The Alcove

How to Interpret a Catastrophe

Does denunciation make it harder to defeat Trumpism?

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged DemocracyDonald Trump

It seems superfluous to give my endorsement to Adam Serwer’s lengthy meditation on Trumpism (since it recommends itself), but I’ll say that Serwer’s overview will stand as a major document in the ongoing interpretation of just what happened in 2016. That’s partly for its exceptional synthesis of history, sociology, and political science, and partly for its bracing candor: “a majority of white voters backed a candidate who assured them that they will never have to share this country with people of color as equals. That is the reality that all Americans will have to deal with, and one that most of the country has yet to confront.”

Responding in The Week, Damon Linker is unimpressed. “Serwer’s essay is suffused with an unmistakable disgust for the people and ideas he writes about,” Linker writes. “Like many liberals, Serwer believes that tens of millions of white Americans are toxically racist—and that calling them racist loudly and repeatedly, and before as wide an audience as possible, is crucially important to winning the political battle against them.” Linker has serious doubts about the efficacy of this strategy: In public debate, he contends, liberals generally insist “that denunciation and the upholding of a cordon sanitaire are essential to defending freedom and democracy,” but they generally fail to ask whether anyone is persuaded by “the righteous name-calling.”

I’ll confess to a certain confusion about this objection. Serwer isn’t drafting a campaign speech. He builds his case—against excuse-making for Trump voters, and especially against the “economic anxiety” argument—thoroughly and methodically, citing polling data, social science research, W.E.B. Du Bois, and the career histories of leading secessionists and segregationists. In other words, his claims about the centrality of race aren’t meant to help liberals win debates. They’re an empirical attempt to sort out the forces which led to the election outcome. This interpretation of events is no less true for being uncomfortable or divisive.

Serwer alleges a widespread denial about the true meaning of Trump’s rise—not only among his supporters, but among many analysts, including those who are critical of him. In a particularly sharp formulation, he observes that “had racism been toxic to the American electorate, Trump’s candidacy would not have been viable.” It is numbing to fathom, and that may be the simple reason why so many people have refused to entertain the possibility. I doubt whether they would be any more open to an idea I’ve suggested elsewhere: that Trump’s rise also raises questions about basic civic capacities, and support for him should call into question a citizen’s fundamental competence. For Linker, charging more than 60 million Americans with a basic failure in their role as citizens might amount to more of the same name-calling; it is arguably nearly as incendiary as calling them toxically racist, and just as unlikely to win any debates. But I think such an objection would require Linker to craft a slightly different argument than he outlined in his initial criticism of Serwer’s piece. We might object to fellow citizens who harbor prejudice (or who are at least willing to lend it their votes), but ultimately decide that only persuasion—not condemnation—can be our response. But even if you grant that, it’s not clear (at least, not on the same grounds) that a similar response applies to fellow citizens who are failing at the basic tasks of upholding our shared democracy. Not an easy conversation, to be sure. But doesn’t getting out of a mess first require that we understand what the mess really is?

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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