Sending missionaries to MAGAs

Berry Craig
Berry Craig

Facing the grim prospect of yet another November Republican romp, Kentucky Democrats are trying to figure out how to flip at least some voters who dote on Donald Trump.

Brian Clardy, devout Democrat, proposes that the Kentucky Democratic party dispatch missionaries to the land of the white folks in the red MAGA hats. “Go tell them just how badly they have been played by Trump and the Republicans,” advised the Murray State University history professor.

Trump loves to hear the Red State faithful diss and dismiss as "elitists" folks like smarty-pants college profs, scientists, and big-city newspaper columnists such as The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin.

"It should come as no surprise that the highest rates for covid-19 deaths and murders are found mainly in red states," she recently wrote. "A political mind-set that prioritizes racial resentment, anti-science zealotry, and manufactured cultural wedge issues is not likely to be conducive to long, healthy lives. Indeed, antagonism toward 'elites' (e.g., experts) often impedes common-sense measures that save lives."

Clardy concedes that Road to Damascus conversions might be rare in Trump country, and that it would nearly be mission impossible convincing the Make America White Again crowd that the Yankee George Wallace has conned them.

Never mind that he has. Forget that both times, he ran on a standard Wall Street GOP platform of tax cuts for the rich, union-busting, and slashing government programs to help people who need help. Both times, he notched 118 of Kentucky’s 120 counties – all but urban Jefferson (Louisville) and Fayette (Lexington).

If Trump’s the GOP nominee in 2024, he’d be a shoo-in to make it a threepeat in Kentucky, though maybe not nationwide.

Anyway, conservative white Protestant “You-can’t-be-a-Chrstian-and-a-Democrat” evangelicals, who make up a big chunk of the Trump-GOP base in rural America, are a daunting demographic for Democrats in 87.5 percent white, mostly non-urban Kentucky.

A slew of white rural residents vote more on the so-called social issues — notably abortion and guns — than on kitchen table issues. “I’d remind them that the Democrats haven’t seized their guns,” Clardy said. “I’d remind them that abortion is about a woman’s right to control her own body. Isn’t that the essence of freedom?”

Clardy said banning abortion by law or constitutional amendment is a prime example of big government, which Republicans have railed against for years. “Republicans also talk a lot about freedom. Shouldn’t freedom include the right of a woman to do what she wants with her body without being controlled or micromanaged by the state? Shouldn’t a libertarian or true conservative agree with that?”

While they’re witnessing to the Trumpers about the GOP’s social issues scam, KDP disciples might inject a smidgen of economics into the dialog, according to Clardy. “Remind them that their quality of life hasn’t improved under conservative economic policies and that thanks to the Republicans, the rich are getting richer and that Fortune 500 corporations are paying a lot less in taxes than they are.”

“At the end of the day, all of us — people of color, women, working class whites — are having our pockets picked by the policies of the far right.”

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But here’s where it can get sticky: “The evidence that Trump’s rise was driven by racism and racial resentment is fairly stacked,” German Lopez wrote in Vox in December, 2017. “As a presidential candidate, Trump made all sorts of racist comments — suggesting that Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists, proposing a ban on all Muslims entering the US, saying a US judge should recuse himself from a case simply because of his Mexican heritage, and deploying dog whistles about ‘law and order.’

“As president, Trump equated a group of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and white nationalists who descended onto Charlottesville, Virginia, with the anti-racism protesters who stood against bigotry. His administration ... pursued policies that will disproportionately hurt minority groups, including his travel ban, immigration restrictions, ‘tough on crime’ policies, and potential voting restrictions.”

Even so, Lopez said the research also revealed that “it’s possible to reach out to Trump voters — even those who are racist today — in an empathetic way without condoning their prejudice. The evidence suggests, in fact, that the best way to weaken people’s racial or other biases is through frank, empathetic dialogue. (Much more on that in my in-depth piece on the research.) Given that, the strongest approach to really combating racism and racial resentment may be empathy.”

“Frank, empathetic dialogue” may sound promising in theory. But in practice it might not be so fruitful in rural Kentucky. Here, Trump 2024 banners have gone up and, like the ones in 2020, still often fly in tandem with Confederate flags, the latter sometimes featuring the outline of an AR-15 above the dare “Come and Take It.”

“To these folks, the worst possible thing that could have happened did happen in 2012 – a Black man was elected president of the United States and was reelected four years later,” Clardy said.

“But you could ask them, ‘Did Barack Obama personally in any meaningful way really diminish your way of life?’” (Most likely they'd respond by breaking the Ninth Commandment.)

Also under the heading of “frank, empathetic dialogue,” Clardy would like to see Democratic missionaries expose the Trump-Republican implication that’s a big part of the GOP grift: “If African Americans, Hispanics, women, and gays do better, it’s because they took something from you.”

Here comes Clardy’s kicker: “At the end of the day, all of us — people of color, women, working class whites — are having our pockets picked by the policies of the far right. It goes all the way back to the ‘Southern Strategy,’ to Lee Atwater and to these wedge issues like guns and abortion. The idea is to divide us and get us to vote against our own self-interests. That’s been a tragedy of American politics for almost 60 years.”

The tragedy seems likely to continue in Kentucky in November and probably beyond. But godspeed to the Democrats (my party, too) in figuring out how to turn the Bluegrass at least a slightly less deep hue of crimson.

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Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West KY Community College, and an author of seven books and co-author of two more. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)


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