NYT’s Edsall Stands Up for ‘Grievances of White America’

Trump rally (photo: Ty Wright/NYT)

New York Times depiction of Trump supporters expressing their “legitimate grievances.” (photo: Ty Wright/NYT)

New York Times op-ed writer Thomas Edsall (6/1/16) sets out to examine the role resentment plays in fueling the movement behind Donald Trump—but does so in such an uncritical way that he seems to adopt Trump voters’ resentments as his own.

These voters, he says, “are evidently enraged by the imposition of norms of political correctness that they see as enforced by ‘Stalinist orthodoxy,’” and “perceive the network of state, local and federal anti-discrimination laws and directives as censorious and coercive.” Trump, according to Edsall, “has capitalized on the visceral belief of many white voters that government-enforced diversity and other related regulations are designed ‘to bring Americans to submission.‘”

Edsall never questions this perspective; in fact, he implicitly criticizes liberals for failing to embrace it:

The refusal of Democrats and the American left to hear — or to grant some legitimacy to — the grievances of white America as it loses power and stature to ascendant minorities and to waves of immigrants from across the globe undergirds the Trump movement…. He has won a unique admixture of support, based in part on what might be called an anti-rational or irrational loyalty but also in part on his recognition of legitimate grievances among his adherents that many other politicians belittle or deny.

Now, it’s easy to argue that US workers have legitimate grievances, given that real hourly wages have actually fallen slightly over the last 40 years. But do white Americans have real grievances as whites? It’s hard to see the power of “ascendant minorities” when you look at the persistence of racial income gaps:

Business Insider: Real Median Household Income by Race

Source: Census Bureau, via Business Insider (9/16/14)

As examples of the complaints of white voters, Edsall cites the “silencing [of] their opposition to immigration — legal and illegal — to judicial orders putting low-income housing in the suburbs, and to government-mandated school integration, to name just a few of their least favorite things.” Edsall’s apparent rhetorical acceptance here of attempts to redress centuries of historic discrimination against people of color as “legitimate grievances” of white people is striking, to say the least.

But even given this dubious definition of “legitimate,” it’s hard to say that “opposition to immigration” has been silenced: Since 1994, immigration law has been repeatedly tightened and attempts to liberalize it blocked since 2000. (Edsall treats as a puzzle why Trump’s “opposition to immigrants and Mexicans in particular [is] so resonant when immigration liberalization ostensibly has majority support in most polls“—but this is not actually puzzling, since Trump himself is viewed unfavorably by a clear majority of voters.) United States residential patterns remain starkly segregated, so much so that many urban areas appear to be under informal apartheid rules.  Courts virtually stopped issuing school desegregation orders in the 1980s; over the last 20 years, the Supreme Court has been far more concerned with combating affirmative action.

But you get the impression that it’s not so much the policies white people oppose as how they’ve been talked to that concerns Edsall. He brings on NYU political psychologist Jonathan Haidt as an  expert witness, who talks about “reactance,” basically the idea that people don’t like being told what to do:

Decades of political correctness, with its focus on “straight white men” as the villains and oppressors — now extended to “straight white cis-gendered men” — has caused some degree of reactance in many and perhaps most white men….  The accusatory and vindictive approach of many social justice activists and diversity trainers may actually have increased the desire and willingness of some white men to say and do un-PC things.

So in this telling, sexism, racism and homophobia are caused at least in part by attempts to fight sexism, racism and homophobia. And Edsall seems to concur with this analysis:

Trump’s anger at being policed or fenced in apparently speaks to the resentment of many American men and their resistance to being instructed, particularly by a female candidate, on how they should think, speak or behave.

Now, that qualifier—”particularly by a female candidate”—is very important, too important to be relegated to a dependent clause. Because while Edsall’s column paints Trump’s fans as people who don’t like being pushed around, actually one of the most distinguishing characteristics of Trump voters is their authoritarianism. As political science researcher Matthew MacWilliams, who called attention to the appeal Trump held for authoritarian voters, wrote in Politico (1/17/16):

Authoritarians obey. They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened.

Donald Trump tweet

Donald Trump’s followers don’t mind being told what to do when it’s in the service of authoritarianism.

Accordingly, while Edsall cites the use of “imperatives, such as ‘must’ or ‘need,’” as “the kind of messages that provoke reactance and a defiant or oppositional response,” that’s only true for Trump voters when they come from someone seen as an “outsider”—like a female Democrat. “Must,” of course, is one of Trump’s favorite words—he used it 32 times in his big foreign policy speech. (“Need” came up 12 times.) His followers love it when his Twitter feed is full of exhortations like “US must be vigilant and smart!” “We must put America first and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” and “Republicans must stop listening to dopes like .”

Edsall doesn’t note rhetoric like this, but worries that Clinton is being too “admonitory” when she says things like “I don’t think a nation can be great that turns its back on the poor and the unfortunate,” “We’ve got to do more to raise families’ incomes” and “We’re stronger together.” Edsall even suggested that Clinton came across as controlling when she said, after being insulted by Trump, “He can say whatever he wants to say about me, I could really care less.”

 Apparently that sounds like “being policed or fenced in” to Edsall. Maybe someone needs to write a piece about the psychological mechanism underpinning New York Times op-eds.

Jim Naureckas is the editor of FAIR.org. He can be followed on Twitter: @JNaureckas.

You can send a message to the New York Times at letters@nytimes.com (Twitter:@NYTimes). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.