There’s a peculiar momentum building for President Donald Trump, and it’s due to, you guessed it, a silent Trump voter.
But this isn’t the same silent Trump voter we heard a lot about in 2016. This isn’t the coal worker who lost his job, or the Michigander secretly convinced that Obama was conniving to outlaw the phrase “merry Christmas.” No, those voters are no longer silent: they’re now out and loud and stuffing their houses with MAGA paraphernalia.
The new silent MAGA class (Neo-MAGA? MAGpies?) comes from the depths the urban elite. They’re the internationalists. They’re liberals.
I’ve been theorizing about the existence of this creature for a few weeks, but this weekend my suspicions were confirmed: my dear and deeply thoughtful friend Misha — black, gay, mental health professional, and liberal to the bone — came out (he called it his “second coming out party”) as a Trump voter. A voter, mind you, not a supporter.
He made his confession on our podcast Uncertain Things. Vanessa, my co-host, and I were a little stunned. (I was also a little thrilled, sensing the inevitable debate about to ensue.) Misha is a Baldwin-quoting, RBG-mourning lefty. What happened? The discussion was fascinating, and though V and I weren’t persuaded by Misha’s arguments, it was a pleasure to be able to have an open, raw, honest, and loving discussion about points of political contention, and perhaps even to discover the cracks in our own thought silos.
But persuasive or not, Misha’s decision reflected something real: a growing disaffection among the old liberal guard. (Interestingly, other commentators have been noticing it this week too.) I’ll try to summarize some of themes that seem to emerge, and which Democrats might want to pay closer attention to.
For a fuller picture, I invite you to listen to the episode. (Fair warning though: we got a teensy bit drunker and more explicit than normal. Thus among friends.)
1. What is this about?
We’re talking about people in NY, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. People who voted blue for years (if not decades). What happened? Well, for the past five years (at least) they watched their own tribe growing intolerant, with the people they had taken for allies suddenly showing contempt for open expression, for freedom of thought, for intellectual honesty, and for undiscriminating compassion; contempt, in other words, for everything once considered the cornerstone of liberalism.
They see members of their own team, the good guys who had just recently fought hard for gay marriage and healthcare, who cared about the environment and sounded off against religious censorship, suddenly turning a blind eye to — if not excusing —political violence and larceny, condemning scientific rigor, and crying for the bowdlerizing and banning of forbidden texts.
And as some long-time liberals watch this bad remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with horror, they begin to realize that their position is a very lonely one indeed.
2. OK. But why Trump?
So what can disenchanted liberals do? Many have opted to reeducate themselves; like the conversos in 14th century Spain, they learned how to participate in the rituals, utter the right propitiations, and evade the Inquisition. Some do so in fear, while others have fully traversed the road to Damascus. But some have quietly grown resentful of their own team, of feeling forced to hide their beliefs among friends. For Misha, what can be a more strident strike against polite society, a more unthinkably taboo, than voting for Trump — not in support of the man or his party (he doesn’t need to be told what a cretin he is), but out of scorn for his own side? Conservative writer Rich Lowry called it “the only middle finger available.”
3. What about policy?
This is where I disagreed most strongly with Misha. Wanting to protest the intolerance on the left — or “cancel culture,” or whatever you want to call it — is all well and good. But what about the actual policies that Trump will pursue in a second term? Restricting immigration, destroying environmental protections, reneging on international commitments, redistributing wealth from the poor to the rich, killing the Affordable Care Act, and fomenting internecine partisanship and distrust in democracy… Not to mention Trump’s own brand of cancel culture — weakening the first amendment (by strengthening libel laws and inciting violence against the press), cracking down on whistleblowers, and calling for boycotts on businesses and individuals who criticize him.
Misha’s response is unsatisfying: sure, these are bad policies, he says, but ultimately they serve as a necessary counterweight to the illiberal left, while Trump’s own illiberal excess is kept in check by the constitution. (To the latter point I’d riposte: so far.)
It’s disturbing to me how much voting has become a tool for emotional expression, for catharsis. In a saner, less online world, politics would be more separate from the culture war, two non-overlapping magisteria. Both deserve serious attention, but the country can do with a hell of a lot less crossover. You can only heal a sick culture by capturing people’s hearts and minds, not by voting in a goon to punch back.
(Though even on the purely cultural argument, I can’t see how Trump, a president who seems happy — if not proud — to represent only half the country, is a remedy.)
4. What does this mean for the election?
No clue. Misha doesn’t have one either. When I asked him if he’d have voted for Trump if he were living in Bucks County, PA, instead of Harlem he said yes. I’m not sure — in Bucks County he’d find a whole different kind of cultural dominance to push back against. Either way, it’s impossible to guess how many more secret Mishas there are around the country and whether they can tilt the election. But for democrats, the fact that a card-carrying progressive like Misha can find Trump less repellent than his own party, should be a clear and terrifying warning sign.
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