I don’t think “reaching out to the Heartland” will be effective in defeating Trump.
In explaining this, it might be helpful to give my background on living in a conservative environment, amid white supremacy.
Some of you already know my background, so apologies for the retreading. I was born in Oklahoma and grew up in Texas. My father’s side is from Oklahoma, mother’s side is from Kentucky. I would not be one bit surprised to find out my lineage includes many folks who fought for the Confederacy and perhaps even a few slave owners (aka white supremacists).
Nor would I be surprised to learn I have modern KKK members (1920s-60s) somewhere in the family tree.
Every white American is the product of a system built on white supremacy, and I am absolutely no exception.
I grew up dirt poor in Central Texas. So damn poor. Couldn’t afford school supplies, much less clothing. And most of the time, I was surrounded by other poor white folks. Trailer parks. Run down places. Poverty.
No, not every poor white person is the same, but there are commonalities that explode in the consciousness.
For example, even with the more “enlightened” poor white folks, a sense of racial superiority is still evident. I’m not kidding. There is a pervasive “We’re poor, but at least we’re still white” element to white poverty. It doesn’t have to be said. It’s just kinda there. Probably because every sphere of power is (unjustly) dominated by whites.
There is desperation to white poverty, but there is also hope offered in seeing whites in power. An aspirational lottery. A white man may have a terrible lot, but there’s still the smallest glimmer of hope that lightning could strike because he’s white.
The poorest white American, unlike a wealthy person of color, can see themselves physically reflected in power everywhere they look.
Anyone — AND I MEAN ANYONE — among poor whites who tells you they never consider this is a goddamn liar. Period. In fact, I’d say ANY white person who claims they never thought this in the back of their mind is lying. White supremacy is luring.
There’s a long history of this harkening back to the Antebellum South. If plantation owners could create a racial caste, it would be easier to mask the lopsided economic insecurity felt by impoverished whites. And it was extremely effective.
Poor whites in the Antebellum South could (perhaps unrealistically) aspire to work or luck themselves into a good living. And so, poor whites bought into the cruelty and barbarity of white supremacy. They cast their lot w/ oppression.
And it’s not just the South! Most white folks in the North believed themselves superior to folks of color. Lincoln, for all his enlightened actions, was a white supremacist. He believed whites are a superior race. That’s a fact.
Now, are there degrees of racism? Sure, but it’s still racism. Every white American, at some point, has to confront this.
And you will see this mindset carry through the next 150 years of American history. It’s everywhere. This creation of castes in American society is observed in race, gender, religion, class, sexuality, disability, etc. Regardless of station, whites feeling superior to folks of color, men to women, Protestants to everyone, etc. etc. etc. But all of these things still revolve around a core of disgusting white supremacy upon which this country was built.
NOW… fast forward to modern day White America, specifically “the Heartland”, which is somewhat geographic but mostly refers to any white American in the lower-to-middle class who has conservative/right-of-moderate views.
“The Heartland” isn’t so much a location as a cultural ideology, one that is centered in traditional, patriotic whiteness. The “hotspots” of this cultural ideology might be in the South and Midwest but can also be found in CA or NY or MA. Anywhere.
We are a nation with a mythology built on images: amber waves of grain, George Washington, Iwo Jima, John Wayne, apple pie, etc. I’m serious. This is not flippant. It’s why “America” is so often represented in terms of traditional white culture.
And if traditional white culture is centered in cisgender, hetero, Christian white males, all else is seen as peripheral to that. Even for poor whites, buying into traditional white culture is like taking out an insurance policy. Or a social credit card. Even poor whites can get away with things wealthy folks of color can’t. Intentional or not, this is the reality. It just happens.
White supremacy in the form of traditional white culture isn’t so much a conspiracy as something white folks allow to fester. There are tens of millions of white folks who voted for Obama and know white privilege exists and do nothing about it. So, what would you expect from white folks who hate Obama and cling to the advantages that being white provides?
