Part 3—We explain things to Those People: E. J. Dionne starts his new column with a familiar but sensible claim about Donald J. Trump. In the world of Donald J. Trump, it's never Donald Trump's fault:
DIONNE (4/13/17): President Trump rose to power on a combination of meanness, incoherence and falsehoods. His strategy depended almost entirely on playing off the unpopularity and weaknesses of others.A failure is never Trump's doing or fault. Blame must be cast somewhere else.
Every aspect of his approach has blown up on him since he took office, but as is always the case with Trump, he will not take any personal responsibility for what’s going wrong. He must find a scapegoat.
That's a familiar observation about Donald J. Trump. That said, it seems to us that our own liberal tribe tends to behave the same way.
We just managed to lose an election to the worst candidate ever. But we tend to direct all the blame Over There.
We tend to dump all the blame on Those People, the stupid racists who live Over There. Very little responsibility, imperfection, error or blame gets attributed to Us.
To the contrary! In the months since Trump was elected, we've created a heroic tale about our tribe's noble push-back. We're staging a "resistance," we keep telling ourselves. In this way, we compare our glorious selves to the greatest political heroes of the past century.
(To be flattered this way, just watch Rachel.)
Could there be something that we did wrong on our way to November's election? Could it be that some part of our liberal team's game needs to be discarded or improved?
We'd suggest that we abandon the way we look when we liberalsplain to Those People, the rubes who live out there "in America." And yes, we put those words in quotes for a reason.
We liberals! We've spent a fair amount of time insulting the very stupid people who voted for Donald J. Trump. That said, we've played it this way for a very long time. The perception that The Others are dumb is a long-standing part of our culture.
We rarely seem to notice the standard types of dumbness which often emerge from Us. As an example of one such practice, consider the way a recent book event started in Berkeley.
The book event was taped and broadcast by C-Span. It concerned Rebecca Solnit's new book, The Mother of All Questions.
Solnit may be best know for her earlier book, Men Explain Things to Me. She didn't use the term "mansplain" in the book, but the book is generally thought of as the text which describes the phenomenon most clearly.
Solnit's new book is one of quite a few; she also does a column for Harper's. At the Berkeley event, she was interview by Jeffrey Chang, who tended to fawn too much for our taste while dropping a few high liberal names on one or two occasions.
We have no view on Solnit's overall work. We were amazed by the way the interview started. If you want to know the way we liberal will often appear to The Others, we'd suggest that you consider the way this discussion began.
Do we seem to look down on The Others? Do we seem to condescend? We'll not suggest that Solnit meant to convey such attitudes. But the analysts started to wail and moan at an early point in the colloquy.
As the discussion started, Chang said he'd last spoken to Solnit after she returned, last September, from a visit to the Standing Rock protest in North Dakota. Loud alarms began to sound as soon as Solnit said this:
CHANG (3/16/17): If I remember correctly, when you were coming back from North Dakota, you were sitting next to a Trump supporter, yeah?The Berkeley crowd enjoyed a long laugh when Solnit said she's spoken to just two Trump supporters. To our ear, it didn't sound like friendly laughter.
SOLNIT: Yeah, this is what happens when you're from San Francisco. I've had two conversations with Trump supporters.
You know, my friends in Nevada and New Mexico and such I think have had a few more. I was kind of fascinating about both. I don't know what you remember.
Beyond that, as you know, there's a bit of a history here:
Long ago and far away, in December 1972, New York Times film critic Pauline Kael made a famous comment. She was quoted by her own newspaper. Here's what the Times said she said:
“I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.”
For the record, President Nixon had just won a massive re-election. The popular vote had gone exactly like this:
Nixon: 60.7 percent
McGovern: 37.5 percent
Oof! One month before, almost 61 percent of the electorate had voted for Nixon. Kael said she knew only one such person—though she could smell or otherwise sense their presence when she sat in a large darkened room.
Kael's statement became quite famous. It has long been taken as a marker of liberal hauteur and condescension. It's hard to see why such a strange statement shouldn't be taken that way.
