One of my absolute favorite plays — primarily for the lesson that it teaches — is Sex and Education by Lissa Levin. We saw it back in 2014 at the Colony Theatre. Sex and Education tells the story of an English teacher (Miss Edwards) who is tired of teaching; a teacher who is quitting the profession to go sell real estate. It also tells the story of a horny high-school basketball playing senior, Joe, who has accepted a scholarship to North Carolina to play college basketball. It is three days before graduation, and Miss Edwards is administering the final exam in her English class (which includes Joe). She’s looking forward to getting out of the school, and intends just to pass everyone. But then she catches Joe passing a note to Hannah, a cheerleader who is also Joe’s girlfriend. The note is confused mix of topics including insulting the teacher, the test, and asking Hannah to have sex with him under the bleachers, given that she has given him a blowjob before. It is riddled with obscenity, bad grammar, poor sentence construction, and much more. Miss Edwards she asks Joe to stay after the test. What happens next is every English teacher’s dream. She works with Joe to write a proper persuasive essay to get Hannah to overcome her reluctance and sleep with him. The point of the play — and the reason I love it so — is that it teaches that a proper persuasive essay does not convince by presenting the reasons why you think the other person should do something, but presenting to the other person why it is in their interest to do something. In other words: you need to understand their point of view before you can convince them to anything.
With relation to Donald Trump, we Democrats just don’t understand. We are like a bunch of jocks surrounding the football player, convincing him that anyone would want to sleep with him because he is strong and sexy and the captain of the football team, without realizing that the cheerleader doesn’t care about any of that — she will only sleep with someone if it serves her needs, and the football player is uncouth and coarse and doesn’t bother to shower after the game, plus he tells everyone about who he slept with.
I was talking about his before last night’s concert with my wife, pointing out that the Democrats aren’t speaking a language that will convince Republicans that Donald Trump has to go. All the things we think they would care about — justice, American values, consistency with what they complained about with Obama — really have no meaning to the Republicans. They have other concerns, other things that Trump is speaking to. Until we can learn to speak in a way that they will listen, there will not be reconciliation (or even impeachment). Further, the divide is just getting greater, as the separation in our media views (in a database sense of a view) just increases the odds that anything we say will be written off.
And hence, this essay. My goal is to bring together a number of podcasts and articles that I have read that, just perhaps, might increase your awareness of what the other side is thinking and believing. Perhaps then we might be able to craft a way to talk such that we can convince them. All I know right now is that all the crap and memes and articles flowing across the “Blue” Facebook won’t do it.
The Rural / Urban Divide
Driving home earlier this week, I listened to a recent episode of Backstory titled Worlds Apart. The episode explored the rural / urban divide in America through the eyes of history: a divide that goes back to the days of Jefferson, the Farmer, vs. Hamilton, the City Man. It explored why the rural voice was so important in political history, and how often voting was adjusted to give a greater voice to the rural voter.
When we look at the election of Donald Trump, one of the big distinctions is the difference in the electoral map between the urban and the rural voters. Major cities, in general, went for Hillary Clinton. She spoke to them and their concerns. The vast portion of the country, however — the voters out of the urban areas and in the more rural states — went for Trump in a landslide. This didn’t equate to more total votes, but given the way that the Electoral College is structured in the Constitution, it worked out to be more electoral votes.
When the Democratic strategy is analyzed, one thing that stands out is that Hillary Clinton was tone deaf. She didn’t bother to campaign in many of the rural states, writing them off (or even worse, assuming based on polls alone that she would win them). If you don’t campaign in a state — if you are not out there holding rallies and pressing the flesh and such, you can’t even make the claim to be listening. Trump, on the other hand? If you listen to many of his supporters, they were attracted to him because he seemed to be listening to their concerns. He may have been very vague on how he was going to solve their problems, but hey, he was listening to them (and that was more than the other candidates did).
So now, look at the Democratic bench of candidates. The bulk of the leading candidates are urban. Sanders? A NYC Jew. Clinton? A Chicago Girl. Warren? Urban Mass. Cory Booker? Newark, NJ. Kamala Harris? San Francisco. Who were the last Democratic candidates that came into office with a lot more concensus? A man from rural Hope Arkansas. A man from rural Independence Missouri.
