rich developer with a history of stiffing small businesses is an odd choice for a champion of the downtrodden, but then DC residents voting to re-elect a guy who'd been doing a bad job before he went to Federal prison was pretty weird, too. A substantial number of people say Trump doesn't have the right temperament to be President but voted for him anyway, in the same way that many of Barry's voters were under no illusions about his personal character. And, of course, electing a bigoted buffoon plays to the worst stereotypes of rural white people, in the same way that electing an erratic drug addict played to the worst stereotypes of black DC residents, but as far as those voters are concerned, they're being unjustly stereotyped anyway, and thus have little to lose.

In both cases people voted for candidates who, at best, do not plausibly advance their interests, but that's because they're not voting on the basic of dispassionate rational logic. Rather, they're using their votes to send an emotional message.

This is what the much-derided calls for empathy for Trump voters were about. Empathy doesn't mean uncritically adopting the worst policy ideas of your opponents, but rather making an effort to understand where they're coming from and why they're doing what they're doing. That understanding can serve as a starting point to find ways to try to address their pain and anger without compromising fundamental principles of equality and tolerance. There can not and should not be any compromise on explicit racism and misogyny, full stop. But there might be ways to speak to those voters who let their anger at the system override their personal disapproval of Trump's behavior, and bring them around. Empathy is a necessary prerequisite for that: understanding that their "deep story" is fueled by emotion, not rational analysis, and addressing it on that basis.

Of course, a non-trivial number of Trump supporters really do literally want all the most bigoted elements of his stump speeches, as we see from the seemingly endless catalog of horrific attacks over the last several days. Those actions, and those people have no place in civil society.

But out of the millions who voted for Trump, there are an awful lot of people who voted not from explicit bigotry and hate, but from anger and fear, people who might be reached. How many of those there are is open to debate, but you don't need many-- even if thirty-nine out of forty Trump voters were racist Twitter eggs, flipping the vote of that one decent human being would've been enough to tip key states to Clinton and avoid the current mess. That's an effort worth making.

I expected to be writing along these lines on Wednesday morning in the light of a narrow Clinton victory, because I hoped that Trump's awfulness was so cartoonish and obvious that not even the Marion Barry effect could save him. Like basically everybody else, I was wrong, and now we face the horrifying reality where the racist Twitter eggs feel empowered to lash out at everyone they hate. And we're going to be dealing with that for a long time to come.

I don't know how we're going to deal with it-- a bad President has infinitely more ability to do harm than a bad mayor of DC, and this Congress isn't likely to step in and strip him of that power. And I acknowledge that my race, gender, and social position will largely insulate me from the worst personal effects. Even from this position of relative privilege, though, it's been a heartbreakingly awful week. As I said Wednesday morning, all I can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other: doing what I can to stand up to bad behavior, contributing what I can to limit the damage that Trump's election will do to civil society in general, and teaching my kids to be better people than their president.

Part of that fight involves working to treat everyone with respect and decency and empathy. We need to be especially sensitive to support people who have been victims of centuries of abuse and oppression, but that can't be taken as a license to be insensitive to the relatively privileged who find themselves falling on hard times. Whether they've earned their anger or not, they are angry, and they're willing to use their votes to send a message, even when that's pretty obviously a disastrously bad decision.


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Thank you for taking the time to write this post.

By Ann Connolly F… (not verified) on 12 Nov 2016 #permalink

"Part of that fight involves working to treat everyone with respect and decency and empathy." Laudable sentiment. It is difficult to do when the other side hurls invective, slander and misrepresentation towards you, but we are going to have to learn how to be the adult in the room. Not easy to do when the reactive brain wants to lash out in retaliation, but possible even necessary.

Trump has shown a history of acting on impulses that others of us have learned to control.I am concerned that there is a distinct chance of increasing amounts of violence ahead of us if he does nothing to command his followers to act like adults.
And thus far, he hasn't done a thing to restrain them. Here is an appeal to any Trump followers out there. I have heard very little from you in the way of condemnation of the reported violent attacks on individual Muslim women. Could you please publicly condemn such behavior and ask your fellow Trump followers to condemn it and to stop others from doing it? Thank you.

You have expressed my feelings very eloquently with grace and intelligence.

I used to laugh at people who in their circumstantial desperation would vote for someone as inept as Bush or repellent as Trump,

Here in Redding, surrounded by friends, band members and neighbors who see the world very differently, I have gained a certain amount of empathy and concern for folks who believe whatever Fox news and talk radio tells them they should fear.

I agree wholeheartedly with your post and thank you.

By Phil Seymour (not verified) on 12 Nov 2016 #permalink

If your "rural" doesn't include suburbia, you missed what happened. Ditto for the dropoff in black support, including votes for Trump. Some are in jobs threatened by undocumented workers, and some remember the laws signed by Clinton that were supported by Clinton. They don't all get their news from Breitbart. They have real concerns that do deserve empathy. That is why Sanders would have won.

Regarding what you and SteveP @#2 wrote concerning increasing violence after the election or "recent" attacks, it has been clear to me for a long time that violence of all types (terror attacks against minorities, police, and majorities) had a significant uptick as soon as Trump started his campaign. It was like he unleashed the Id like the machine in "Forbidden Planet". That concerns me a great deal.

