Democrats are still managing their response to the next four years of a President Donald Trump. Will they work with his administration? On that score, two of the most prominent Democrats in the country, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have an answer.
“There are millions of people who did not vote for Donald Trump because of the bigotry and hate that fueled his campaign rallies. They voted for him despite hate,” Warren said in a speech after the election. “They voted for him out of frustration and anger—and also out of hope that he would bring change.”
Writing in the New York Times, Sanders had a similar take. “Millions of Americans registered a protest vote on Tuesday, expressing their fierce opposition to an economic and political system that puts wealthy and corporate interests over their own,” he wrote. “Donald J. Trump won the White House because his campaign rhetoric successfully tapped into a very real and justified anger, an anger that many traditional Democrats feel.”
Both Warren and Sanders emphasize that bigotry was part of Trump’s message. But they want to separate the “deplorables” from the larger group of more ordinary Americans who just wanted a change of pace. And to that end, they both promise to work with Trump provided he chooses a populist agenda. Said Sanders: “If the president-elect is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families, I’m going to present some very real opportunities for him to earn my support.” Said Warren: “When President-elect Trump wants to take on these issues, when his goal is to increase the economic security of the middle-class families, then count me in.” If Trump embraces the bigotry and hatred of his campaign, however, both Sanders and Warren promise to fight him without compromise. “We will not give an inch on this,” said Warren.
At first glance, this seems well and good: a firm commitment to winning victories where they are available, tied to an absolute line against policies targeting immigrants, Muslims, or any other group. But there’s a problem here, and it’s found in the cast given to Trump’s campaign and Trump’s voters. Both Warren and Sanders describe Trump’s effort as a populist campaign with an almost incidental use of racial prejudice. In this version, most Trump voters simply wanted a stronger, fairer economy. The attacks on immigrants, Muslims, and black Americans were regrettable, but not a part of the appeal.
Warren and Sanders are wrong, and in a way that signals a significant misreading of the landscape on the part of the most influential Democrats. The simple truth is that Trump’s use of explicit racism—his deliberate attempt to incite Americans against different groups of nonwhites—was integral to his campaign. It was part and parcel of his “populism” and told a larger story: that either at home or abroad, foreigners and their “globalist” allies were cheating the American worker, defined as a white working-class man with a factory job. To claw back the dominion he once enjoyed—to “make America great again”—Trump promised protectionism and “law and order.” He promised to deport immigrants, register Muslims, and build new infrastructure. This wasn’t “populism”; it was white populism. Writes historian Nell Irvin Painter for the New York Times: “This time the white men in charge will not simply happen to be white; they will be governing as white, as taking America back, back to before multiculturalism.”
It seems reasonable for Warren and Sanders to make a distinction between Trump as blue-collar populist and Trump as racist demagogue. But that distinction doesn’t exist. Supporting a Trump-branded infrastructure initiative as a discrete piece of policy where two sides can find common ground only bolsters a white-nationalist politics, even if you oppose the rest of Trump’s agenda. It legitimizes and gives fuel to white tribalism as a political strategy. It shows that there are tangible gains for embracing Trump-style demagoguery. Likewise, it seems reasonable to want to recast support for Trump as an expression of populism. But Trump’s is a racial populism—backed almost entirely by white Americans, across class lines—that revolves around demands to reinforce existing racial and status hierarchies. That’s what it means to “make America great again.” It has nothing to offer to working-class blacks who need safety from unfair police violence just as much as they need higher wages, or working-class Latinos who need to protect their families from draconian immigration laws as much as they need a chance to unionize.
To gesture at individual voters and say they aren’t racists—the usual rejoinder to this argument—is to miss the point. White voters backed Trump as a bloc. They ignored his bigotry and elevated his call for a new nationalism, centered on white Americans. Whatever their actual intentions—whether they were partisan Republicans, hardcore Trumpists, or simply disgusted with Hillary Clinton—they voted for white nationalism, full stop.
The more Democrats obscure that, the more they run the real risk of being co-opted, of bolstering the political prospects of ethno-nationalism in the name of a broad “populism” that isn’t actually at play. An infrastructure bill doesn’t outweigh the impact of Trump’s attacks on communities of color, even if it’s influenced by the left. Communities of color need physical and economic security. Strong wages and freedom from discrimination. Without the latter, a rising tide will not lift all boats.
There is an alternative to the rhetoric of Warren and Sanders that gets you to the same place without the same pitfalls. Following Trump’s election, outgoing Nevada Sen. Harry Reid issued this statement.
I have personally been on the ballot in Nevada for 26 elections and I have never seen anything like the reaction to the election completed last Tuesday. The election of Donald Trump has emboldened the forces of hate and bigotry in America.
We as a nation must find a way to move forward without consigning those who Trump has threatened to the shadows. Their fear is entirely rational, because Donald Trump has talked openly about doing terrible things to them. …
If this is going to be a time of healing, we must first put the responsibility for healing where it belongs: at the feet of Donald Trump, a sexual predator who lost the popular vote and fueled his campaign with bigotry and hate. Winning the electoral college does not absolve Trump of the grave sins he committed against millions of Americans. Donald Trump may not possess the capacity to assuage those fears, but he owes it to this nation to try.
Reid doesn’t preclude cooperation; this isn’t a call for blockade. What the Nevada senator does, however, is center the fears and concerns of nonwhite Americans. He essentially offers conditional terms: If you work to reduce and repudiate the fear and hate of your campaign, then there is a chance to “move forward.” Otherwise, there are no deals to make. Reid’s statement has all the room you need for a populist message to working-class whites. But it makes that message contingent on buy-in for an inclusive agenda, attuned to the concerns of marginalized Americans. In this vision, the concerns of those Americans are correctly understood as populist concerns, indispensable to the whole.
This isn’t a pedantic complaint. It matters that Warren and Sanders (and, it seems, the likely chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison) have made a choice to obscure the fundamental tribalism of Trump’s appeal. It matters that they’ve cast the bigotry of Trump’s movement as an element to oppose if it comes, and not an essential part of the whole. To take that step is to sanction white nationalism as a legitimate political appeal, thus rewarding the fight against liberal pluralist democracy.
There is a path for Democrats to build a more populist, class-centered party. But this isn’t it.