Some More Things To Think About This Election Season: The “Empathy For The Trump Voter” Edition
With only a couple of days to go before the election, I look back on this unspeakably hideous political season, and I realize its main theme in public discourse (other than that email nonsense) was how badly progressives like me fail to understand/appreciate/love the Trump voter. In spite of copious coverage, people who are voting Trump are deemed forgotten and ignored by the elitist media. And so in the spirit of the times, I’d like to add the following three items to this election’s installment of Six Things I Want Every Politically Opinionated Person To Take To Heart:
1. Whether you like it or not, the company you keep (politically speaking) says a lot about your character. There has been no shortage of (white, as if it needs pointing out) Trump supporters lately expressing how hurt they are when people assume – simply because they support Donald Trump – that they are racist and sexist troglodytes. Here is a fine example: a weepy thinkpiece in The Atlantic about the hurt and bruised feelings of Trump-supporting College Republicans. Some choice quotes:
As DePaul University senior Nicole Been walks around her college campus, she says, students she’s never met call her a racist and a bigot because she’s voting for Donald Trump.
“It’s scary feeling like I can’t walk around campus with a Trump shirt on, or a Trump hat, because I’m afraid of what people might do,” the 22-year-old chair of the college Republicans at DePaul in Chicago, Illinois said in an interview. “At this point, we’re the most hated group on campus.”
People think that innocent Nicole is a racist and a bigot just because she walks around in a Trump shirt and a Trump hat? Gee, what on earth would give people that idea?
“When I hear comments like his supporters are racist, or they hate immigrants, I look at myself and say, ‘Well, am I racist? Do I hate immigrants?,’ and the answer has to be no, and it is no,” said Natalie Callahan, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Utah and chair of the Utah Federation of College Republicans. She added that she has not personally been accused of any of those things, but believes Trump supporters have generally been disparaged by liberals over the course of the election.
The hell you say! Why on earth would anyone disparage nice, friendly, inclusive Trump supporters?
In the eyes of younger Trump voters, reflexively characterizing supporters of the Republican nominee as racist, is not only unfair, it’s counterproductive. “In every political party there will always be a few members who are racist, but they don’t represent our party, and they’re not welcome in our party,” Ross said. “I find it appalling how frequently the term is being thrown around. A racist is a terrible, terrible person, and if you use that word to describe everyone and everything, it quickly loses its meaning.”
There’s a kernel of truth to that – but the people responsible for normalizing racism are racists – who, by the way, are clearly welcome in the Republican party – not those who call them out.
There has been a lot of hair-splitting on this subject. I want to acknowledge that yes, not every Republican and not every Trump voter is personally, explicitly racist. I also acknowledge that any large group of people has terrible characters in it over whose words and actions other members have no control. Generally speaking, I am against guilt-by-association. BUT – and this is very, very important – racism hasn’t just been confined to isolated incidents at Trump rallies. Trump himself has a disturbing history of discrimination, which he has implausibly denied, rather than explain how he has changed (which, of course, suggests he hasn’t changed). Trump has alleged, appallingly, that an American-born judge’s ethnicity makes him unqualified to preside over a case involving Trump as a defendant. Organized racist movements are now an integral part of the Trump movement, and Trump has for the most part refused to disavow them, and where his campaign has done so (never Trump himself), those disavowals have been rare and late in the game. Trump is embraced by the KKK, he enjoys wide support of the Alt-Right, and his own advisor, Roger Stone, has characterized the Alt-Right as “the new mainstream”. Like it or not, the Trump campaign has been distinctly racist and it appeals to racists for that reason.
So what does it mean if you are not personally racist, but you support (for “other” reasons) a racist campaign, enthusiastically backed by organized racists? Here is what it means:
Fine, you are not personally a racist — you just tolerate racism. You are neutral on racism. Never mind that racism is fucking vile and it has inflicted unspeakable suffering and death on humanity – you don’t think it’s serious enough to be a deal-breaker.
You are not a racist; you are just willing to contribute your vote to put racists in power.
You are not a racist; you are merely willing to lie down with racists.
