Should we sympathize with Trump voters? I found this essay from Rick Perlstein pretty enlightening, even if I disagree with a lot of what he had to say. In short, Perlstein writes about the captivating experience of dealing with a very intelligent Trump voter named “Peter” in one of his seminars. Peter writes a compelling paper on Trump’s appeal to working-class whites and then reads it for the class, but Perlstein later fleshes out some of the supporting data and finds that the myth of the downtrodden Trump voter is probably a bit overstated. He concludes by trying to draw out how the bogeyman of Reconstruction apparently lurks in the minds of people like Peter, thus proving that conservatives will gladly downplay racism if it doesn’t square with their narrative.
I also wanted to pull in this older piece by Jedediah Purdy, which takes a more moderate stance on many of the same issues and draws up this analysis at the end:
There are, crudely drawn, four or so current theories of Trump and the new New Right. The establishment conservative view, sounded by figures like Andrew Sullivan, Jonathan Rauch, and Leon Wieseltier, is that Trump is the sick consummation of an individualistic, “hyper-democratic” culture that values emotional satisfaction and “authenticity” over facts and reason. One liberal view—expressed at its bluntest on social media, but also in columns by Paul Krugman and Jamelle Bouie—is that his supporters are basically racist and otherwise-bigoted hicks, whom the Republican Party has been feeding on the sly for decades, and who are now out of their cages. A more polite version of this take sees Trump’s success as a response to the declining status of working-class, rural, and small-town whites in a demographically and culturally changing world, a last grab at a nostalgic America where, even if they are not bigots, they feel they once belonged. A final view, more congenial to the Sanders and Jacobin left, is that while Trump himself is a repugnant charlatan, his supporters seek in him a salve for the real economic problems of blue-collar displacement and the bait-and-switch promises of the American dream.
In the end, I think they’re all right, although Perlstein really gets his finger on it when he says that “Feelings can’t be fact-checked, and in the end, feelings were what Peter’s eloquent essay came down to—what it feels like to belong, and what it feels like to be culturally dispossessed.” I think the feeling of cultural dispossession motivated a lot of people to vote for Trump, regardless of income.
For some, economic anxieties heightened this sense of cultural dispossession. We’ve run away with the “downtrodden white working class” narrative because some of those voters with economic anxieties in some crucial electoral regions voted for Obama twice and then switched to Trump, but their actual impact on the election is hard to discern. This story, compelling as it is, cannot be generalized to the whole Rust Belt, the entire white working class, the majority of Trump voters, or all “real Americans”.
Cultural dispossession, on the other hand, is a lot more easy to generalize. There are a lot of people who are economically secure and still feel like their identity is under assault from “coastal elites”– heck, when you have the luxury of economic security, you have more time and energy to obsess more about symbolic representation and what happens in the dorm of a college you or your children will never attend. There have only been a handful of instances where someone has been threatened with actual economic hardship for some permutation of Christian belief, but those are serious enough to have created a sense of existential dread for the average (white) evangelical.
Similarly, fears about illegal immigration create existential dread, whether one fears that an illegal immigrant will take their job or simply destroy our economy by taking welfare benefits equal to one-millionth of a percent of whatever it costs to drone-strike another wedding party in one of the seven countries we’re currently bombing. “Black criminality” inspires similar fear, and if you can convince yourself that ensuring officers are held accountable for illegal actions will somehow unleash a giant crime wave that will take some form of public transportation to your neighborhood… well, there you go. Racism animates this dread, of course, but one of the pernicious things about racism is that it finds a half-truth (in this case, about crime rates in cities) to hide behind so that you feel more uncomfortable discarding it.
This ties into the existential dread: If you can provoke anyone into feeling scared enough, you can get them to compromise on convictions that they don’t hold to quite as tightly. This is especially potent if they can identify a particular bogeyman responsible for their dread. There is enough blowharded elitism leaking out from various centers of power to convince folks not only that their dread is justified, but also that the only way to ameliorate the threat is to punch back and seize power.
Trump’s election made it quite clear that many evangelical Christians don’t necessarily need the leaders they support to be “one of them”. They want someone who is willing to break the rules in order to defend them. They want a bodyguard, an enforcer, an attack dog unconstrained by decorum who will do what it takes to quiet the dread.
Post-election, there was a lot of hand-wringing about the need to sympathize or empathize with Trump voters, which is a nice sentiment but not really vigorous enough. People who threw their support behind Trump are craven and gullible (at best), and while I think we should always do our best to empathize with other people, you need far more than empathy to get anywhere. Now that Trump’s taken office, this feeling is quickly transmogrifying into a determination to win at any cost, which is of course the mistake that a lot of decent people who voted for Trump made.
Progressives can probably achieve a lot of their political goals just by mobilizing more voters next time around; turnout was dismal enough in 2016 that they don’t have to sympathize or empathize with anyone to win. However, if we want to keep the wheels of our democratic order from falling off entirely, that will require some dialogue with some of the people who voted for Trump. In order to do that, we have to get within moral striking distance before we fire off our arguments. “Civility” is a word that seems to be getting more and more meaningless, as people seem to be using “uncivil” to mean “you hurt my feelings”. If that’s the case, then forget “civility”– you can be as strident as you want as long as you are persuasive.
Of course, this is more difficult in an age when people seem to feel like taking umbrage at a statement justifies their dismissal of its truth, do not bother to educate themselves on the basic facts of history or politics, and generally prefer to read pre-digested memes that support their preexisting prejudices instead of grappling with serious arguments from their opponents. There is no way forward without serious intellectual and moral formation. This is not easy to do (I wrote about it at the end of this piece), but it is preferable to the dissolution of a meaningful political order.
Trump won because enough people talked themselves into thinking he would soothe their existential dread or at least stave it off for a few years. I think that the Left could ease the sense of cultural dispossession by picking its battles a little better (e.g. don’t punch down on some backwater pizza parlor), but the Right really needs to make its voters a lot less susceptible to con men. For those of us somewhere in the middle, we need to be willing to do the slow, hard work of helping ourselves and others cultivate the virtues necessary for meaningful discourse. Sympathy not required.