"If you look at the map of the United States, there's all that red in the middle where Trump won," said Hillary Clinton this weekend at a speech in Mumbai. "I win the coast….I won the places that represent two-thirds of America's gross domestic product. So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward. And his whole campaign, 'Make America Great Again,' was looking backwards."
Clinton goes on to explain that Trump's message was: "You didn't like black people getting rights, you don't like women, you know, getting jobs. You…see that Indian-American succeeding more than you are. Whatever your problem is, I'm going to solve it."
This weekend in The New York Times, I pondered the relationship between smug liberalism and trollish conservatism. I can only assume that it's because Donald Trump has been extremely busy with some H.R. matters that he hasn't made time for a retaliatory tweet about this speech. But these comments are a great example of the liberal side of the rhetorical breakdown in American politics:
Modern American political discourse can seem disjointed to the point of absurdism. But the problem isn't just filter bubbles, echo chambers or alternative facts. It's tone: When the loudest voices on the left talk about people on the right as either beyond the pale or dupes of their betters, it is with an air of barely concealed smugness. Right-wingers, for their part, increasingly respond with a churlish "Oh, yeah? Hold my beer," and then double down on whatever politically incorrect sentiment brought on the disdain in the first place.
These two terrible tendencies now feed off each other, growing stronger every day: the more smugness, the more satisfying it is to poke holes in it; the more toxic the trolling, the greater the sense of moral superiority. The result: an odoriferous stew of political rhetoric that is nearly irresistible to those on the inside and confusingly abhorrent to those on the outside.
I dug into the specific problem of what happens when you genuinely believe the narrative that Trump voters are primarily racist, sexist, or puppets—as Clinton clearly does—a bit more in a conversation with Issac Chotiner at Slate yesterday, as well at the idea that if Clinton's narrative is true, that she is obliged to tell it:
Slate: OK, but I'm a writer. You're a writer. I want to say what I think. I still haven't quite figured out how to not smugly say that I think Donald Trump is a con man taking advantage of his voters. I don't think every Republican, or the entire Republican Party's platform, or libertarianism, or social conservatism, is just about conning voters. I do think Donald Trump is a con man, and he is essentially conning his voters to enrich his family. I don't know how to say that without sounding smug and without immediately telling essentially everyone who voted for him, "You got conned." I just don't quite understand how to get out of that pickle when you have someone like Donald Trump as president.
KMW: Your response is very similar to a significant portion of the response to this piece. That is to say, of the people who replied to me on Twitter and elsewhere, the vast majority of people who were "team smug" offered some variant of what you just said, like, "But we're right, and they're wrong, and so what do we do?" All due respect to you and all those people, that's precisely the problem. You are the problem. That is to say, just because you have an analysis of why someone voted the way they did and you think that it's wrong, you don't have to say it out loud. Having said it out loud lots of times, and it having not been effective as a rhetorical move to shift the political landscape in the direction that you want, why not try another tack?
Clinton is clearly unlikely to be swayed into believing another version of the story about how she lost, and her belief is shared by many. Her account might even be the correct one (though as I said in the Times and at Slate in my uneasy oracular role, I don't think that's the case). But she's certainly not helping her political party find its footing in the new landscape, nor is she improving the quality of the discourse by rehearsing this version yet again.
The same is true, as Reason has frequently written, for Trump's trolling on Twitter and elsewhere. But in this week's round of smugs vs. trolls, Clinton has made a strong showing for team smug.