Thursday, March 23, 2017

Dealing with the Trump Phenomenon

I've run across a number of excellent discussions of the Trump phenomenon and how to deal with it:
Together, these articles form a coherent narrative and way forward.  I'll provide short summaries of each to illustrate.

Is Economic Despair What's Killing Middle-Aged White Americans?, by Alana Semuels

Ms. Samuels discusses the declining fortune of white, working class Americans.  Her approach is descriptive, not political.  I'm tempted to quote at length from this article, because it's power is in the accumulation of credible academic surveys and evidence that the economic and sociological problems of the white, working class Americans are real and significant.  But you can see the evidence yourself at the link, so I'll just highlight here what I see as an important observation:
in a new paper, economists Case and Deaton explore why this demographic is so unhealthy. They conclude it has something to do with a lifetime of eroding economic opportunities.  Case and Deaton see a large uptick in deaths from suicides, poisonings, and alcoholic liver disease among whites with lowest levels of educational attainment... They divorce or have trouble finding a marriage partner because of their poor economic prospects...  low income and low job opportunities, after a long period of time, tears at the social fabric  
This is in contrast to Europe, where people of all educational backgrounds are living longer... Case and Deaton theorize that this trend is not happening in Europe because of the social safety net there. 

Ms. Williams is empathetic.  She points out the problems faced by the white working class, and the reasons they have been resistant to reason from the liberals' perspective.  She provides five guidelines for dealing with the predicament that is the white working class in the U.S.
  1. Understand That Working Class Means Middle Class, Not Poor
  2. Understand Working-Class Resentment of the Poor
  3. Understand How Class Divisions Have Translated into Geography
  4. If You Want to Connect with White Working-Class Voters, Place Economics at the Center
  5. Avoid the Temptation to Write Off Blue-Collar Resentment as Racism

Frank Rich, in my opinion, reacts poorly to the Trump phenomenon.  His conclusion is to let Trump voters live with their decisions.  Liberal empathy and argumentation isn't likely to change the minds of Trump voters, and we just risk compromising our values, as well as wasting our time and energy, if we indulge these spoiled brats.  Here are a couple of quotes:
The notion that they can be won over by some sort of new New Deal — “domestic programs that would benefit everyone (like national health insurance),” as Mark Lilla puts it — is wishful thinking
 Perhaps it’s a smarter idea to just let the GOP own these intractable voters. Liberals looking for a way to empathize with conservatives should endorse the core conservative belief in the importance of personal responsibility.

First of all, I think he's wrong about the impact of "some sort of New Deal".  

Secondly, I don't think it's smart to just ignore the voters in the areas where Trump is popular.  Rich may be right that many of these voters are intractable, but many others may not be.  

Rich presents a false dichotomy:
Listen and be Empathetic OR Be Resolute in our Liberal Convictions

Of course we can do both.

Thus we should propose domestic programs that would benefit everyone (like national health insurance) because we believe these will be good for our country, including our suffering citizens in areas that voted for Trump.  Personal responsibility should not be conflated with guilt by class or place of residence.

Politically, Sun Tzu had a point when he said, in The Art of War
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

Listening, being empathetic, and proposing more programs to solve working class problems in rural, rust belt, and even southern areas is the strategic, as well as moral, imperative.  

Dale Beran takes the above discussion one step further by comparing a Trump voter to a child having a tantrum.  I'm a firm believer in letting a child work through his or her tantrum.  There's no point in trying to reason with someone who is trying to gain attention by being unreasonable.  On the other hand, it would be foolish to ignore the conditions underlying the tantrum.  The correct response is to ignore the nonsense and deal with the underlying issues.

With regard to Trump voters, that means we don't ignore the real issues.  Does that mean we run the risk of wasting our time trying to reason with the unreasonable?  That is something we can control, to a large extent.  We can minimize the impact of the nonsense by treating it as such, without dismissing whole groups of people or regions of the country.  

Rich suggests that we "hold the empathy and hold on to the anger".  I agree that we should hold on to the anger, as that gives us energy to maintain our focus.  But that is only half the battle.  The other half is having a plan to succeed in dealing with the very real problems of the working class in the U.S.


  • Nathan Robinson makes the point that it may useful to engage in debate with the other side even when you're not likely to convert them to your point of view based upon logic. Rather, you seek to persuade others, not direct parties in the debate, through emotion and character, in addition to logic (pathos, ethos, and logos). Excerpt:

    Debates are about argument, but they’re also about rhetoric, the art of discourse. “Rhetoric” has a negative connotation these days, but it shouldn’t. It has a great tradition. Rhetoric is simply the use of spoken and written tactics of persuasion. The rhetorician calculates her words for the effect they will have on the audience. As classically conceived, this is opposed to the dialectician, who uses words in an open-minded truth-seeking inquiry.

    In making the decision as to whether to debate someone, and how, it’s that effect on the audience question that should be crucial... It’s not just what you say, but how you say it and who you are.

    By Blogger Detroit Dan, at 9:33 AM  

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