You are not a racist; you just want to Make America Great Again. Like it was circa 1950, when America had segregation, when mixed marriages were criminalized, when people of color couldn’t use the same drinking fountains as white people, when blacks were getting lynched and denied the right to vote. But that year was a good one for white people (or at least for white men), and that’s all you care about; it doesn’t make you a racist, and you don’t understand why people of color think it might be a problem to return America to 1950. Why would they have a problem with making this country great for white Christians? Why are they being so racist against you?
You are not a racist; you just think racism is, at worst, a necessary evil which, luckily enough, will never affect you in the way it will affect millions of people of color and immigrants. Which is not at all the reason why you think this racism thing is way overblown.
You are not a racist; you just don’t understand why people of color and immigrants get so hung up on racism, like it’s a big deal. Meanwhile, you freak out when someone suggests you are a racist, because that is a big deal.
You are not a racist; you just wish people of color and immigrants didn’t take themselves so seriously and didn’t react so acutely to violent, demeaning and insulting rhetoric directed at them by the candidate you support and his surrogates, to say nothing of actual violence. In other words, you want them to devalue their dignity, their humanity and their very lives. Meanwhile, you freak out when someone suggests you are a racist, because your dignity and humanity are important.
You are not a racist; you just think “we” (especially “you”) have gotten too sensitive and too easy to offend. And so you take a brave stance as a hero of politically incorrect badassery by deciding that you – as a sensible white person – just won’t be offended by racism. And you expect people of color to look up to you as an example of how not to be offended by racism. Meanwhile, you freak out when someone suggests you are a racist.
You are not a racist; you just realize that, as a white person with no biases or preconceived notions, you are in a unique position to educate people of color and immigrants on what is or isn’t racism, how they should interpret their experience and their history, and what lessons they should derive from it.
You are not a racist; you just think people who react to racism are being oversensitive, too-easily offended delicate snowflakes. But when you freak out over someone suggesting you are a racist – that, clearly, isn’t a hysterical overreaction of a thin-skinned whiny baby.
You are not racist; you just think racist ideas should be given serious consideration and respect, that they should be languidly discussed and methodically disproven. FOREVER. Your ideal world is one in which people of color and immigrants must FOREVER calmly and rationally prove that they are human beings; one in which people of color and immigrants take every care not to hurt the feelings of people who say they are inferior, dangerous, subhuman, evil or shouldn’t even exist. You are not a racist; you just want people of color and other “groups” to be respectful, deferential and appreciative towards viewpoints that dehumanize them, deprive them of rights and jeopardize their very lives. Meanwhile, you freak out any time someone suggests you are a racist – because that is something that deserves getting mad over.
You are not a racist; you just have this “economic anxiety” that makes you feel like your race is devalued. I mean, when was the last time a white person sat in Congress or on the Supreme Court? When was the last time you saw a white person driving a luxury car or report a six-figure income or own a comfortable home in a nice neighborhood? You feel disenfranchised by all this “diversity” that’s eating into your opportunity, and you think it’s unfair that the blacks have monopolized everyone’s sympathy. You are not a racist; you just understand the well-known fact that if black people are poor, it’s because they are lazy and stupid, but when white people are poor, it’s because society isn’t doing enough to help them succeed. Clearly, there isn’t a racist bone in your body.
You are not a racist; you just define racism so narrowly that nothing short of outright Holocaust-type extermination of people on the basis of race would ever qualify as racism. You are not a racist, because racism is a rare aberration, and every single atrocity that your liberal peers ascribe to racism can be explained away as something else. Slavery? Not racism, because African chieftans sold their captives to European slavers. Racist justifications of slavery at the time? Not really racism because reasons. And so forth.
You are not a racist; you just think calling someone a racist is just as bad as, if not worse, than racism. Racism is no big deal; accusations of racism are horrible things.
You are not a racist; you just think that calling out racism is “counter-productive”.
You are not a racist or a hater; you have nothing against people of color, or immigrants, or Jews, or Muslims. You just want them to shut the fuck up and have empathy for you . Who knows, perhaps every act of genocide, oppression and racial or ethnic or religious violence in history could have been avoided if only there was more sympathy for the perpetrators and defenders of such acts.