We Democrats have lost the ability to speak the language of small town America. We don’t know how to reach the voter whose concern is faith and family; whose concern is the vanishing small town and small town values. We get out there and use big words and propose things that will just kill the small towns more. We talk about things that raise up the urban minorities, while doing bubkis for the poor farmers and merchants in Small Town USA. Is it any surprise that they don’t hear us and don’t believe us? We’re the city slickers. We’re foreign.
We need to think Sex and Education. We need to groom Democratic candidates from the small towns and churches — ideally, Christians who believe in Christian values that are what Jesus taught, not what the preachers teach. We need to work these candidates through the system to build their national presence, so that we can have a Democratic bench that understands how to speak to rural voters while preserving Democratic values — and with the ability to present those values as something of value to the rural communities.
The Disaffected White Male
A common trope of this election was that it was the non-college educated White male voter that went for Trump. Those with education, women, minorities — they went for Clinton. And there is much truth to this — and it plays into the rural / urban divide above, for where are those with education, the educated men and women, the minorities. Urban areas. But there is much more to this trope.
The economic boom under President Obama was not a peanut-butter boom, spread evenly. The economic resurgence benefited those with educations that understood technology. It didn’t benefit the blue collar steel worker or coal miner or manufacturing laborer, who saw their jobs continue to move out of the country. Who did they see getting hired? You guessed it — the immigrant. Never mind that they didn’t have the skill for the job, or wouldn’t do the work the immigrant was doing. The immigrant was getting hired; they weren’t. The boom was passing them by. Again.
Further, there were all these incentives given to minorities. If you were poor (and what minority wasn’t poor), you got helped into college and were given preference in admission; you were preferentially hired by the employer who needed diversity in their workforce. If you were a white male, often from somewhere N of the poverty line, you got none of that.
Then #blacklivesmatter came along? What did they attack? Your one remaining advantage: your White skin and your White privilege. The police were criticized for assuming minorities were evil — based on skin color or obvious religious symbols, and for assuming White guys were good. Never mind that it was White Guys who were shooting up the movie theatres and the office workplaces. The White Privilege was the last vestige of the good old days, and here were all these liberals (which you must say with a sneer) attacking it.
Then along comes someone like Donald Trump, who actually seems to be listening to you. Here’s a white guy who used his privilege to his advantage, who keeps using it, and seems to imply that he’s going to use it in your favor. Plus, he’s the personification of traditional American values (as you understand): money can get you anywhere, women are second class citizens, Christianity is the superior religion. He’s make America Great Again — and we all understand the values that made America Great in the first place.
How do the Democrats speak to this? What are we saying as Democrats that will speak to this group? Anyone? (crickets chirping)
Pointing out Trump’s foibles is not what this group wants to here, because his foibles are what makes them go, “oh, yeah!”. We Democrats come into the discussion wanting to do good for everyone else but us (if you think about it, it is an attitude similar to Imperialism and Colonization). Be a Democrat, we say. We’ll take what little you have and redistribute it to those who need it to make everyone’s life better. We hear, as Democrats, “make everyone’s life better”. What does the disaffected White male hear? “We’ll take what little you have…”. Do we really expect to convince them with that?
To resist Trump, and to bring this group back into the Democratic fold, we need to think Sex and Education — how to talk to them so that they hear us. Talking about redistributing funds from the wealthy is not the way to do it: this group aspires to be white and wealthy, and so they hear us saying: “Don’t worry: once you become successful, we’ll take it from you.”. Speaking to this group may first require us to occasionally not promote the minority or the woman, but to promote the white male who can speak to them. Further, we need to present policies in such a way that we don’t focus on what we are taking, but what we are giving and what we are growing. Further, we need to show why they will not be at a disadvantage — in fact, we will return them to an advantaged position (but one that has them on an equal playing field, not an uneven one). However, there’s a big problem here, as any “SJW” (social justice warrior) will tell you: there is no such thing as a level playing field, as unseen white privilege unbalances the field when it is ostensibly level, just due to the inherent unspoken advantages of getting to the field in the first place.