And I agree 100% about how race and social position insulate us from the worst effects of his policies. If you own a house or have suitable investments and, in particular, if you have significant loans at a fixed rate, his highly inflationary policies will be be very good for you if he doesn't start a war first.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 13 Nov 2016 #permalink

@ Chad Orzel

Donald Trump is Marion Barry for rural white people.

I was quite taken by an article on which was written on very similar lines.
However, as I kept reading reactions from one side or the other this past week, my perception has shifted and I need to disagree, or at least to point to some differences in the current situation:

- At some point, we should stop feeding the narrative that Trump's voters were the downtrodden poors, with a good amount of PoC. Because, as exit polls numbers are being crunched, it seems to appear that's simply not true. Most of Trump voters are white middle class or better (US$ 50k a year is not low-class - heck, I didn't make that much when I worked in the US, and I am middle-class), and not just hillbilly types, but suburbans as well.

- I still find it hard to give a pass to people who decided to vote for Trump despite all the nasty things he has said, done, or promised to do. Because, at the end of the day, they still decided to vote for a racist, misogynistic, bigoted politician.
OK, you are in trouble, you are angry. But you just made a choice, and we all will have to live with it. And a lot of "we" are not responsible for your situation.
Voting for a incompetent clown like Barry is one thing; but when this clown has some nasty opinions and some weird friends...
Having seen riots and vandalism first-hand, I don't have much sympathy for people who go around breaking things to express themselves, whether these things are my neighbour's car or her hopes for a better life.

- women, Black people, Mexicans, LGBT people... A large number of them are currently feeling like they have been thrown under the bus by these angry rural white people (and actually, as I alluded above, by urban white people as well). And they are justified to feel this way, because that's exactly what happened.
These Trump voters didn't just say that they don't care about the issues faced by women, Blacks, etc. (and here, I agree, I feel that most SJWs don't care about the issues of poor rural white people) That these Trump voters did was to elect someone who promised to make more issues for women, Blacks, etc.... It's a completely different kettle of fish.
Good luck telling women, Blacks, etc. to feel empathy for people who just tell them that they, at best, don't care, at worst hope they will come to harm under the new admin'.
Those of them who have been harassed or assaulted in the past? The voters just gave a pass to someone who is proud of groping women and threatening PoC.

tl;dr: you voted for a racist, bigoted guy? Sorry, but that makes you a racist, bigoted guy (or lass). You are not? Well, prove it with acts. Because, right now, I cannot distinguish you from the voter next to you who, as it happens, is a racist, bigoted guy.

@ CCPhysicist

That is why Sanders would have won.

Maybe Sanders would have succeeded at rallying and motivating your Democrat voters and bringing back in the fold some of the fence sitters who went for Trump.
Or maybe, for each Sander fan going to vote, there would have been a Clinton fan (or simply a Sanders non-fan) who would have stayed home. Or would have voted Trump, like a few Sanders fans did (riddle me this, BTW).
Or maybe, Sanders being to the left of Clinton, Trump would have yelled "commie", the average American would have succumbed to some Pavlovian fear reflex and the result would have been the same.

Avec des "si", on peut mettre Paris en bouteille.

By Helianthus (not verified) on 14 Nov 2016 #permalink

Or maybe, Sanders being to the left of Clinton, Trump would have yelled “commie”, the average American would have succumbed to some Pavlovian fear reflex and the result would have been the same.

This, along with a somewhat heavier emphasis on anti-Semitism (Sanders is Jewish) rather than misogyny, is pretty much what would have happened. Sanders has been openly socialist since he was mayor of the People's Republic of Burlington back in the 1980s, and the average American voter does not know the difference between socialism and communism.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 15 Nov 2016 #permalink

In fact, Kurt Eichenwald of Newsweek claims to have seen the Republican oppo file on Sanders, and if what he says is accurate, it would've been a bloodbath:…

The initial writing of this post, and some subsequent tweets, was sort of cathartic. Follow-on discussions have been infuriating in a way that's neither productive or healthy, so I'm going to step away from this whole topic now, and try to re-focus on writing about physics.

Interesting article, Chad, although it blew up Firefox twice and caused my anti-virus programs to go into full alert mode about whatever state-sponsored spyware scripts were being fed into it as advertising. Readers beware. They must be doing their best to make it hard for people to read how the Kremlin was pushing bogus comments into such a diverse set of venues to influence the election.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 15 Nov 2016 #permalink

@ Helianthus #5
This phenomenon of the suburban vote handing victory to someone populist reminds me of the Rob Ford fiasco in Toronto. These are well off people who somehow feel insulated from the greater society and oppose any suggestion that they contribute to solving social ills or supporting social frills (libraries? mass transit? losers).
They will vote for a gerbil, if it promises lower taxes - Rick Mercer, who indeed called it, Ford was a buffoon but that he had so much support was the worrisome part.

Rob Ford, in fact, got compared to Marion Barry pretty frequently. Some of the exact same things happened to him!

A lot of people are now saying that most people are greatly underestimating the threat of Trump, and that American democracy is now over--this was really the last US presidential election that was even approximately free. If so, all this theorizing about how to reach Trump voters could be moot; survival will be more of a concern going forward.

By Matthew McIrvin (not verified) on 18 Nov 2016 #permalink

"And I acknowledge that my race, gender, and social position will largely insulate me from the worst personal effects."

You would do well also to ponder on how your nationality has insulated you from the worst effects of Clinton's warmongering.