You are not a racist; you have nothing against people of color or immigrants as long as they exist as support staff in your life, cooking for you, cleaning for you, entertaining you, kissing your ass and never saying anything that puts you outside your comfort zone.
You are not a racist; you just think that racism, even if it exist, is primarily the fault of those against whom it is directed. Need people of color be so difficult? Maybe if they tried being a little less angry, that would make racism go away.
Some college Republicans believe a Trump victory would upend a liberal status quo that’s been allowed to define what’s politically correct and socially acceptable. “There have been plenty of times that I, or someone I know, will say something in conversation and someone has gotten offended by it, and I’ll say ‘Well, if Trump were in office this wouldn’t be happening,” Been said. “I don’t want to go down in history as the generation that was offended by everything or couldn’t take a joke.”
You are not a racist, Nicole Been. You are just able to take a joke that dehumanizes people other than yourself. How very open-minded of you. You have no problem with people of color. You just want the President of the United States to be someone who will literally shut them up (how?) and force them to be nice to you, and to obligingly laugh at jokes that degrade them. A man who will make it illegal, probably, to call you a racist, because it’s okay for you to get offended. You are not a racist; you just want to put in power someone who treats your feelings, and only your feelings, as being of utmost importance.
Here is the thing I want you to think about. Who the fuck cares whether or not you are personally racist when you vote for racists? Who gives a shit if you privately disagree with racist policies if you support political platforms that incorporate those policies? Who gives a rat’s ass about the warm tears you shed for the downtrodden when you enable their oppression? What the hell does it matter if you “have black friends” if you enable policies designed to turn those friends into second-class citizens, maybe not citizens altogether (and also what kind of a shit “friend” are you)? The supposedly sensible things you say in your parlor do not make a difference in people’s lives. How you vote, who you support, and what political movements you legitimize with your support – those things make a difference in people’s lives. And if you support Trump, you are hurting many, many people simply on the basis of race or where they were born.
Being neutral on racism makes you a racist. Being indifferent to racism – while freaking out any time someone suggests you are a racist – makes you a racist. Demanding that all ideas, including racist ones, be treated with equal respect – except, of course, the idea that you are a racist – makes you a racist.
2. The Republican Party’s grossness actually works to its advantage. But not for the reason you might think I mean here. It’s not that all Republicans are racist, sexist and xenophobic – though a lot of them are – it’s just that GOP politicians have been appealing to that lowest common denominator for so long, their atrocious reputation has morphed into an asset. They have weaponized the mob. As a result, they benefit from low expectations – especially from undecided voters. This has been discussed somewhat during the debates: Hillary Clinton is expected to prove she is holier than Saint fucking Augustine, whereas all Donald Trump has to do to seem like plausible presidential material is to refrain from grabbing the moderator by the pussy in front of the cameras. Republicans are expected to say stupid, racist, misogynistic, xenophobic things. So when a Republican politician says three back-to-back grammatically correct sentences and avoids the most explicitly bigoted language, the whole country goes, “whoa, this guy actually isn’t so bad” – even though he says and does the kind of stuff that would have gotten a Democrat raked over the coals six ways to Sunday. One of the reasons for the incredible rise of Donald Trump is that he’s taken advantage of this more than any other GOP politician has, ever.
There is no way to underestimate just how low these expectations are and how much they benefit Republicans. During the debates, I heard many people joking that all Donald Trump has to do to skate by is not pull down his pants and take a shit on stage. You know what? Even had he done that, I don’t think it would have tanked his campaign. Maybe if he pulled down his pants and took a shit on stage while devouring a live newborn and screaming “Allahu akhbar!” between bites, maybe that would do it? Perhaps, but it’s not certain.
