Take It From a ‘Liberal Redneck’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Be sure to check out this video—a post-election Thanksgiving message that’s right in line with what readers have been debating in this Notes thread (except now with delightful lines like “we can keep shoving our heads up our high-horses asses all we want”). The self-described liberal redneck has some hard truths for his wounded compatriots:

A long-time reader—back when the Dish was at The Atlantic—flagged the video:

Long time, no talk, amigo. I’ve been meaning to check in with you, but I had to detox from any form of online interaction for about a week after the election. (Sully was onto something about our online addiction; I’ve never seen the battery on my phone die so quickly, or my anxiety get so out of control, as the days around this election.) It’s an occupational hazard for you, so it’s not like you could really look away, but I hope you’ve carved out some time to not be plugged in.

The back and forth with Trump supporters and non-Trump supporters has been illuminating, which is something to salvage from this wreckage, I suppose. I have tried empathizing with the “wrecking ball” voter, but I find myself coming up short when he says he knows coal won’t come back to West Virginia but he votes for the guy who has promised to fire up the flux capacitor and take the DeLorean back a few decades. The same goes for wanting a synagogue, a church, and a mosque all on the same street, while voting for the guy who traffics in Muslim scare tactics, retweets anti-Semitic imagery, and now employs Steve Bannon. Similarly, there’s no room in his heart for bigotry, but he’s accepting of the most openly bigoted campaign in contemporary politics.

His entire note reads inchoate. He didn’t really vote for a wrecking ball; he voted to piss into a stiff wind. Because … principles?

Your colleague David Frum gave an interview in the lead-up to the election [seen below, transcript here] in which he mentioned there are only two ways to use your vote: as an expression, or as an instrument.

Using your vote to express “I’d rather just piss into the wind than worry about what might happen to healthcare in America” is not something I can really find a defense for. It’s an obviously intelligent person grasping for a way to express anger at “the system” but who voted in a way that instead may put everyday people at risk. “I vote for the wrecking ball” because handing commander-in-chief duties of the most powerful military in the world to a guy who is so thin-skinned he picks fights with a Broadway musical? Call this line of thinking frustration, charitably, but it’s also reckless and irresponsible. Being a frustrated voter is understandable; being a reckless one is not.

On the other hand, some of the “liberal urban elitist” passages are a bit close to some of Charles Pierce’s recent pieces (here and here). But after reading through such sentiment, I find it hard to pile on with that camp against those who effectively vote against their own interests, or to demean the importance of a “working class job” to America. I’m keenly aware that every job I’ve gotten means someone hasn’t gotten the job I was hired for, and it sure as hell isn’t because I'm intrinsically “better” or that much smarter than the next person.

And try as I might, I just can’t go along with Dan [the likely Clinton voter who wrote that “we cannot fight systemic issues by punishing individuals”] or Vince [the Gary Johnson voter who shares Trump voters’ disdain for identity politics and “the new progressive bullying”]. I’ve heard variations of the “I’m tired of those coastal elites telling me to check my privilege”-sort of angle, the “why is the left publicly shaming everyone it disagrees with?”-type of question.

So carry that to its logical conclusion as a form of protest in this election. One votes in opposition to 19-year-old sophomores in Boston talking smug in your Facebook feed. In exchange, you get a president who very well may end Medicare with a unified Republican government. If you like the idea of your elderly parents having a safety net, that seems to be a fairly disproportionate weighting of voting priorities (but hey, sure showed them college elites what’s up, eh?). Basing votes on shallow name-calling is laughable; calling Donald Trump a “bigot” is pretty soft, considering people like me were called a “fifth column” not too long ago. (How much of the American population, circa 2001-2004, had their fidelity to the republic cast in doubt for holding an opinion of being against a war?) The world's tiniest violin scrapes a hardly discernible melody here.

But, to quote the “liberal redneck,” you can be right, or you can win. And I don’t really care to be on any particular side of winning a pathetic name-calling contest. So sure, I’ll cede that ground to Dan and Vince. Maybe TNC is on the right track:

There isn’t much quarter given to the racism that Trump inflamed, of course, but there’s a pretty elegant point made around the 24-minute mark. “Own your history.” Not just the convenient parts, not just the 4th of July, not just FDR and his dog Fala. There’s a lot of ugliness to go around, and where I’d break with TNC is that cordoning off one section of society as racists—no matter if they voted for a race-bating candidate or not—is not going to get us over to the next checkpoint of historical progress. Because we need help to get over that checkpoint, and politics is the art of sausage making, not organic soybeans.

So, to my fellow coastal elites, perhaps it’s time to retire your privilege checking (since there are more than a few 20-something white kids wondering where their privilege is, as they work bussing tables despite having gotten a more privileged education). Instead, own your history. That’s enough. Own the ugliness that you too are a part of (like this embarrassing, petty election we’re discussing). You’ll probably find far more allies in owning the whole, rather than splitting up the ugly composites. And in doing so, you’re far more likely to be a part of a coalition of voters like the one Obama road to victory on. Twice. And then you can be a part of making the country a little better.

Or the left can instead expend its energies on “being right” in a comments section. We may not have responsible governance, but gee, sure does feel good to let people know how you feel about Scarlett Johansson being cast as the lead in Ghost in the Machine, right?

Update: That “liberal redneck”—Trae Crowder, a comedian in Celina, Tennessee—was on Real Time recently:

Another long-time reader, Jim, cuts through all the hand-wringing and recriminations on the broader left over identity politics and the mainstream media and white women going for Trump and political correctness and James Comey, etc, etc, and points instead to a reason for Trump’s victory that’s right in front of our noses: Clinton.

I read your collection of notes by Trump voters. I think there’s a lot to learn here. But mostly, it just confirms my greatest fears in advance of Election Day: That in an anti-establishment year, the Democratic Party chose the most-establishment of candidates they could possibly have chosen.

The Democratic coalition was beginning to fracture along the borders of its components’ varied interests—for example, forgetting that many Latinos are not necessarily pro-immigration—their families having been here before the white folks—and thinking that Tim Kaine could somehow assuage the fears of white men while also appealing to Latinos because he speaks Spanish better than your average gringo. In a year rife with populism, they nominated a woman whose husband and surrogate is the president who has had NAFTA hung around his neck for 20 years. In a year about economic and cultural anxieties and the anger they bring forth, the Democrats turned to entreating people to care about policy as the solution to unease. They proposed technocracy as the solution to popular discontent. Morons.

If you have anything to add along those lines: hello@theatlantic.com. Update from a cooly pragmatic reader, John:

After every election there is a lot of handwringing over what caused the losing side to lose, and there are always numerous reasons. This effort ignores the fact that a handful of voters in a few key states tilted the tables in one direction. We don’t need to focus on finding the particular factors that mattered the most. We just need to get more people to vote on our side. Get the other 40 percent or so to vote and you can stop worrying about attracting the racists, bigots, misogynists, and misunderstood working people, wherever they live.