Figuring out how to balance all of this: speaking to the White Males while simultaneously lifting up and supporting the traditional Democratic constituencies is really hard. There have been few candidates that have been able to do it: Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, perhaps Jimmy Carter. But society has changed since them, and cynicism has grown. We need to do some hard thinking here.
The Religious Right
I’m not going to go into much detail here, because I’ve already written quite a bit on this subject here and here. Of particular importance is that first link, and the second bullet of the second link. Suffice it to say that Trump has been successful with this group precisely because he is disruptive, and it is the nature of this disruption that makes them not care about his immorality. In fact, they need an immoral person like Trump for this person. After all, disruption leads to war and Armageddon, and that brings the true believer closer to Jesus.
This is a notion that is very foreign to Democrats, who tend to be more scientific and more rational thinkers (with all that applies). The faith community is one that we no longer know how to speak to, just like small town America. Trump knows the dog whistles they can hear. We Democrats need to figure out how to speak to this community without compromising our values.
Giving Them What They Want
If we look back at this election, we’ll see that one of the key reasons that Trump won was the Internet — in particular, the Internet that most of us Democrats and Liberals did not see. It was the dark Internet of the White Supremacists. It was the backwaters and bridges of the Trolls. It was the people writing and sharing the memes that shaped opinion. It was the world from 4chan.
Here I’m going to direct you to go read or listen to a number of things. They will make you think very differently about things:
- Meme Come True. This segment of This American Life looks at the Deploraball — a gathering of Internet Trolls who created all the memes that brought down Clinton and brought up Trump. It is these folks that figured out how to turn Trump’s disadvantages and misstatements into powerplays.
- Voyage Into Pizzagate. This is an episode of Reply All that explored a Yes, Yes, No on Pizzagate: the manufactured story that a pizza store in DC was connected to child pornography thanks to John Podesta and Hillary Clinton. No, I’m not making this up. Yes, it gives a clear insight into how many in the community think. The very fact that we cannot conceive or connect the dots that led to this is precisely why we can’t figure out how to speak to this community.
- 4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump. If there is one article you need to read — and this is a long one — this is it. This article discusses the rise of 4Chan, an Internet area that was intentionally disruptive. It is 4Chan that led to Anonymous, to Gamergate, to Internet memes, and ultimately, to Trump — the loser who won.
I will say it again, in all caps for emphasis: YOU MUST READ THE ARTICLE ON THE RISE OF 4CHAN. It will lift the veil from your eyes, the angels will sing, you will have eaten at the tree of knowledge, and you will understand my son and my daughter.
Here’s the first of a few quotes from the article that may explain things. Remember, when dealing with 4Chan, you are dealing with a disaffected group of predominately white males. White males who, “were waiting for a figure to come along who, having achieved nothing in his life, pretended as though he had achieved everything, who by using the tools of fantasy, could transmute their loserdom (in 4chan parlance, their “fail”), into “win”.”
In Bukowski’s novel Factotum, the main character, Hank Chinaski, drifts through various demeaning blue-collar jobs until he ends up working the stockroom of an autoparts store. The job is no better than any of the others, except for one important difference: It ends early enough for Chinaski and another worker, Manny, to race to the track for the last bet of the day. Soon the other workers in the warehouse hear of the scheme and ask Hank to put down their bets, too.
At first Hank objects. He doesn’t have time to make their petty bets before the track closes. But Manny has a different idea.
“We don’t bet their money, we keep their money.” he tells Hank.
“Suppose they win?” Hank asks.
“They won’t win. They always pick the wrong horse. They have a way of always picking the wrong horse.”
“Suppose they bet our horse?”
“Then we know we’ve got the wrong horse.”
Soon Chinaski and Manny are flush with money, not from working for the $1.25 an hour at the warehouse or even making smart bets themselves, but for taking the money of the other workers and not betting it. That is after all, why those same men handing over their bets work in the factory; they are defined by their bad decisions, by the capacity for always getting a bad deal. Their wages and their bets are both examples of the same thing.
