Imagine I asked you whether you like Coke or Pepsi more. You have 8 months to decide. Then during those 8 months, I launched a successful campaign branding Coke as the “racist soda.” I convinced millions of people that Coke stands for racism and misogyny. When it comes to decision day, it doesn’t matter if you like Coke more. It doesn’t matter that your preference for Coke is purely based on taste and that it’s absurd to think Coke has anything to do with racism (it’s a freaking soda!). All that matters is that I succeeded in rebranding it as racist. “Coke” is no longer an option; your choices are between Pepsi and Racism. Yes, it’s not fair that I took this tactic, but all that matters is that I succeeded in convincing enough people of it. You must now vote for Pepsi.
Likewise, liberals succeeded in creating the “myth of Trump” (although Trump’s rhetoric easily lends itself to this strategy). If you vote for Trump, you yourself are a racist, whether you actually are a racist or not. All conservatives succeeded in doing was brand Clinton as corrupt. If I vote for Clinton, I may be stupid for supporting a corrupt person, but I myself am not corrupt. This is what made this election different. Before we voted for people and we argued about personal flaws. In 2012, conservatives posted their Facebook rants on how Obama’s policies will harm the nation, and in 2004, liberals complained that Bush would keep us in an unjust war. But it stopped at their policies. We only disputed things on the margin; whether this policy tweak or that small change was better. This election however, has not been driven by much policy considerations. The issues were not marginal and technical. We were fighting over what we want the nation to represent. We voted for symbols and ideas, not people and policies.
And this is why we are throwing a tantrum. I couldn’t care less if Trump is president. If Trump won back when he campaigned as a Democrat, I’m sure him winning wouldn’t be as surreal. Looking at his goals for his first 100 days, his policies are mainstream conservative (in strict policy, I think Cruz would do a much worst job). What matters is how Trump was elected. He spouted racism and sexism, and he still won. I can accept that many of his supporters aren’t more racist than the rest of us, and therefore supported Trump for reasons other than his bigotry, but the fact that they are willing to accept a little racism to fix the economy does make them racist. It’s a reminiscence of European fascism – conservatives who promised a strong economy and even a welfare state if you promised to look the other way in their bigotry. I can’t help but to recall Hannah Arendt: “in order not to overestimate the importance of the propaganda lies, one should recall the much more numerous instances in which Hitler was completely sincere and brutally unequivocal in the definition of the movement’s true aims, but they were simply not acknowledged by a public unprepared for such consistency.” Sounds like, “Trump won’t actually do what he said. Don’t worry.” The reason Trump voters are racist is not because of what they are willing to do, but because of what they are willing to accept in order to achieve what they want. One may defend them, saying I misunderstand how much they suffer. Well, the German hyperinflation surely constituted worse suffering than many in the American working class deal with today, and yet when we look back, we don’t think the German bargain was justified. An American genocide is unlikely, but racism is racism is racism.
The premise we operate on is that symbolism matters. When you elect a president surrounded by racist symbolism, then that will matter. If you say racist thing, I will assume you are capable of racist actions; there’s no such thing as “just talk.” The election revealed that America had an apolitical bigot base that the mainstream was unaware of; as Arendt wrote, “they exist in every country and form the majority of those large numbers of neutral, politically indifferent people who never join a party and hardly ever go to the polls.” And it turned out that PC culture worked in holding off the tide. Racists were afraid to be publicly so, as it would risk their careers and open them to social judgement. They were so afraid that they lied on anonymous polls to such a degree that we mispredicted the results by huge margins (called the social desirability bias by social scientists). But there’s no greater signal that it’s ok to be openly racist again than a president who is perceived to be racist (all that matters is that he is perceived to be, not that he actually is). Trump’s ascension lowers the social costs of racism, and even if only 10% of his followers are fundamentally racist, that’s still a lot of Americans. We protest because we want to signal that the social calculation has not changed; it is still not acceptable for bigots to be bigots, and we want them to know they will be punished if they do so. If we reject Trump’s legitimacy, then that means not even their president can help them if they resort to bigotry. We also want to signal that America has not rejected minorities. We want to emphasize that the nation is divided, and there is a large group of people willing to fight for minority rights. There is a large group of people who do not think racist words don’t matter if they aren’t backed by concrete actions, and that many of us value human rights so much that we are willing to accept a cost to ourselves to uphold it.
The economist Arnold Kling predicts: “I also think that those progressives who are predicting that the election will have dire consequences for women, gays, and people of color are making a tactical error. They are setting a very low bar for Mr. Trump and the Republicans. When four years from now we still have civil rights laws in place, mostly-legal abortion, and widely-legal gay marriage, these putative victim communities will be wondering what all the fuss was about.”
I’d rather look back to that world than one in which racism prevailed while we did nothing.