The historical stage is set. Now, go deeper. To towns, counties, the backcountry, even bigger cities. You cannot understand the toll of racism as a disease in White America until you get how it’s enabled.
Conservative politics (regardless of what party represents it at the time) is, by and large, built on maintaining white supremacy. Democrats were the “conservatives” at one time, but now, that mantle belongs to the Republican Party and its offshoots. There are Republicans who are wonderful and Democrats who are awful, but GOP politics is enormously invested in white rage.
White rage is expressed through many forms: cable news, local news, talk radio, movies. It exists on a spectrum of media.And at its most insidious and dangerous, white rage in media is duplicitous, hateful, violent, and akin to religious zeal. Propaganda.
I have seen this my entire life as a white American but particularly as an impoverished white American. Whatever many white conservatives call their “Christianity” is a casual hobby compared to the religion of white rage.
White rage doesn’t have to be loud and outwardly violent. It can be quiet and careful and insistent. Viral racism. Word-of-mouth.
White rage is PTA meetings of white parents talking about “safe” neighborhoods and hip-hop as a cancer on their children.
White rage is a white judge sentencing a young black man to incarceration disproportional to his crime for “society”.
White rage is palpable anger over having to choose “English” at the ATM or indignation at an outspoken black athlete.
And white rage, more than anything, is only accepting information that validates that rage. All else is part of the conspiracy.
I grew up poor, I served in the military, I’ve navigated Evangelical churches for much of my life. White rage is EVERYWHERE. I think there are many liberals who don’t understand how entrenched and powerful white rage is rooted in this country.
Because even if you have a conservation with one of these white folks, especially if you’re nice, they’ll act reasonable. They’ll talk about Dr. King and say they’re worried about jobs and that Trump is kinda unhinged. They’ll tell you what you wanna hear. They don’t want you to think they’re uninformed or bigoted. Some are less eloquent than others in doing this, of course.
And what so many of these Trump voters won’t tell you is that their access to white rage, not facts or logic, is their top priority. And the moment you turn around, feeling better after the conversation, they’ll crave that next hit of white rage. If Trump shat on the American flag and strangled someone with it on national television, he’d still get millions of votes.
Why? Because even for all his faults, Trump is still the symbolic antithesis of everything these folks have grown to love to hate.
A well-meaning liberal armed with facts and cookies and great listening skills has nothing — NOTHING — on the validation of white rage. Now, are there anecdotal success stories? Sure. And they’re great. But they’re very much the exception to the rule. Extremely rare.
And here’s the really depressing truth: even if you “reached out to Trump folks” and got them to vote against Trump, it would still require a cost in maintaining bedrock elements of white supremacy. You gotta replace white rage w/ something.
The easiest way to replace that white rage is another charismatic white man, more moderate than liberal, with watered-down policies. Basically: another Bill Clinton. And that’s not gonna happen, nor, with respect to Mr. Clinton, do I believe we should want it.
Pres. Obama worked as a liberal candidate because he rallied liberals like no one in modern history. Get-out-the-vote was ON FIRE. We either need another Pres. Obama (doubtful), or we need to get better at working with each other as progressives. And working w/ each other as progressives is going to require compromise on all sides.
And that’s a sad irony: there are many liberals telling us to reach out to Trump folks who can’t even reach out to fellow liberals.
Stop pandering to the religion of white rage. Trust me. It would require time and resources that we do not have, that would be better spent rallying like-minded folks to put aside differences and work together.
Be proud of liberal values. Don’t apologize for being informed or educated. WORK TOGETHER AND SHOW STRENGTH = VICTORY.
Charles Clymer is an Army Veteran and writer based out of Washington, D.C., where they live with their two precocious cats. They proudly identify as genderqueer or gender-nonconforming and prefer the pronouns they/them. They have been published in several places and quoted by Time, Newsweek, BBC World Service, The Guardian, and numerous other publications. You can follow them on Twitter here and on Facebook here.