Because Kael's statement is so famous, the analysts began to wail when Solnit headed down that same road. In fairness, she got a good laugh from the crowd—though to our ear, it didn't sound like friendly or self-deprecatory laughter.
To our ear, it didn't sound like the joke was on us Berkeley types, encased in our liberal bubble. As Solnit continued, the drift of the humor became a bit more clear:
SOLNIT (continuing directly): What I found fascinating was that both of them were voting for a man who was, you know, completely fictitious. It wasn't even official Trump propaganda. It was their imaginary ideal Trump. Their Platonic Trump.Last November, 63 million people voted for Trump; Solnit had spoken to two of them. On the basis of that research, the audience was enjoying a good solid laugh at their ridiculous dumbness.
CHANG: So what were they—who was this Platonic Trump to them?
Already, the analysts had lapsed into a cataonic silence. They'd seen this type of unwise, unkind condescension many times in the past.
Solnit almost seemed to be offering an anthropology of Those People. And now, as she answered Chang's question, good God!
Her hauteur became massively worse:
SOLNIT: Well, I was—on the way back from Standing Rock, I sat next to an evangelical wheat and soybean farmer, whose sons both had addiction problems, which is how you know you're in America. And uh—To watch the entire tape, click here. Solnit's discussion with Chang starts eight minutes in.
The kind of agrarian junkie scene. And uh—
SOLNIT: You know, and he was like—and this was right around—was it before the "grab them by the pussy?" He just thought, he thought all those sort of scandals were just sort of fabricated and that wasn't really who—he thought he was a much better man—he basically thought Trump was a lot more like him than any of the evidence would possibly suggest.
Credit where due! Solnit seemed to "pause for laugh" on two occasions as she described the addiction problems of the evangelical farmer's two sons, who were part of "the kind of agrarian junkie scene."
To their credit, the audience balked—and to our ear, Chang's "Hmm" almost seemed to suggest disapproval of Solnit's remark. But good grief! The analysts especially tore their hair over this rank formulation:
"I sat next to an evangelical wheat and soybean farmer, whose sons both had addiction problems, which is how you know you're in America."
"Which is how you know you're in America?" Where in the world does Solnit think that she and her followers live?
Did Solnit want to come across the way she so plainly did? We'll guess that wasn't her intention, but everyone out there "in America" would instantly sense the hauteur her words so plainly conveyed.
Solnit had spoken to one of Those People—to one of Those People out there "in America!" We liberals have been presenting ourselves to the public this way for a very long time.
The punishment wasn't over. Having described the evangelical farmer whose addicted sons live in America, Solnit started telling Chang about the second Trump voter she had encountered.
Here's where the two women met:
SOLNIT (continuing directly): And then, every four years with my amazing friend Paul Polkerson, who's organized this radical progressive coalition for the state of Nevada, I go do "get-out-the-vote." It's my sacrifice on the altar of democracy to try and ward off evil.Solnit encountered this second Trump voter due to her own amazing friend, with whom she was sacrificing on the altar of democracy, as she does every four years.
And you know, and I was in like this kind of like bleak suburb about ten miles north of downtown Reno doing get-out-the-vote, and this South Asian woman started really badgering me, because she was there to do get-out-the-vote for Trump. And I just wanted to figure out why she liked Trump.
And she had two things she was really committed to and that there was no arguing with her about...
Solnit had encountered this woman "in like this kind of like bleak suburb about ten miles north of downtown Reno." We will guess that that "bleak suburb" is found "in America" too.
We'll guess that Solnit didn't intend to come across in the way she so plainly did. But her condescension and her hauteur were familiar and unmistakable.
What did we think as we watched that last statement? People live in that suburb, we thought. And guess what?
Those people are people too!
Solnit spoke to a Berkeley crowd. On the whole, her hour-long discussion struck us as rather light, but she plainly has fans in the area.
That said, everyone in that bleak Reno suburb would have understood what they were hearing that day:
We liberals explain things about our lessers. Last fall, those voters spoke.
Tomorrow: Sources of hauteur
For the record: For the record, Solnit's conversation with that deluded American farmer would have preceded Trump's "grab them" remark.