Trump, of course, has made his fortune in a similar manner, with casinos, correspondence courses, and pageants, swindling money out of aspiring-millionaire blue collar workers, selling them not a bill of goods, but the hope of a bill of goods, the glitz and glamour of success, to people who don’t win, or in Trump’s parlance, “don’t win anymore.” As if once, in the mythic past he invented, they did once and soon will again, since at the heart of what he promised was, “you’ll win so much you’ll get sick of winning”. In other words, if we are to understand Trump supporters, we can view them at the core as losers — people who never ever bet on the right horse — Trump, of course, being the signal example, the man obsessed with “losers” who, seemingly was going to be remembered as one of the biggest losers in history — until he won.
The older generation of Trump supporters the press often focuses on, the so called “forgotten white working class”, are in this sense easier to explain since they fit into the schema of a 1950s-style electorate. Like the factory workers in Factotum, the baby boomers were promised pensions and prosperity, but received instead simply the promises. Here the narrative is simple. The workers were promised something and someone (the politicians? the economy? the system itself?) never delivered. Their horse never came in.
This telling of the story ignores the fact that, as Trump often points out, “it was a bad deal”. The real story is not that the promise was never fulfilled. Manny and Hank’s deal with the workers was the same as the factory’s deal with them: the empty promise was the bargain. The real story is not that the horse didn’t come in, it’s that the bet was never placed.
Here’s another quote, this time from a discussion about Pepe the Frog (yet another meme, and no, you don’t want to ask. But if you must.):
It is, in other words, a value system, one reveling in deplorableness and being pridefully dispossessed. It is a culture of hopelessness, of knowing “the system is rigged”. But instead of fight the response is flight, knowing you’re trapped in your circumstances is cause to celebrate. For these young men, voting Trump is not a solution, but a new spiteful prank.
We know, by this point, that Trump is funny. Even to us leftists, horrified by his every move, he is hilarious. Someone who is all brash confidence and then outrageously incompetent at everything he does is — from an objective standpoint — comedy gold. Someone who accuses his enemies of the faults he at that very moment is portraying is comedy gold. But, strangely, as the left realized after the election, pointing out Trump was a joke was not helpful. In fact, Trump’s farcical nature, didn’t seem to be a liability, rather, to his supporters, it was an asset.
All the left’s mockery of Trump served to reinforce his message as not only an outsider, but as an expression of rage, despair, and ultimate pathetic Pepe-style hopelessness.
Or to put it another, extremely scary way:
Trump also equally represents the knowledge that all of that is a lie, a scam that’s much older than you are, a fantasy that we can dwell in though it will never become true, like a video game.
Trump, in other words, is a way of owning and celebrating being taken advantage of.
Trump embodies buying the losing bet that will never be placed.
He is both despair and cruel arrogant dismissal, the fantasy of winning and the pain of losing mingled into one potion.
For this reason, the left should stop expecting Trump’s supporters to be upset when he doesn’t fulfill his promises.
Support for Trump is an acknowledgement that the promise is empty.
In short: the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Why not accelerate it?
It is, perhaps, this group that will be the hardest for we Democrats to reach. Our fundamental belief — reinforced by eight years of Bill Clinton and eight years of Barack Obama — is embodied on one word: hope. We are hopeful. We are optimistic. We believe in a better world. How then can we speak to a group that not only believes, but knows with absolute certainty, that hope is an empty promise. And if hope is an empty promise, why not support the guy who we know will fulfill the promise of failing to provide hope, who we know will be truthful in dashing our dreams, who will do everything he said he was going to do to blow up society? How do we reach a group that looks at Donald Trump’s first 30 days, and who says, “He is doing everything he promised to do. Disruption, baby! We’ve lost our hope, now you know what we feel like!”
We Democrats see Trump realistically for what he is: the antithesis of hope; the personification of everything he complained about from the other side. But we lack the ability and the language to convince the other side of this — and more importantly, to make the other side care about this. Much as it may pain us to have these discussions, we really need to listen, to think, and to explore how to craft an argument that addresses not that which is of concern to us, but what is of concern to them. Even harder, we need to figure out a way to make good on our promises of addressing that which is of concern to the Republican (and what is really of concern, not what we think is of concern), while not compromising on our Democratic values.
G-d, please give us the strength to do this, for its not easy. And for those of us that don’t believe in such a higher power, we’ve really got our work cut out for us.
P.S.: I just can’t go out on such a pessimistic note. Here’s something to cheer you up: