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President Donald Trump

Women and the Big Tent

Defeating President Trump is key to women's progress.

The 2020 election may be one of the most important votes for president in American history, as far as women are concerned. President Donald Trump has promoted defunding Planned Parenthood, appointed two conservative justices expected to vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, supported rules that allow companies to opt out of paying for birth control for women (if the company opposed contraception on moral grounds) and has cut programs that help poor women and children.

But to defeat this president, women have to be canny and careful. Most of all, they must try to bring into the Democratic fold many working-class whites, male and female, who voted for Trump instead of Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Vox reports, “In 2012, Obama lost whites without a college degree nationally by 25 points. Four years later, Clinton did 6 points worse, losing these voters by 31 points, with shifts against her in Rust Belt states generally double or more the national average. Reeling in those white voters means paying close attention to what behavioral scientists call “White Fragility” and “Moral Licensing.”

These tropes are not part of the usual political lingo, but they may have cost Hillary Clinton the presidency and will be a big part of the 2020 election. Time noted, “White voters supported Trump overwhelmingly… with older white women, Evangelical white women, and white women without college degrees helping to carry him to victory… That isn’t anxiety about the economy—it’s anxiety about the changing face of power in America.” It’s “White fragility.”

The phenomenon was first described by Dr. Robin DiAngelo of Westfield State University, an expert in Whiteness Studies. She says, “White people enjoy a deeply internalized, largely unconscious sense of racial belonging in the US society. This racial belonging is instilled by the whiteness embedded in the culture at large. Everywhere we look, we see our own racial image reflected back to us… In virtually any situation or image deemed valuable in society, whites belong…interruption of racial belonging is rare and thus destabilizing and frightening to whites.”

Political scientist Diana C. Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania argues that the 2016 election was not about economics. “Instead, it was about dominant groups that felt threatened by change and a candidate who took advantage of that trend. For the first time since Europeans arrived in this country, white Americans are being told that they will soon be a minority race.”

When members of a historically dominant group feel threatened, she says. “They go through some interesting psychological twists and turns to make themselves feel okay again. First, they get nostalgic and try to protect the status quo however they can. They defend their own group (“all lives matter”), they start behaving in more traditional ways, and they start to feel more negatively toward other groups.”

Westfield’s Professor Di Angelo agrees: “Racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt. People feel that white racial equilibrium must be restored.”

It seems there was a comfort level in a white power structure that seemed to be impervious to attack. White was “normal,” social scientists note. Whites belonged and felt comfortable. Whites assumed that the white experience was the universal experience. But when that comfort with belonging is threatened, “whites can go into a defensive crouch,” says Di Angelo.

The sense of white domination is fading fast. Married white women without college degrees did not vote in solidarity with their fellow females in 2016. More than 60% of them voted for Trump. Why? Such women may see more equality between the sexes as hurting their husbands rather than benefiting themselves. They may be worrying about white male fragility, especially in the job market. They may fear that immigrants are taking good jobs their male partners once held. Trump stokes these worries in his speeches and his tweets.

Some critics argue that such feelings of white fragility are illegitimate. They say that whatever the problems whites have, people of color have it worse. They face ongoing discrimination and poverty at far greater rates than do whites. White privilege, they say, allows whites to simply ignore or misunderstand the depth of the harm that racism does to people of color.

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And they are often right. However, white fragility persists to some degree, and it affects voting patterns.

The other trope that anti-Trump women need to consider can also impact elections. “Moral Licensing” was explained well by critic Malcolm Gladwell. He writes, “When a favored group, a majority group, does an act of generosity towards an outsider, it doesn’t necessarily signal that more acts of generosity are coming, sometimes it just gives them license to then go back to their old ways. So, the things that perpetuate prejudice are acts of openness.”

All of this might just be intriguing social science data if the electoral college did not exist. Donald Trump got three million fewer votes than Clinton in the popular vote. But he is president because he got 77,744 more votes than Clinton in three Midwest states, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Trump’s attacks on people of color and women encouraged white fragility.

What to do about this dilemma? Democrats need to aggressively project a “Big tent” approach, sending messages to both members of minority groups and white working people that both are welcome and valued inside the tent. This requires some skillful messaging.

The Democratic party is (mostly) holding to a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to racist behavior, in the present or in the past. This is a moral—and often politically advantageous—position to take. The approval of minority voters will be critical to the 2020 elections.

But Democrats have to be wary of driving whites to that “defensive crouch,” which could re-elect a raging misogynist as president.

This will not be easy. It may require making distinctions between racist behavior that is egregious and behavior that happened long ago and could be consigned to the category of stupid mistakes. The governor of Virginia may have posed in a picture in blackface more than 30 years ago when he was in medical school. There were instantaneous cries for him to resign immediately from numerous Democrats. But his record had been progressive for many years, and a majority of black voters in Virginia said they did not want him to resign and were willing to give him time to find out what the facts were and to reclaim his name.

It is, of course, fair to ask whites to take off their blinders and look at the advantages white privilege has given them. We need to open a dialogue about why white dominance in society makes individual whites feel so comfortable. But such learning is hard, and perhaps the best results come from muting a harsh accusatory tone while still asking for change. Martin Luther King often used this tactic, calling out the best in whites, and inviting them into his dream of an America where what counted was the content of a persons’ character, not the color of his or her skin.

(One good example of whites changing behavior comes from the case of Prada, that has engaged “Selma” director Ava DuVernay and artist Theaster Gates to help the fashion house with diversity issues. This followed CNN reports that Prada was marketing “monkey-like figurines [with] large red lips.”)

Refraining from quick accusations and finger pointing gives us room to engage in a fruitful national conversation about these divisive issues. Surely, such a conversation is overdue. Does a softer approach let whites off the hook? Perhaps it does.

But women who desperately want to defeat Trump need to understand how both white fragility and moral licensing affect the ballot box, and how to dilute their power.

The stakes are merely the White House, governors’ mansions, house and senate seats and control of state legislatures. In sum, the ownership of political power in America—and true justice and progress for women.

More from Rosalind C. Barnett, Ph.D., and Caryl Rivers
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