If you think that’s hyperbole let me give you an actual example. The latest polls show that most voters now perceive Donald Trump as the more honest candidate. Take a moment to let that one sink in. Has it sunk in yet? Yes? Okay. Now, the most likely reason for this evolution is the fact that The New York Times “debunked” (sort of, but not really) the long-swirling rumors that Trump is actually a Russian intelligence asset, and that it’s Russian intelligences services that are spearheading his campaign. So: after all the endless gaslighting by Trump, all the blatant, brazen lying, all the business scams, all the shady deals, all the so-called “charities” that bilked donors and did not spend a single dime on charitable work, the charity funds that Trump has used as his personal piggy bank, all the fraud allegations, all the extremely suspicious connections to the Russian government and that weird Trump server set up to only communicate with a Russian bank connected to the Kremlin … he’s is “the more honest one” because there is no conclusive proof he’s literally a KGB operative trying to get into the White House so that this country can be governed from Moscow, as if this whole thing is just some excruciatingly bad, straight-to-video cloak-and-dagger drivel. I rest my case.
3. Oh, right, let’s talk about empathy for the Trump Voter. I debated with myself whether I should take apart that ridiculous Washington Post interview of Arlie Russell Hochschild about the lack of empathy for the Trump voter line by line, but decided that would just be too tedious and boring. Instead, inasmuch as the arguments made in that interview are based on one individual’s personal anecdotes, I’ll offer one of my own.
A few weeks ago, I took a few days’ sight-seeing trip to the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York. I know that area well; I went to college there. These days, it’s solid Trump country. And as I drove past the rows of Trump-Pence signs and various homemade posters bashing Clinton, minorities, Clinton, immigrants, the establishment, those who tread on you, Clinton and Obama, I just kept wondering: what the hell is these people’s problem? What pressing concerns affect their lives so acutely that they are voting for someone as vile as Trump? Hochschild tells us that they feel threatened, attacked – but by what and by whom?
In all fairness, I’ll give the Finger Lakes people this: it’s technically part of the Rust Belt (though manufacturing was never as big here as it was in Ohio or Michigan), so maybe people are voting for Trump because he’ll bring back manufacturing jobs? Yeah, but actually no, for two reasons.
First – let’s be honest, because all polite denial aside, this patient is dying — manufacturing jobs are not coming back. Sorry. They will continue to disappear. American workers are never going to outbid those in the developing world willing to work for pennies a day with no safety precautions, nor will American workers outbid automation. It’s no use looking back at the 1950’s, when American manufacturing blossomed the way it did, and blue collar jobs (for white men) were well-paid in no small part because much of the rest of the world had been reduced to rubble and severely depopulated. Even if the Trump administration were to enact draconian protectionist laws, those would backfire in a way that would demolish the economy. This is an acute political issue, but also a complete non-starter. We have to adjust to this now being primarily a service economy, and I think most people realize that, even if they aren’t quite ready to admit it.
The second thing – and more pertinent to the point that I’m making, amid all that profusion of hysterical posters — I did not see a single reference to manufacturing jobs. People here haven’t looked to manufacturing as their bread and butter for at least a couple of generations now. If it is on the list of issues important to Finger Lakes voters, it’s nowhere near the top.
So, what is these people’s problem?
Are they upset about political correctness and diversity? These concepts are academic in this region, because it is over 95% white. I saw quite a few “Blue Lives Matter” posters, so I guess the approximately twenty-seven black people who live here represent an acute threat to the local law enforcement? I don’t know, I think if the local cops risk their lives, the threat comes primarily from white nationalists and sovereign citizens, because those actually populate the area in significant numbers.
Are they sick of big city elitists and their rarified ways? Perhaps, but it’s the elitists who keep the lights on. The number one industry in this region these days is higher education. Colleges and universities dot the picturesque hills and valleys, and those employ a lot of people, and a lot of businesses stay afloat thanks to college students and their parents spending money like water.
Are they scared of foreigners? “Close the border!” reads a poster. What border? Are these people being overrun with migrants flooding in from Canada? Do they expect Herr Trump to build a wall through Lake Ontario? Besides, where are all the scary illegals? Outside of a college campus, you won’t even hear a foreign accent, to say nothing of a foreign language being spoken. And the immigrants and foreigners who populate college campuses are middle class, here legally and self-supporting. As for non-immigrant foreigners, they pay tuition with a premium, funding American educational institutions, so … what’s the problem?
