There’s always a temptation, when thinking about politics, to reduce people’s views to a simple binary that allows us to easily get a handle on them. The two most popular such binaries in American politics today are economics and race. Both of these lenses have been much used to explain the Trump phenomenon over the last year.
Trump voters, we are informed, are the victims of economic competition from abroad, and are therefore open to his populist pandering about immigration and trade. Alternately, they’re just a bunch of racist pigs who have finally found a voice for their racist piggery. Hillary Clinton’s infamous and ill-advised remark split the difference by putting only half of Trump’s voters into a “basket of deplorables.”
There’s a lot to like about simple explanations. Complicated explanations often end up sounding like this: “There’s a lot of stuff going on, and it’s all happening at once. Also maybe some stuff we don’t know about.” Complicated explanations thus do not lend themselves easily to solutions.
The problem with simple explanations is that they are often not quite right. Consider how many articles, monographs, books, television appearances and lecture tours have been based around the “mystery” of why middle-class Republicans do not vote for what the author has identified as their economic self-interest. Now consider that as far as I can determine from the General Social Survey data, white American views about race haven’t changed much since the beginning of the first Clinton presidency. This at least complicates attempts cast this currently tied election as a referendum on racism.
Sure, some of Donald Trump’s supporters are racist. But even the people who are racist and are voting for Trump aren’t necessarily voting for Trump because they are racist; it is possible to be racist and have opinions on other things, and even opinions on other things that you care more about than your bigoted views.
Economics doesn’t explain everything either. It is possible to be out of a job and vote for the incumbent party. Few people are single-issue voters, and even fewer are the rationally value-maximizing Homo economicus of simple micro models.
Clinton’s first mistake in that “deplorables” remark, then, was implying that Trump’s supporters are single-issue voters, and that she knows what those issues are. Her second mistake was to miss a huge political motivator, right up there with race and economics: respect.
A few years back I wrote about former DC mayor Marion Berry, comparing him to another urban politician, Mayor James Curley of Boston. These sorts of politicians are common in American history: they develop a base, which has an ethnic component but also often a strong class component, and to the shock and horror of everyone who isn’t in that base, they keep getting re-elected even though they are, in the opinions of everyone else, objectively and obviously horrible at their jobs.
What has struck me most in reading about these figures is how fundamentally their critics misunderstand what’s going on. They think that the fight is about zoning laws or civil service rules or economic development, and they go on and on explaining why the mayor is wrong about those things. Along the way, they develop theories about why no one’s listening, which usually boil down to: the people who keep voting for the fellow are obviously somewhere between too stupid to put their shoes on and too morally bankrupt to care about basic human decency. Said critics often get pretty loud about sharing those theories.
They all seem unable to grasp that there’s one thing those politicians are consistently delivering to their constituents every day: respect. Maybe pundits and elites don’t understand this selling point because they have spent their whole lives so thoroughly marinated in status and respect that they can’t really imagine craving just a little taste of it.
Respect is something I hear a lot about from Trump voters. The spirit of the sentiment is often: “Maybe Trump’s a jerk, maybe he won’t do what he says he will, but he acts as if people like me are important, and the people who disrespect me aren’t.” The problem for Trump is that Barry and Curley were running in cities where their bases were a majority. Trump’s running in a very diverse country, and he’s disrespected huge swathes of the electorate, which is one reason his poll ceiling has long seemed to be stuck around Clinton’s floor.
But that’s also a problem for Clinton; she doesn’t have a solid majority coalition either. Luckily, all she had to do was just not actively disrespect as many people as Trump. Instead she stood up and said, in essence, that huge segments of the electorate are unredeemably awful. That wasn’t just a message that reached the alt-righters who fill my Twitter feed every time I say something mean about Trump. That message reached millions of people who aren’t in the alt-right, but do think that coastal, professional America views the rest of the country as one vast sea of swinish ignorance.
Then, instead of helping her to walk it back, her supporters hastened to add “No, seriously, she’s right, you people are mouth-breathing troglodytes with a busted moral compass.” And thereby did more damage to their cause than they would have by just shutting up. (Conservatives should recognize this misstep. They did the same thing after Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe when they tried to explain that no, really, half of the country is the next best thing to welfare cheats.)
This election probably won’t turn on a single issue. But some voters do ask themselves: “Which candidate respects the American people?” Clinton should have won those voters easily handily. Instead, she gave away her advantage by insulting a bloc of voters, Trump-style.