South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg travels to a fundraising event in West Hollywood on March 14. (Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post)

For all their desire to beat President Trump in 2020, the Democratic Party hasn’t figured out how to talk about his supporters. Hillary Clinton christened many Trump voters “deplorables” in 2016, and to this day the liberal base has a strong distaste for suggesting Trump voters were motivated by anything other than fear and bigotry. Claims that they were acting on “economic anxiety” have become a regular object of ridicule on social media. There is a sense that this glosses over Trump’s real, baser appeal and even bestows undue legitimacy on his presidency.

But one Democratic presidential candidate has decided to stress an empathetic approach — even an olive branch — to Trump voters: Pete Buttigieg.

In recent weeks and months, the South Bend, Ind., mayor has offered a characteristically philosophical approach to reaching out to Trump voters, arguing that they had real and understandable reasons to support him in 2016. In many ways, he’s offering a political science analysis at a time when many Democrats don’t want to hear it.

It’s gotten him in some trouble.

In a January Washington Post magazine profile, Buttigieg offered this. “Donald Trump got elected because, in his twisted way, he pointed out the huge troubles in our economy and our democracy,” he said. “At least he didn’t go around saying that America was already great, like Hillary did.”

That understandably ruffled some feathers, given the dig at Clinton. A Clinton spokesman recently re-upped the quote and took Buttigieg to task.

“This is indefensible,” Nick Merrill said. “@HillaryClinton ran on a belief in this country & the most progressive platform in modern political history. Trump ran on pessimism, racism, false promises, & vitriol. Interpret that how you want, but there are 66,000,000 people who disagree. Good luck.”

A few points. The first is that Clinton did indeed say that America was already great. The second is that Buttigieg didn’t really praise Trump’s messaging. In fact, he flat-out said Trump was running “in his twisted way.” Buttigieg never said Trump’s campaign was good or that Clinton’s was bad; he merely pointed to the real-world appeal of Trump’s emphasis and suggested Democrats got theirs wrong.

He’s repeatedly had to explain this quote and even temper it a little. But he’s largely stuck by the core.

“To the extent that we, the Democratic Party, in 2016, were perceived as saying that the system was fine — so he was saying, I’m going to blow up the system, and we were saying, Trust the system. A lot of people, especially people in industrial Midwestern communities like mine, didn’t find our message to be convincing,” Buttigieg told the New Yorker recently. “Because the system really had let them down, in the sense that, you know, the rising tide rose, just as we were promised it would, but most of our boats didn’t budge.”

Buttigieg never says the words “economic anxiety,” but he might as well have. That’s the message. And he’s decided that he’s going to press the idea that, along the Rust Belt where he’s from, it’s very real — and that he’s the candidate to address it.

Buttigieg’s other commentary on Trump voters has been similar.

  • “Well, I think it starts with a certain amount of humility and recognizing that how you voted doesn’t make you a good person or a bad person, and we shouldn’t think of ourselves as better human beings because of how we voted.” (USA Today, this week)
  • “Look, I think a lot of folks are waiting for some piece of evidence to come along that finally proves once and for all that he’s not a good guy. And what they forget is that there are a lot of people where I live, and maybe a lot of people around here too, who, knowing that he’s not a good guy, walked in to the voting booth and voted to burn the house down because of some very deep issues that motivated them to send a message. Some of which I think we should give no quarter to, like racism, but others of which deserve to be taken seriously. The sense of displacement, and the belief that Democratic and Republican presidencies have let them down, and the failure of this enormous American prosperity to reach so many people in so many communities. If we’re not paying attention to that, I fear somebody like this president will come along in a different guise and we’ll be right here having these debates.” (During a recent stop in South Carolina)
  • “The other thing I have noticed is there are some folks I encounter here who seem to have trouble believing things that Trump voters actually exist. So I feel like I am sometimes am emissary from the middle of the country, just pointing out that things look a little different in rural communities, industrial communities like mine . . . I see a lot of well-heeled people, sometimes on the coasts, kind of shaking their heads and asking . . . ‘How can you vote against your self-interests economically, don’t you know you are voting against your interests?’ And if you say that to somebody from that background where I come from, they simply can turn around and say, so are you . . . It can come off as a little condescending.” (A recent appearance on San Francisco public radio)

Buttigieg certainly cuts a unique profile in the 2020 Democratic race, as a young, gay mayor of a relatively small city in the industrial Midwest. The personal anecdotes you hear about him speaking Norwegian and officiating at a wedding right before the woman’s scheduled C-section are the stuff of political consultants’ dreams. He has earned a seat at the table faster than probably anybody thought he might.

In doing so, he seems prepared to test the Democratic Party’s willingness to empathize with Trump voters, for which there doesn’t seem to be a huge appetite.