August 18, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
John Kasich, the wypipo-whisperer
Dems are making room for disillusioned white Republicans.
There was bellyaching among some progressives at the sight of John Kasich at last night’s opening of the Democratic National Convention. But the appearance of a former Republican governor of Ohio, who is renown for his “moderate” politics, was important. The goal wasn’t persuading the president’s supporters to come over to Joe Biden’s side. It was giving license to white Republicans who do not want to vote for an authoritarian but who fear “the radical left” that it’s all right to vote for this Democrat.
“I’m sure there are Republicans and independents who couldn’t imagine crossing over to support a Democrat,” Kasich said Monday evening. “They fear Joe may turn sharp left and leave them behind. I don’t believe that. Because I know the measure of the man—reasonable, faithful, respectful. And you know, no one pushes Joe around.”
Disillusioned white Republicans worry about “the left” the way actual leftists worry about liberals. Both end up overlooking the suicidal power of ‘the authoritarian personality.’
I thought the bellyaching was understandable. Donald Trump imperils not only the republic but actual human lives. (As of this writing, more than 174,000 Americans have died from the new coronavirus.) If white Republicans haven’t figured that out, there’s no point in courting them. This critique, while understandable, underestimates something that should never be underestimated in this country, though: the power of white solidarity, the social phenomenon permitting white people to rationalize terrible behavior on the part of other white people, reassuring each other that they are good, decent citizens even as they demonstrate and benefit from white supremacy. White Republicans are sensitive to anti-racism like all white people are, but probably more so. They fear the “radical left” is going to usurp their privilege. For this reason, Kasich’s appearance was vital. He was, in a sense, Biden’s wypipo-whisperer.
Liberals and leftists will chafe at the idea, but the Democrats must make room. We cannot allow disillusioned white Republicans to return to the GOP fold whenever the current president is no longer in office. Liberals and leftists, however, need not soften the “sharp left,” as Kasich did. They only need to make clear to white Republicans who do not want to vote for authoritarian candidates that huge numbers of other white people are predisposed to authoritarianism. Liberals and leftists must demonstrate that huge numbers of white Americans would be fine with this: “We are going to win four more years,” the president said Monday. “Then after that we’ll go for another four years, because they spied on my campaign. We should get a redo of four years.”
Here’s the tip jar! Put something nice in it!
Let’s be clear. These disillusioned white Republicans, demographically known as independents, are educated, middle class, upwardly mobile, property-owning and suburban. They are culturally distinct from the “non-college whites” in the Rust Belt and white evangelical Protestants in the south and midwest, two cohorts making up the lion’s share of the president’s support. (They have a lot more in common with the petty bourgeoisie, the pillar of Trumpism, but have better taste and more fashion sense.) They’d normally vote for Republicans, because Republicans protect their money, or check the Democrats from drifting “too far left” (whatever that might mean). They have lived their whole lives blissfully ignorant of, or sufficiently motivated to ignore, the forces of anti-democracy awaiting a demagogue to awaken. These voters must never be allowed to forget the dangers posed by millions of white Americans.
In particular, they must understand that white evangelical Protestants (WEPs) not only oppose abortion. They oppose democracy. They are classic examples of what’s called “the authoritarian personality”: submissive to authority, punitive toward minorities and cultural difference, and rigidly adherent to tradition (e.g., the “nuclear family), according to Threat to Democracy by political psychologist Fathali Moghaddam, which explores the appeal of authoritarianism in the post-2016 age. Importantly, people with authoritarian personalities are obedient to leadership, “including when they are ordered to do harm to others.” They can’t tolerate nuance, ambiguity and uncertainty. “They are categorical thinkers,” Moghaddam wrote. The world is broken down between us and them, black and white, good and evil. Their “antiscientific attitude” dismisses science and fact if they “do not correspond to what the potential or actual dictator presents as the truth. Historically, this has resulted in great catastrophes.”
These people are not going away after the election. They constitute about 40 percent of the electorate, the same number that right now approves of the current president no matter what he does or does not do, whether that’s treason or negligent homicide. They will populate the Republican resistance to a Democratic administration that must mandate and enforce face masks during a pandemic. They will fight the mandate under the guise of “individual liberty” just as they will refuse to inoculate themselves against Covid-19 long after a viable vaccine has been developed. Authoritarian personalities already dominate politics in southern and midwestern states, where they have already endangered their own children and the elderly in order to “own the libs.” They will fight “big government tyranny” even if that fight leads to self-destruction.
Disillusioned white Republicans ultimately make a familiar mistake. They worry about “the left” the way real leftists worry about liberals (they see liberals as squishes, politically). Both end up overlooking the suicidal power of the authoritarian right. Both need to make room for each other in the middle—in the Democratic Party.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.