Scott Alexander is dangerously wrong about Trump

[Epistemic status: extreme]

A blog post from Scott Alexander, whose writing usually stays confined to an insular circle of “Rationalists” (note the capitalization), seems to have broken through to the mainstream. At the very least I have seen it shared by people who I assume are not regular readers of his blog, so I wanted to write some sort of response now that the risk of signal-boosting the post seems rather moot.

Alexander wants us to stop thinking that Donald Trump is racist, or that his presidency will be racist, or that his voters were racist. He pretty much wants us to stop talking about racism completely vis-à-vis Trump. I think this is extraordinarily foolish. But first, to mitigate the risk of being accused of rejecting the post on face, I just want to briefly note two things that I actually do agree with him on.

First, I think it is absolutely correct that there are manifold problems with Trump besides his racism, and that the Clinton campaign and her supporters could have afforded to talk more about those things (though his implication that no one was talking about these things is demonstrably false). Second, I do not think that it is a useful exercise to attempt to parse out exactly which Trump voters, on a sliding scale from none to all, can be justifiably called “racist.” (However, I probably believe this latter point for very different reasons than Alexander).

Now onto what he gets wrong.

1. Alexander is wrong about racism

As Jamelle Bouie noted earlier today, Alexander is operating under a deeply limited understanding of what racism is. Alexander seems to believe that “racism” means “David Duke and 4chan Nazis” and not a whole lot else. Having thus stacked the deck in his favor, he proceeds to pile on the arithmetic to demonstrate that, in fact, the literal Ku Klux Klan did not comprise a sizable portion of Trump’s voter base.

Q.E.D.! Of course, when most people talked about Trump’s racism, they were never making the claim that most of his supporters were Ku Klux Klan members. Even claims that Trump is “openly racist,” onto which Alexanders heaps immense amounts of scorn, never amounted to that suggestion. The “openness” to which critics referred was the unprecedented degree to which Trump’s rhetoric and behavior (before and during the campaign) were saturated with racism — more on this in a minute.

The “open racism” label was designed to draw a contrast to past Republican candidates, like Mitt Romney, whose “racism” was largely (though not exclusively; see his infamous “47%” comment about lazy welfare-moochers) confined to his support for policies that, in massively redistributing wealth upwards and rolling back key social-justice efforts of the Obama administration, would have a disproportionately negative material effect on the lives of American people of color.

This point is crucial, because Trump and the party that he now heads still support policies that are racist in that sense. The past week alone has seen the GOP go full-steam-ahead on plans to dismantle Medicare, commandeer the EPA (a key line of defense against environmental racism), and cut taxes on the rich, just to name a few of the most high-profile examples.

The Alexander party line on this sort of argument seems to be (1) it’s unfair to say people are racist for opposing “liberal” policies and (2) it’s actually racist to “assume black people are poor” (he makes a variant of this latter point in this article re: criminal justice). The first point is circular, because it relies on his definition of racism as “holding KKK-style views,” which is what talking about racism enacted subtly through policy is designed to dispute. The second point is even more ridiculous: it asks us to ignore economic marginalization as an axis of racial oppression simply because of the fear that black poverty would then become naturalized — but that is only a risk if you agree, with Alexander, to turn a blind eye to the existence of racist politicians passing racist policies.

2. Alexander is wrong about Trump 

All of this being said, Alexander is also just flat-out wrong when he denies that there’s evidence that Trump himself holds or has espoused racist views. On the contrary, there is decades of evidence for that proposition.

The evidence begins in the early 1970s, when Trump first entered the public eye when he was sued by the federal government for refusing to rent apartments to black people. Alexander provides a pathetic parenthetical response to this story by wrongly claiming that only his father was implicated and then attempting to excuse a violation of federal anti-discrimination law by pointing out that racist views about housing were somewhat au currant among white people at the time.

Later, in 1989, Trump returned to the public spotlight when he spent almost a hundred thousand dollars on a PR campaign in favor of the execution of the wrongly-accused “Central Park Five,” all of whom were people of color. Last month Trump actually doubled down on his lingering desire to send these innocent black and Latino men to their deaths. Alexander provides a contorted statistical argument for why “tough on crime” politics is not racist — which it of course is not a priori. But we aren’t talking a priori. We’re talking about the United States, with its centuries-long history of employing the criminal justice system to wage war on black and brown Americans, and about Donald Trump, with a decades-long history of the same.

Before we even get to Trump’s 2016 campaign rhetoric, it is crucial to point out that Trump emerged in the last several years as a political figure thanks to his sustained campaign to delegitimize the first black American president by baselessly contending that he was not born in the United States — claims that he didn’t back down on until recently, when it became clear that the Birther movement he helped to spearhead had failed and was becoming a political liability.

