Many commentators have argued that liberal contempt for the sensibilities of white working-class voters contributed to Donald Trump’s improbable rise to the presidency. It’s a fair point: If seasoned politicians alienate this constituency, demagogues will rush in to fill the void. But these worries often contain a troubling subtext: that white working-class voters are “real Americans” whose concerns are, somehow, more important than those of the motley basket of urbanites, minorities, immigrants, feminists, and intellectuals who vote for liberals. If liberals need to be more careful not to inadvertently insult working-class whites, it’s just as important that Trump’s supporters and apologists appreciate that a significant and growing number of Americans regard Trump’s presidency itself as an ongoing personal insult. This is at least as serious a threat to conservative positions—and to civil discourse generally—as the ressentiment of the white working class is to liberals. Trump’s undisguised bigotry and misogyny now taint almost every position he endorses or advances, making it hard to disentangle, for instance, legitimate criticism of current immigration policies from racist aversion to people of non-European ancestry, or, to take an especially timely example, support for conservative Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh—accused of what amounts to aggravated sexual assault—from rank misogyny.
How and why is support for Trump’s presidency an insult? Let’s begin with the contrast to Barack Obama. For many—African-Americans in particular—the willingness of conservatives, who have long preached astride a high horse about moral character, to embrace Trump is worse than hypocritical; it’s a racial insult. It’s inconceivable that Americans would have tolerated a Barack Obama who had been taped bragging about groping women or found to have paid to silence a pornographic film actress he had slept with shortly after his wife gave birth. Yet many conservatives were willing to embrace a white man who violates every ideal and principle they had claimed to value and which Obama himself scrupulously adhered to and championed. It’s hard not the see this as, at best, a stark racial double standard, and at worst, a desperate bid to reassert the racial hierarchy that Obama’s presidency threatened, whatever the costs.
The insult to women is perhaps even more profound. Not only did Trump defeat an vastly more qualified woman using crude sexist invective as a weapon, but both his personal life and his Administration have been orgies of misogyny and illegitimate gender hierarchy, from his reported insistence that women “dress like women” to the paterfamilias presumption of giving his daughter (who styles herself the “First Daughter”) a de facto cabinet position, to his overtly transactional sexual relationships with everyone from the adult film star Stormy Daniels to each of his several spouses, most notably the stone faced Melania. The culmination of these affronts is the nomination to the Supreme Court of Brett Kavanaugh, who now faces at last count three credible accusations of sexual assault and, if confirmed, will be in position to cast a decisive vote (since voting is what the high court has been reduced to) against women’s reproductive freedom. The term “white male privilege” is overused, but it surely applies to Judge Kavanaugh, who revealed to the Senate and the American public an embarrassing sense of unearned entitlement as he complained about having to respond to serious concerns about his past behavior and present character, recounted his life of elite schools, clubs, and recreational activities and noted, pointedly, that he and his accuser Christine Blasey Ford “did not travel in the same social circles.” Perhaps the nomination of Kavanaugh itself is not an insult to victims of sexual assault but the cavalier attitude Senate Republicans and the White House have taken toward the allegations that have now come to light certainly is.
Worse, these insults are not incidental to Trump’s popularity, they are central to it. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the sine qua non of Trump’s popularity—and of the party he now leads and has reshaped in his image—is the belligerent reassertion of old, discredited hierarchies of race and sex after a brief period in which they seemed, at long last, in recession. Women and racial minorities are insulted by Trump because he means to insult them—that seems to be much of the point of his presidency and may be the only thing he truly succeeds in.
Feminists have long insisted that the personal is political; in the Trump era the political is very personal and one insult inspires another in turn. Consider the evergreen subject of late-night talk show monologues, the rumored “golden shower” or “pee-pee tape” that reportedly memorializes the urine-soaked evening Trump spent with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel suite that had previously been occupied by Barack and Michelle Obama. At one level, the story is just an outlandish internet meme of the kind we, sadly, encounter on a daily basis on Facebook. As a rumor it’s not all that plausible and as a joke, it’s not all that funny. But it has captivated millions because something about it rings figuratively, if not literally, true. With its contrast of images—a sexually depraved Trump cavorting with prostitutes and in bed once occupied by the monogamous Obamas, who were unsullied by even a hint of scandal in their eight years as President and First Lady—it’s a rumor that neatly encapsulates the most noticeable ways that Trump has offended the sensibilities of many Americans, combining compromised patriotism, corruption, the sexual exploitation of women, and a fetishistic compulsion to defile every accomplishment of President Obama. Each of these are flaws that Trump in fact exhibits; the rumor brings them all together in one prurient package. And gossiping about the tape is much more emotionally satisfying than talking about the proven instances of Trump’s corruption, sexism, or racist obsession with Obama, because it lets one do so while simultaneously insulting Trump, just as he insults the nation and a majority of its people.
I’ve offered a deliberately unsympathetic—one might even say insulting—portrayal of Trump and his core supporters to make a point. You don’t need to agree that all these characterizations are accurate to admit that they are plausible, just as one does not have to believe the now-stock portrayal of the smug, moralistic, politically correct liberal to acknowledge that it is plausible to isolated, demoralized voters already suffering from the economic and social dislocation of recent decades. Pundits often remind an imagined audience of self-satisfied liberals that the white working-class voters they’ve alienated are not going anywhere. True, but neither are the women, people of color, and many others who, with a great deal of justification, apprehend Trump’s entire presidency as a protracted personal insult. Indeed, the long and loudly lamented “liberal smugness” is, in today’s political environment, often simply the reflection of this politics of insult and contempt—pay back in kind.
All of this is of course especially damaging to the prospects of civil discourse on the many difficult questions that require citizens of differing views to begin with a presumption of good faith and good will. To take just one salient example, decent and sensible people might ask whether current immigration policies reflect an adequate consideration of the challenges as well as the promise of multiculturalism—the prospect of acculturating migrants from diverse socio-cultural backgrounds into common democratic and civic norms. In today’s environment, with civic norms openly flouted by third and fourth generation Americans, such questions seem moot; moreover, to ask them is to ally oneself with the unapologetic bigotry of the Trump Administration. But if a civil conversation is impossible, policy will be determined not by reasoned discourse—or even what typically passes for it inside the Beltway—but by reckless posturing and raw political power. Similarly, it would be best for all concerned if one could at least hope that the next Associate Justice of the Supreme Court will be even-handed and judicious in temperament. But if Kavanaugh, after last Thursday’s angry partisan screed, succeeds in ascending to the Supreme Court by a strictly partisan vote and without a serious investigation of the accusations against him, any decision involving women’s rights in which he is pivotal will be sullied by the cloud of misogyny that currently surrounds both his personal history and the President who nominated him. The high court, unable to command respect for its decisions, will find itself reduced to the role of simply another participant in an ideological tug of war.
Conservatives in the recent past have kept the worst instincts and impulses of their constituents in check. Many have described this effort as a cynical ploy to secure the support of bigots while denying complicity in bigotry. But faced with the fusillade of the bullhorn, one is nostalgic for the subtlety of the dog whistle. Whether from sincere conviction or mere expediency, this more genteel style allowed political discourse to begin from a presumption of good faith and contributed to a modicum of civility that is now utterly absent and, I think, badly missed. If liberals should worry about occasionally and inadvertently offending working-class whites, conservatives should worry much more about the deliberate and ongoing insult that Trump’s Presidency represents. The risk for them is that they and all their positions will be forever stained with the ugliness of bigotry. The risk for the nation is the death of civility and the beginning of a cold civil war.