The Unpersuadables


AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wait in line prior to a campaign rally in Tyngsborough, Mass., Friday, October 16, 2015. 

As we conduct our national autopsy on the 2016 presidential campaign, one of the most common arguments in circulation is that Hillary Clinton failed to do enough to persuade people in places where Donald Trump ended up showing unusual strength, particularly the Rust Belt. And indeed, she lost a group of states—Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin—that had gone for the Democratic candidate in election after election. She might have spent more time there, or spoken more to the issues that concern those voters, particularly the longstanding economic problems in that region. Had she done that, the story goes, she would have maintained that "blue wall" and she'd be president today.

Now there's plenty you can criticize about Clinton as a candidate and her campaign, including where she devoted resources in the closing days of the race. But the idea of the unpersuaded Midwestern white working-class voters rests on a very shaky premise: that they could have been persuaded, no matter what Clinton tried to tell them.

Before we go any further, we should acknowledge two important facts. The first is that a shift of a little more than 100,000 votes—or less than one in 1,000 of those cast—spread across Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin would have made Hillary Clinton president, and instead of talking about what a catastrophe her campaign was we'd be praising her for her strategic brilliance. The second is that, in case you've forgotten, Clinton got more votes. The only reason she isn't president-elect is the bizarre and anti-democratic Electoral College. You should keep that in mind whenever you hear someone talking about how "this was a change election" or "the American people" rose up and demanded that Donald Trump lead them. Trump is going to be the president, but more voters chose Clinton.

Now about those allegedly persuadable Trump voters—have you been paying attention to the news in the last year? Because if you were, you would have seen somewhere in the neighborhood of a zillion stories about white voters in places where the factories are closed and folks are struggling, where people feel left behind, alienated, and disempowered. They may have been forgotten by globalization, but they sure weren't forgotten by the news media this year, which couldn't get enough of them.

And so many of them gravitated to Donald Trump. But think about what you had to convince yourself to accept if you were one of those voters. You had to say it's all right that this guy lies constantly. It's all right that he encourages violence. It's all right that despite having more potential financial conflicts of interest than any other presidential candidate ever, he's the only candidate in recent history who refuses to reveal his tax returns. It's all right that he has run a series of cons, stealing the life savings from people who put their faith in him in just the way you're putting your faith in him now. It's all right that he's erratic and impulsive and childish and vindictive, to a degree that makes it obvious he has little or no self-control.

Convincing yourself of all that is not easy. But once you have, you're invested. You're committed. You've gone a long way down a path from which you're sure as hell not going to be diverted by some well-considered policy proposal from another candidate.

In fact, any new information you get is going to be filtered through what you already believe and shaped to fit the conclusion you've already made. For instance, few things drive liberals as batty as when they hear Trump supporters say things like, "He's straightforward and honest," when the truth is that Trump is without question the most dishonest candidate in American history. He spawned an entire mini-industry devoted to cataloguing his many lies, which came at a rate of a few dozen each and every day he campaigned. But when that voter and many others like him say Trump is "honest," they don't mean that he avoids saying things that are false. They mean that he says things other politicians won't, things like "I'd like to punch him in the face" and "Bomb the shit out of 'em" and "They're rapists" (Mexican immigrants, that is), and "Grab 'em by the pussy." That's what they mean by "honest"—that Trump will speak out loud the same things that they think, validating their beliefs so they no longer need to feel ashamed.

Hillary Clinton could have kidnapped every one of those voters and forced them to listen to her read her plan for paid family leave, and it wouldn't have made a difference, because Trump was reaching them on a much more visceral level. And nothing she could have said would have been a match for the white nationalist appeal Trump presented.

It's important that we don't allow ourselves to forget or explain away the fact that racial, ethnic, and religious hatred was the foundation on which the Trump campaign was built. It started before his run, when he emerged as a potent political figure with his vile effort to convince everyone that Barack Obama wasn't a real American. It continued when, in his announcement speech, he said that Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals. It proceeded when he hired Steve Bannon, media champion of the racist and anti-Semitic "alt-right," to be CEO of his campaign (and now Bannon will have his ear as a kind of co-chief of staff in the White House). It was fed by his use of Twitter to promote white supremacist ideas, his attack on a Muslim Gold Star family, his assault on the judge in his Trump University fraud suit ("He's a Mexican," Trump said by way of explaining why the American-born judge couldn't be impartial). Donald Trump's presidential campaign wasn't kind of racist, or sort of bigoted, or a little bit misogynistic, or maybe based on hate. That was its very essence.

And that was one of the biggest reasons people lined up to join in. Those hatreds and resentments were so powerful that they overcame all of Trump's incredible weaknesses and screwups—his constant lying, his exposure as an outright grifter, his refusal to show his tax returns and his bragging about not paying taxes, all of it. There were 15 or 20 things about Trump that would have been fatal for any other candidate but didn't hurt him at all, and it wasn't because of his sparkling wit and compelling ideas. It was because he gave his voters something no one else would.

And yes, of course not every one of the 60 million people who voted for Trump is a racist. But what they all have in common is that they decided to support a candidate running a campaign of hatred. When the KKK is so happy about your candidate's victory that it's holding a parade to celebrate, you can't claim that race had nothing to do with the campaign.

So if Clinton had done something different she might have been able to turn out more of her natural constituencies, and that could have made the difference. But nothing she said to Trump voters would have won any of them over—nothing.

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