Now, at long last, we arrive at this year’s campaign. Alexander’s counter-argumentation here largely relies on an out-of-hand dismissal of a generation of social science research on the concept of “dogwhistling.” That is an act of extreme intellectual arrogance, but the beauty of Trump is that it is not even necessary to resort to claims of dogwhistling to cite example’s of Trump’s racism during the campaign. Here I will focus on just the two most prominent examples, but you can scour the internet to find many, many more.

First, there are the comments about Mexican immigrants that kickstarted Trump’s campaign back in 2015. Alexander helpfully clarifies that Trump was not saying that Mexicans were bad people, simply that Mexican immigrants were bad people (specifically rapists and drug lords, in case you somehow forgot). Perhaps this defines Trump in contradistinction to the rigorously taxonomical racists that Alexander deems worthy interlocutors on his blog. But it is hardly reassuring for those of us who live in the real world, understand the practical mutability of constructed racial categories, and are worried about how those who have internalized Trump’s rhetoric might treat the people they see on the street.

Next, there is Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration and proposal for a Muslim registry — ideas which, in case anyone was credulous enough to believe dismissals of them as “just campaign talk,” have received new life in recent days. Alexander, graciously, acknowledges that this is a bad thing but comes down hard on the argument that Islamophobia is a different beast than racism. His assertion that most Muslims are “white-ish” reeks of the taxonomic scientific racism mentioned above, but otherwise this is a distressingly common argument.

Refutations abound, but the point I’d like to hammer home is this: Alexander wants to explain to people why they shouldn’t be afraid of Trump. If a pedantic explanation of why Trumpian talk of internment camps, registries, and immigration bans is not technically racism is Alexander’s idea of how to comfort alarmed Muslims (and Sikhs, who face the impact of Islamophobia too), he shouldn’t expect any breathless thanks for soothed anxieties any time soon.

Ah, but Trump said he loves Hispanics while eating a taco bowl, so I guess there’s nothing to see here.

3. Alexander is wrong about Trump’s support base

This aspect of Alexander’s argument is the most inexplicable to me, surely the most callous, and in my opinion the most dangerous moving forward. Despite writing after Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon, the Trump campaign CEO and a ringleader of the white supremacist “alt-right” movement, as his senior advisor, Alexander still stubbornly insists that there is no evidence that Trump’s campaign or his victory did anything to elevate or embolden the people that Alexander would actually deign to classify as “open racists.”

It is inexplicable to me for several reasons. The Bannon appointment is one, but Bannon is just the tip of the iceberg. Reports of elected officials, teachers, bosses, and other authority figures around the country spouting “openly racist” rhetoric after Trump’s victory abound. The Ku Klux Klan celebrated the victory loudly. No matter how small of a fraction of his vote total the KKK represented, this should alarm any conscientious American.

Alexander relies heavily on exit polling to dispute the idea that it’s important to talk about the radical racist right in connection with Trump’s victory, which is a mistake for two reasons. First, it is absolutely stunning to me that someone who talks incessantly about “epistemic status” and regularly scrutinizes statistical data that he doesn’t like in minute detail would treat notoriously fallible exit polling so unquestioningly. There is lots of evidence that this is poor methodology, including on the question of Latino voters that Alexander spends so much time dwelling on.

Second, it ignores the potentially outsized pernicious influence of that small minority (especially when they have reason to believe they will have an ear in Bannon steps away from the Oval Office). This is why I find Alexander’s dismissal of neo-Nazi support and hate crime proliferation so callous. It only takes a few people to damage a lot of lives. Reports of hate crimes since Trump’s victory are obviously small compared to the total number of people who voted in the presidential election but Alexander’s unpitying tone in discussing swastika graffiti, physical harassment, and other mistreatment of hundreds of real human beings is quite distasteful.

In particular, I take issue with Alexander’s decision to blame post-Trump anti-Semitism on the media, rather than on Trump or his anti-Semitic followers themselves. In particular, while everyone online has their favorite bone to pick with Vox, singling them out for putatively causing people to respond to Trump’s denunciation of globalism with anti-Semitism is especially objectionable given how open many Vox writers have been about the unprecedented rash of anti-Semitic harassment they’ve received during this election cycle.

The most staggering irony of Alexander’s piece, by the way, is his unreflective equation of anti-Semitism with “anti-Israel” sentiment, concluding that Trump and his movement can have nothing to do with anti-Semitism because he supports Israel and the Israeli right supports him. The true wolf-crying over the last several years has been done by right-wing activists who responded to evidence of a global resurgence in anti-Semitism by doubling down even harder on the conviction that opponents of the Israeli occupation of Palestine –and no one else — are the real anti-Semites.

I think that Alexander’s willingness to write off pro-Trump grassroots violence is probably the most irresponsible part of the entire piece — and this is a piece, just to reiterate, which ignores the impact of Trump’s economic agenda on the most vulnerable members of society and downplays the danger of Trump’s explicit proposed crackdown on Mexican and Muslim Americans.

