The rise of Donald Trump, and with him a white-identity politics more explicit than anything America has seen in decades, has created an interesting division on the political left – over the question of what, if anything, liberal politics ought to offer to people who seem bigoted.
On the one hand, there are liberals determined to regard Trumpism as almost exclusively motivated by racial and cultural resentments, with few legitimate economic grievances complicating the morality play. From this perspective, the fact that Trump’s GOP has finally consolidated, say, a once-Democratic area like Appalachia is almost a welcome relief: At last all the white racists are safely in the other party, and we don’t have to cater to them anymore.
On the other hand, there are left-wingers who regard Trump’s support among erstwhile Democrats as a sign that liberalism has badly failed some of its natural constituents and who fear that a Democratic coalition that easily crushes Trump without much white working-class support will simply write off their struggles as no more than the backward and bigoted deserve.
I like how the left-wing gadfly Fredrik deBoer framed this issue: “What do you owe to people who are guilty of being wrong?” It’s a question for liberals all across the Western world to ponder, given the widening gulf between their increasingly cosmopolitan parties and an increasingly right-leaning native working class.
But as a conservative, I would add another question: What happens if the bigoted sometimes get things right?
Don’t worry, this isn’t a setup for my slow reconciliation with the candidacy of Donald Trump. Rather, it’s a warning against organizing your politics around antibigotry alone and assuming that just because there are racists or nativists or xenophobes on the other side of a policy argument your side must be right.
Here are a few pertinent examples, from the recent past to the present day.
For decades following the 1960s, liberals insisted that the Republican Party’s tough-on-crime rhetoric wasn’t really about crime at all; it was a barely coded appeal to racists, a transference of white supremacist politics from “segregation now, segregation forever” to paranoia about Willie Horton.
Tough-on-crime rhetoric did indeed play on racial fears; lots of white bigots did vote for law-and-order Republicans. But the rhetoric also played on fears of the actual immense crime wave sweeping the United States, a wave that liberal governance failed miserably to arrest or roll back. And for a long time, elite opinion was so determined not to give white bigots any aid and comfort, so determined not to take racists’ side in any way, that it ignored or minimized the actual policy problem, the actual crisis at its door.
A second example: Both Clintonite neoliberals and free-market conservatives have long dismissed U.S. anxieties about trade deals as the province of rubes and xenophobes, Ross Perot’s nationalists and Pat Buchanan’s nativist brigades. Which was somewhat understandable, since many people who thrilled to Mexico-bashing and, later, China-bashing – and who thrill to it today from Trump – really were bigoted or tribal, eager to find a sinister Latin or Asian scapegoat for their woes.
But that tribal sentiment doesn’t ultimately tell us anything one way or another about the merits of the trade policies themselves. And today there’s increasing evidence that the tribalists were, well, right to be suspicious – that the creative destruction set in motion over their objections cost more jobs, with fewer compensating benefits, than many liberal and conservative free-traders once expected.
Likewise with European anxieties about mass immigration, which for decades the major political parties of Europe labored to confine to the political fringe. After all, their thinking went, since the ranks of immigration skeptics included many racists and Islamophobes and crypto-fascists, the fringe is where those ideas belonged.
Unfortunately, some of the anxieties of the nativists proved more prescient than the blithe assumptions of the elite. Mass immigration is now destabilizing Europe’s liberal order, forging Islamist fifth columns and empowering the very nationalism that open-door cosmopolitanism thought it could safely marginalize and ignore.
A final, forward-looking example: In our latest culture war battlefield, the debate over transgender rights, the left is so determined to rout bigotry that it’s locking in a contested understanding of what gender dysphoria is and how to handle it in children, backing it with federal regulatory power, and punishing with academic witch hunts experts who differ even modestly.
Because bigots bully transgender teenagers, liberalism has decided that everyone who differs with transgender activists must be complicit in that bigotry. But we don’t have anywhere near enough data or experience to confirm the activist perspective – and by embracing it as the only alternative to “transphobia,” we risk sweeping a broad range of childhood fantasy and teenage confusion onto a set path of hormonal and surgical transformation.
If bigots are for it, we’re against it. It’s a powerful credo. But there’s always a danger that by following it too far, you end up being against reality itself.