Does Trump Think? Part 4, the Class / Snobbery Angles

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
A happy tableau we will not witness again: Donald Trump with now-deposed, then-campaign manager Corey Lendowski after a win this spring. (Joe Skipper / Reuters)

I am on the road again, now in southwestern Kansas with my wife Deb. As the Trump campaign runs into more obviously Hindenburg-like territory, I’ll try to catch up with some reflections on what the Trump era has meant, whatever might be the future of his candidacy.

Let’s start with some responses on “does Trump think”?

1. Consider Nick Saban. Someone who will be voting for the first time writes:

I just graduated from high school, and for people my age this is generally the first election anyone has paid attention to. Rather an interesting way to get introduced to politics.

A reader on the latest “Does Trump Think?” installment pointed out that, in his view, the other readers (and you) considered yourself the high-and-mighty, looking down on Trump and his supporters with disdain. This is a legitimate danger, and certainly is the case from time to time.

Yet, that doesn’t suddenly nullify the fact that the presidency requires a certain set of skills that Trump hasn’t been shown to possess. Nick Saban’s an incredible coach; you think he’s great because of his ability to pump up his team with pep talks? Maybe he gives amazing speeches, but that’s entirely unrelated to his ability to study the next opponent, choose his starters, pick plays, decide what to drill, etc.

Above all else, the President of the United States has to be nice. [JF note: What the reader calls “nice” is what I think of as an advanced ability to imagine how an adversary might be thinking and feeling, so as to give offense only when that is exactly what you intend to do.] Why? World leaders are surprisingly fickle people (like all of us), and the slightest offense can hurt the United States abroad and at home. Trump is like the guy at the movies who yells “NO!” when the protagonist’s lover dies. Sure, he’s saying what he thinks, but that doesn't mean everyone needs to hear it.

2. Liberals crying wolf. A reader says that liberals have sneered so much at “uninformed” conservatives that they’re out of terms for a person who really doesn’t know anything:

The dissenting opinion in your “Does Trump Think?” column (part three) was misguided in a lot of ways but brought up an interesting point. There’s something that I think could inform how people who think Trump is truly dangerous (like myself) choose to engage with the situation.  

Liberals (in general—not you or your readers in particular) have a hard time reconciling why Trump supporters can’t see how truly vacuous and without substance he is. Obviously the primary responsibility for this lies with those supporters, but we could be playing a much bigger part in bringing them to the light if our credibility weren't somewhat shattered. And we made that bed.  

Republicans for about 25 years have thrown knee-jerk insults at Democrats that all relate to elitism and common sense. Liberals’ complement to this tendency is to insult the intelligence of conservatives. Ronald Reagan was stupid, George Bush was stupid, and Sarah Palin was stupid. George Bush made bad decisions and was not ridiculed as ineffective or poorly informed but as an absolute imbecile. (I read a somewhat silly study where someone had attempted to estimate presidential IQs by statements in the public record and Bush was on the low end of presidents with a 135—which is borderline genius level IQ.)

This is obviously a silly undertaking, but it illustrates the point that a person who we reflexively insult and call an absolute idiot is probably an incredibly intelligent and competent man who just didn't do his best work as president.)  Sarah Palin is another case of a clearly intelligent and savvy woman who was woefully unprepared but ridiculed as stupid. [JF note: as I wrote many times during his tenure, I thought that George W. Bush was not “stupid” in any normal sense. Rather I thought he had a combination of ignorance, in the sense of not being broadly informed; lack of curiosity, which limited his ability to correct the ignorance problem; and a desire to be, or at least seem, decisive, rather than risk seeming “hesitant” or “vacillating.” The combination was toxic in the rush toward war in Iraq.]

We have now cried wolf.  Someone has now come along who is so obviously completely without the mental equipment to do this job and our criticism falls on deaf ears.  We have taught his supporters that we can't be trusted to make that assessment objectively.

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3. And finally, a reader on different standards for racism and sexism, and on the line between what is considered “stupid” and what is called “evil”:

Trump and his followers say they feel silenced. They’re not wrong. I mean, their First Amendment rights are clearly still intact, but apart from that, it’s certainly true that one of the most likely things you’ll encounter if you try to say something racist is the command to hush.

What happens when the command to hush fails? Well, apparently what happens is that polite society screws up its nose and then says, airily, “You don’t mean that.”

“You don’t mean that” is what you say to your toddler when he says he hates Uncle Bob. It’s what you say to your 15-year-old daughter when she tells you she’s moving out. In short, it’s what you say if you want to silence and patronise.

But the fascinating thing about this new form of attempted silencing is that it actually helps racist people rather than hindering them. Trump doesn’t have to dog-whistle; he can just whistle and then a bunch of well-meaning people will explain that he didn’t actually mean to whistle per se, he only wanted the attention.

So much dodging around the idea of racism! Trump doesn’t mean that; he’s just saying it to make people talk about him. His followers don’t really believe that of their own accord; they’re being led astray. It’s okay, none of these people actually think. I mean, wouldn’t it be dreadful if they could think, and they chose to think that?

It’s instructive to look at the differences between the way we treat racism, in this regard, and the way we treat sexism. It’s much rarer for sexism to be classified as something perpetrated only by stupid people.

That’s because we view racism through the lens of class. Racism is seen as being primarily perpetrated by poor people, whereas sexism implicates rich and poor alike. This happens, I think, because rich white people can avoid black people much more easily. [JF note: through spelling details and other touches, I think this note is not from an American. I think that people raised in the U.S. would know that the more precise phrasing would be, “rich white people can avoid poor black people more easily — and can avoid poor whites as well.”) Rich people can take advantage of a societal structure that pushes black people away for them. [JF: again, I would add “poor.”] They don’t have to put any effort in, and can thus absolve themselves of any responsibility.

If we truly believe ourselves to be thinkers, who judge the world after careful consideration rather than knee-jerk reactions, we should question this classism that drives the way we paper over racism.

Trump’s supporters are not just being blindly led. Like many capitalist Americans, they like the idea of a world in which there are “winners” and “losers.” They like that world even better if they, and people who look like them, are given an automatic leg up towards the “winner” category. That’s not exactly stupid. It’s just evil.