Thuggish acolytes are the backbone of any authoritarian/fascist regime. If Trump is able to enact the most destructive conceivable agenda — the sort of agenda that Steve Bannon will be whispering in his ear for the next four years — it will be because he is able to physically intimidate opponents, from community organizers to “moderate” Republicans in office.

And sure enough, as Alexander himself acknowledges, hundreds of people across the country have already declared themselves willing and able to hurt other people in their allegiance to the Trump movement, apropos of absolutely nothing substantive. It’s Day 10.

Wednesday Morning Presentism: Trump Was Not Inevitable

The biggest pet peeve of historians is “presentism,” the assumption, in telling stories about the past, that it was all just leading up to some present state of affairs. Normally we don’t like presentism because it tends to shore up or reflect the idea that history always moves towards “progress.” But in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory on Tuesday, a lot of people seem to be in danger of making the opposite error: the assumption after the fact that his triumph was inevitable all along.

Donald Trump is a white supremacist. His election is a victory for white supremacy and for the well-off white supremacists, lurking in white flight suburbs and on alt-right internet message boards, that always comprised the core of his base. The coming years just got a lot tougher for people of color and immigrants, along with women and LGBTQ people, across the country. And when he enacts gargantuan tax cuts on the rich, when wages continue to stagnate and wealth fails to accumulate, his “populist” rhetoric will be unmasked all too late. It is crucial not to lose sight of  what his election represents.

But identifying what his election represents is not the same thing as identifying why his election happened. The preferred candidate of well-off racist white people has lost before. If we want to understand why white supremacy won this time, we have to get a lot more specific and a lot more contingent.

My own explanation would begin with legal and institutional change that destroyed the ability of core Democratic constituencies to organize and turn out. The Supreme Court’s dismantling of the Voting Rights Act paved the way for racist voter suppression legislation across the country. Every state that flipped from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 enacted some policy designed to limit the ability of people of color to get to the polls in the last four years.

Many of those states have also seen the gradual demolition of unions. That effort was spearheaded by Republicans eager to smash the political power of reliably Democratic working class voters, including working class white people. But it was also aided and abetted by Democratic elites, including many long-time Clinton allies like Rahm Emanuel, caught in the throes of privatization-mad neoliberal ideology and mistakenly convinced that centrism and electability are the same thing.

It’s also important to hammer home the failure of the American media during this election cycle. The media spent more time talking about utterly non-scandalous emails found on Anthony Weiner’s computer than about the tape of Trump bragging about sexual assault and the subsequent on-record accusations from a number of different women. They unreflectively perpetuated Trump’s fictitious claims to be a populist, refusing to subject his policy proposals, as few as they were, to a modicum of scrutiny. In their insatiable desire for clicks and for a horserace they failed the nation.

All that being said, it would be irresponsible to let the Clinton campaign off the hook. They made almost every single strategic decision incorrectly during the general election campaign. No one who held a position above field organizer in this campaign should ever be able to work in politics again. Every time a scandal arose, they blamed Russian interference instead of providing an explanation or an apology in terms that would resonate with voters outside of liberal Twitter. They inexplicably welcomed the support of America’s extremely unpopular foreign policy establishment, from Henry Kissinger to Bush administration neoconservatives.

Even after a remarkably close call in the primary campaign against Bernie Sanders, the Clinton campaign, despite their highly touted reliance on data, ignored the empirical evidence and concluded that his message resonated only among far-left, reliably Democratic voters, and therefore failed to emphasize any of his most successful talking points in the general election. With Sanders voters purportedly in the bag no matter what, Clinton neglected the Rust Belt, ignoring Wisconsin entirely after April and, except for a last-minute appearance with LeBron James, largely ignoring Ohio down the stretch as well.

According to exit polling, Trump cleaned up among voters who said that they thought the economy was rigged to benefit elites. This is a man who pledged the largest tax cuts for the wealthy in US history during the campaign. The voters who swung the election to Trump were not the Nazis who had been in his camp since day one. The reason those Nazis are now celebrating across the country is because Clinton couldn’t seal the deal with millions of people who voted for Obama in 2012 and decided for Trump in the last week of this year’s campaign because at the end of the day, it was Clinton who reminded them more of Mitt Romney than Trump.

And yet, despite all of this, she won the popular vote. Most voters actually chose to repudiate Trump. To understand why he nonetheless scraped out a razor-thin margin of victory, we have to abandon our grand narratives, stop treating his win as retrospectively inevitable, and identify the details of the system’s failure. If we want to prevent Trump and his white supremacist base from winning next time, we have to figure out everything that went wrong, from our state legislatures to our newspapers to the Democratic Party, and work to rectify it. Throwing in the towel and resting on our moral superiority is not an option.