The candidate for president was seething with disdain for a large swath of Real Americans. The candidate scoffed at their suffering. The candidate oozed with haughty superciliousness as he wrote off all those Americans as unworthy of concern or outreach. All the while, the candidate’s audience, cloistered in their bubble, insulated from those Americans and their travails, tittered with glee.
I’m talking about President Trump, who mocked Baltimore for its high murder rate at his reelection rally in Ohio on Thursday night. “The homicide rate in Baltimore is significantly higher than El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala,” Trump scoffed.
As the Baltimore Sun put it, Trump treated the city as a “punch line.”
We will now see a throng of pundits, columnists and even neutral reporters tearing into Trump for demonstrating elitist disdain for untold numbers of Americans, for mocking their culture and way of life and for dismissing them as no longer worthy of even minimal efforts to win over, yes?
This episode brought to mind the extraordinary outrage that greeted Hillary Clinton’s remarks last year about the high economic productivity of Clinton counties. “I won the places that represent two-thirds of America’s gross domestic product,” Clinton said, describing them as “optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward.”
Trump’s rally also brought to mind the fury that rained down on Clinton when she said in 2016, “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”
Permit me to re-litigate those episodes because they say something about a very deep imbalance that is all around us right now.
In both those cases, Clinton was pilloried far and wide for demonstrating elite contempt for her fellow Americans and their way of life. Yet in both, Clinton was referencing actual existing phenomena and proposing that they require our attention.
In the first, you might fault Clinton for being inartful. But there actually is a large economic divergence underway between big, diverse metropolitan areas that are reaping gains from digitalization and globalization, and left-behind rural and small-town communities. Clinton actually did win the economically thriving areas, and this really does have serious ramifications for our politics, exacerbating resentments and geographic polarization.
This is also a problem that has led progressive economists to propose agendas for dealing with it. That includes Clinton herself, who has also spoken to the social problems generated by this divergence.
In the second of those, it’s actually true that, if we are going to address the climate crisis, coal will have to be eased out. But Clinton spoke sympathetically to the consequences of this in the very next sentences, noting that we “don’t want to forget” coal miners. And as David Roberts notes, she had produced a sweeping plan to help manage their inevitable displacement.
The crime in Baltimore that Trump mocked is also a real phenomenon, of course. But here’s the crucial difference: Clinton actually wasn’t showing disdain for rural, non-metropolitan America — at best, she was being inartful, while proposing actual solutions to the problems she highlighted — while Trump actually is showing disdain for urban America. He is even openly flaunting it:
Kudos to CNN’s Abby D. Phillip, who found a way to register this imbalance. “Imagine a president riffing on the opioid overdose rate in suburban or rural America to laughter from his supporters,” Phillip noted. “You probably can’t.”
The press does focus regularly on Trump’s racism. As Brian Beutler notes, the media has genuinely struggled to move past journalistic conventions that editorially constrained forthright descriptions of that racism.
But Trump’s racism is rarely discussed in terms of the contempt and loathing it shows toward millions of living, breathing Americans, or the impact it has on them.
A deep imbalance
Here’s the bottom line: Big news organizations often seem to editorially privilege the difficulties and even the feelings of Midwestern whites. I can’t cite a study that proves this. But you see it constantly.
The genre of newspaper writing that sends reporters into diners and dives down the road from rusting factories to find out what Trump voters think of whatever just happened has literally become the stuff of parody, as Alexandra Petri demonstrates well.
When Trump attacked four nonwhite congresswomen, telling the country they aren’t really part of the American nation, one news organization sent reporters out to discover what Midwestern white Trump voters thought about it. No, really.
This lopsidedness has seeped into coverage of the Democratic primaries. The candidates are proposing agendas to address structural racism and mitigate the human toll being inflicted on immigrant communities. This is constantly described as potentially alienating to Trump country — Midwestern white voters.
Whether that’s true, or a matter for Democrats to worry about, is beside the point. What’s notable is that this is often the prism through which those policy debates are viewed. One news account subtly took Democrats to task for spending “time on issues facing people of color,” which would leave “auto workers and union members” — Midwestern white voters — “disappointed.”
There is a genuine argument among Democrats over how aggressively to pursue Midwestern whites. But much of this is intra-party debating over how to build a winning coalition. It does not constitute the contemptuous writing off of those parts of the country. Indeed, some candidates have rolled out plans to address their challenges.
By contrast, Trump is not just writing off large chunks of the country as unworthy of campaign outreach. He’s writing them off as president, openly signaling to his America that he recognizes zero institutional obligation to be president of that other America. As Jonathan Chait notes, Trump has “never adopted even the pose of representing the entire country.”
Our discourse has not figured out a way to faithfully convey this deep imbalance.