“No Sharia!” screams another poster. What Sharia? It’s churches as far as the eye can see and a population that’s racially, culturally and religiously homogenous.
There’s stuff about ISIS. Are these people threatened by ISIS? For real? If a terrorist act were to take place here, it would more likely be perpetrated by the Oath Keepers, or the Three-Percenters, or whatever he fuck are the names of the various white nationalist, nativist militias that hate the government. An Islamic terrorist is a long shot.
Are they afraid liberals are coming to take their guns? Possibly, but it’s a fear not based in reality. No one (at least not liberal politicians or activists; I can’t vouch for Internet commenters) has actually advocated taking people’s guns away, creating a national registry or limiting the number of guns people can own.
Are they upset that the lamestream media ignores and (alternatively) disparages them? Perhaps, but like the gun stuff, that’s bullshit. The media has been nothing but fawning towards these people — except when it quotes them verbatim.
All this brings me to my original question: what the hell is these people’s problem? Well, we know they are angry. Just angry. About everything in general and nothing in particular. Which is an obvious fact, but it doesn’t answer my question:
What the hell is these people’s problem?
Maybe we should just take it at face value that their fear is irrational, their anger has no basis, and their concerns lack validity. Someone who is seethingly, debilitatingly angry does deserve empathy, but not in the way Hochschild suggests. What these people need is better mental health services and better education, not a president who will use the state’s monopoly on violence to channel their anger against anyone they perceive as an “enemy”, be it an immigrant, a person of color or someone with a college education.
Like Hochschild, most of the people I encountered during my trip were nice. In fact, I remember most people being nice to my face when I lived here — but then again, I have an appearance that has gotten me mistaken for a Swede on more occasions than I can count (I have an accent, you see). But if someone who espouses terrible politics is nice to your face, that doesn’t prove this is a nice, “normal” person. It only proves yet again the fact that should be obvious to any minimally intelligent adult: that the anonymity of the Internet and the mob mentality that pervades political rallies merely serve to remove the slim constraints of civility that social convention imposes on us. Hochschild’s folly is to make the assumption that I have criticized in several of my earlier posts – that evil people come across as evil, obviously and immediately, and that someone who is folksy and soft-spoken can’t possibly be a bad person. Clearly, Hochschild doesn’t believe in the Banality of Evil; and that is her big mistake. To bring up the possibility of pogroms, race-based oppression and even genocide in the face of a political movement that all but explicitly advocates those things isn’t unfair or stigmatizing. It’s a legitimate concern, based on the history of pogroms, institutionalized bigotry and even genocide actually happening from time to time – in no small part because of a lot of very nice people either perpetrating them or enabling them through inaction or putting perpetrators in office.
What pieces like Hochschild’s interview implicitly advocate is that we must always presume the best of motives; that we should automatically reject the notion that Trump voters are driven by racism, xenophobia, misogyny, religious fundamentalism, antisemitism and an irrational hatred of educated people — even if they express such sentiments over and over and over and over again. Ignoring what these people support, while they are supporting it, while nice, introduces an impermissible element of dishonesty and denial into the discussion.
So what is these people’s problem? To add some nuance to the discussion, I don’t believe every Trump voter is racist to the point of wanting to see segregation and lynchings, or misogynist enough to the point of wanting to repeal the 19th Amendment. But what is happening is that Trump voters are seeing the erosion of the privilege that white, Christian males have enjoyed in this country since its colonial days — and they perceive the gradual diminution of that privilege as an assault on their birthright. That’s what they mean when they complain about the “elite” — they are upset that their place in that elite is slipping. That’s what they mean when they complain about “political correctness” — it’s not the ability to tell a racist and sexist jokes to uproarious laughter that they miss, but a world in which such jokes reflected general attitudes, social norms, policies, even the law itself. It would be foolish to think that race, gender and ethnicity have nothing to do with their anger.
I have no sympathy for the Trump voter. These are grown people who have chosen a path in life — a path marked by willful ignorance, hatred and violence. My only hope is that they don’t drag the rest of the country down that path with them.