It was a common topic over the last year and a half, as liberals devoted particular attention to learning about, becoming less judgmental of, and humanizing the Trump voter. It’s been bothering me, though it took me a while to recognize and articulate the problem, and then to wade through my own anxiety-induced mental fog to write about it.
I had the impulse at first, too, of wanting to understand—because I do feel that disdain and anger toward them, and that is something I always question. We’re talking about my aunts and uncles, I told myself. I spent the first 30 years of my life adoring them. The way I think about Trump voters, the disgust I feel toward any person who could have watched the same campaign I watched and then said, “Yep, I want this person to have presidential power”—can I really feel this way about my own family?
And the answer is yes. Yes, I can.
It is wrong to have contempt for someone because of where they live, how much money they have, or the fact that they have different views than you do. It is not wrong to have contempt for someone because they do and say contemptible things.
People who voted for Trump did something contemptible, and as a group, they did not do so because their lives are unbearable. (Hillary won among people who make less than $50,000 a year.) Yes, the white working class is facing problems. Minority groups in the U.S. have suffered far worse for much longer, and their response has been to vote for the people who try to make their lives better—AKA not Republicans.
Trump voters did not choose him because they thought he would be a capable president according to the existing definition of the office. They knew perfectly well what he is: a reality TV star, an attention-seeker, famous for being famous and perfectly willing to make himself ridiculous in order to stay so.
The demographics Trump won are Republicans/conservatives, men, people over 40, people who make more than $50,000 a year (although even this was narrow), people with no college degrees, people in more rural areas, and white people. You’ll notice how many of these categories overlap. Also, do remember—he lost the popular vote. This means he was elected by a very particular group of people, specifically not the majority of the population.
There’s been so much said and written about the economic hardships and declining life expectancy of the working-class whites who embraced Donald Trump. But why should they be more angry and resentful than the millions of blacks and Latinos who are poorer, die younger, and have to contend every day with entrenched discrimination? . . . I look at the people at Trump’s rallies, cheering for his hateful rants, and I wonder: Where’s their empathy and understanding? Why are they allowed to close their hearts to the striving immigrant father and the grieving black mother, or the LGBT teenager who’s bullied at school and thinking of suicide? Why doesn’t the press write think pieces about Trump voters trying to understand why most Americans rejected their candidate? Why is the burden of opening our hearts only on half the country?
That was Hillary Rodham Clinton, in her new book What Happened. Here is Ta-Nehisi Coates saying the same thing more eloquently in his new book, We Were Eight Years in Power. The passage I’m quoting comes from his piece for The Atlantic, “My President Was Black.”
Deindustrialization, globalization, and broad income inequality are real. And they have landed with at least as great a force upon black and Latino people in our country as upon white people. And yet these groups were strangely unrepresented in this new populism . . .
That movement [begun by the Tea Party] came into full bloom in the summer of 2015, with the candidacy of Donald Trump, a man who’d risen to political prominence by peddling the racist myth that the president was not American. It was birtherism—not trade, not jobs, not isolationism—that launched Trump’s foray into electoral politics. Having risen unexpectedly on this basis into the stratosphere of Republican politics, Trump spent the campaign freely and liberally trafficking in misogyny, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. And on November 8, 2016, he won election to the presidency . . .
It was said that the Americans who’d supported Trump were victims of liberal condescension. The word racist would be dismissed as a profane slur put upon the common man, as opposed to an accurate description of actual men. “We simply don’t yet know how much racism or misogyny motivated Trump voters,” David Brooks would write in The New York Times. “If you were stuck in a jobless town, watching your friends OD on opiates, scrambling every month to pay the electric bill, and then along came a guy who seemed able to fix your problems and hear your voice, maybe you would stomach some ugliness, too.” This strikes me as perfectly logical. Indeed, it could apply just as well to Louis Farrakhan’s appeal to the black poor and working class. But whereas the followers of an Islamophobic white nationalist enjoy the sympathy that must always greet the salt of the earth, the followers of an anti-Semitic black nationalist endure the scorn that must ever greet the children of the enslaved.
Our obsession with understanding the “plight” of the Trump voter is racist and intensely hypocritical. Trump voters are much better off than the people Trump vilified throughout his campaign; they are overwhelmingly white and significantly male, and they supported Trump because he promised to put white patriarchy back in power. That’s what “make America great again” means—and since most of American power never even left white male hands, this actually manages to be more abhorrent than it seems at first, because they are this angry about incremental, constantly-threatened gains that don’t come anywhere near approaching full equality. Now these white people are receiving even more special treatment from the entire country which minorities, the people actually entitled to it, have never been given.
On an episode of Sam Harris’s podcast Waking Up, he held a fascinating discussion with Tom Nichols on the death of expertise—the “campaign against established knowledge,” as the subtitle of Nichols’s book explains. I believe that Nichols’s comments on what he calls the politics of resentment illustrate what really happened in November 2016.
People who do the best in this current society are people who can understand the influx of information and deal with it. People who can’t do that, who feel left behind by it, are not necessarily poor—it’s a big myth that it’s the desperate Appalachian opioid addicts praying that Trump will help them. A lot of the supporters are doing perfectly well, cackling over the complete implosion of the government, and it’s a sense of, “as long as the smarty-pantses are getting what they deserve”—because this age of information has meant that the world changes so fast they feel scared and angry and confused.
Rather than saying, “I’ll never understand the space station but I’m glad I live in a time when someone does,” they say, “as long as Trump triggers the libtards or angers the college professors or ticks off the smart people, then I’m good with it, then I don’t really care if everything burns—because then we’re all back at the same level.”
Ugly social resentment has been spearheaded by [the] attack on experts. Anything people don’t like is the result of some expert giving advice to some “elite.” They still think they’re an embattled minority and the very fact that they can’t prove it with evidence makes them think there’s a conspiracy covering it up.
What we should be “trying to understand” is not what made good people vote for Trump, but what makes us so unwilling to recognize a distinction between niceness and goodness. Trump voters might be nice people, but they’re not good ones. Good people simply do not accept racism, misogyny, xenophobia, petty cruelty, blatant lies, and a literally endless variety of other unethical behaviors as a means to an end. They just don’t.
And no matter how “salt of the earth” they are, Trump voters do not deserve our sympathy.