‘Brown, Bearded, Son of Immigrants, Voted Trump’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That’s how reader Ray describes himself in the subject line of the note he sent to hello@. The question Ray closes with is the most compelling: Should you take a gamble with a volatile candidate or one who’s predictably corrupt?

I grew up on the West Coast, raised by Indian immigrants, went to a liberal university, and voted liberally on most stances until this election. I am currently working on a post-baccalaureate professional degree, so I am not uneducated. My vote for Trump is a protest vote—a protest that Sanders couldn’t provide.

I’m tired of our country being whored out to the highest bidder. I’m tired of people coming into this country illegally, taking away the justice due to those who have waited in line for years to get into this great country. I’m tired of politics as usual. I’m tired of micro-aggressions, safe spaces, and the general retreat on being confronted with opposing views. I’m tired of the sense of entitlement present in many of my peers. I’m tired of pretending that the U.S. is hunky-dory while seeing my friends sipping their mochas in LA, SF, and NYC, ignoring the plight of the “flyover” states. I’m tired of accepting that U.S. politics is an inevitable palace of corruption, with trim made of corporate donations, a carpet of immunity, and a chandelier of complacency. I’m tired of accepting politics as the broken system we see today.

As of very recently, I’m tired of liberal-minded individuals grouping Trump supporters as ignorant, racist, and/or sexist. I was one of those people casting the judgement before the campaigns began. However, after having changed my opinion—contrary to late night shows and other self-congratulatory political comedy—now I’m just uninformed and racist. When I was trying to spread the Wikileaks revelations about the corruption of Clinton, I was wearing a tinfoil hat and was “unrealistic” about the nature of politics. The cognitive dissonance of former Sanders supporters was so strong it just about knocked me off my chair.

The media response to Trump firmly solidified my position with Trump. The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post—all my beloved bastions of journalism—began a coordinated effort to turn their outlets into the the daily Trump takedown. They firmly stepped into the bubble of self-reassurance: It is not possible for contradictory views of the 2016 election to exist without being racist or ignorant. Instead, they continued to perpetuate identity politics and wedge issues.

Trump supporters couldn’t have legitimate views worthy of discussion, right? They obviously had to be bigots.

If you feel that 50 million of your countrymen are racists and ignorant voters, I feel sorry for you. I implore those people to come on down from their towering high horse and talk to the simpletons, racists, and bigots outside of their society. Maybe when they’re trying to tell those simpletons how misguided they are, about how Kansas isn’t acting in its own best interest, the high-horse society can take a moment to fairly consider the simpleton’s argument for but just a moment. That is, before they retreat to a place of intellectual and moral superiority—again, telling Kansas what’s the matter with it.

A political cartoon I saw last week captured my sentiment about the two major candidates in 2016. I view Clinton and Trump as a game of Russian roulette, with each candidate being a different revolver. Clinton’s is fully loaded with corruption, propaganda, and bad decisions as a leader. Trump’s is only half loaded. Which one should Lady Liberty spin and point at her head?

This next reader, Nana, also had major qualms with both candidates but comes down on Trump the hardest:

I am a cross between your reader Marco [“The Smell of Corruption Emanating From the Clinton Machine”] and your Southern reader [“I Voted for the Middle Finger, the Wrecking Ball”] and, except for a few differences here and there, I could have written the latter’s piece. I am an immigrant from Africa with a PhD in engineering. I have lived in Texas, the Midwest, and now live in a red state in the Southwest. I love this country and, no matter how one voted, I think it is important that we all accept Trump as our president-elect and pray for his success.

But I don’t think the primary issue that concerns people who did not vote for Trump is the usual divide between Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, Red and Blue that often shape our political discourse, although that is what this discussion seems to be devolving into.

Like Marco, I abhor the corruption of our politicians and feel a bit queasy about dynastic politics, but I also recognize that dynastic successions are not that uncommon in other areas such sports, media, business, and religious institutions—and they need not be corrupting. I could quibble with Marco on the extent to which “the smell of” Clinton’s political corruption is somehow worse than Trump’s well-documented corruption in his business life. But I wouldn’t have a problem with Marco deciding to vote for Trump on the basis of those two issues, if those were all we have to consider in selecting a President.

Similarly, I share your Southern reader’s frustrations about our inability to secure our borders, or have sensible immigration or health care policies. I understand his desire to vote for “the wrecking ball” to give us a kick. By most accounts, Trump’s victory is largely due to Americans with similar frustrations voting for him.

I suspect Romney, John Kasich, the Bushes, and the Republicans that came out forcefully against Trump share much of the concerns of Marco, your Southern reader, and most Americans. Our elections are mostly about our preferences for addressing such concerns.

The constant refrain from these Trump voters here is that people are judging them as uneducated, bigoted, xenophobes, or misogynists just because they voted for Trump. If this is happening, it is clearly wrong and we should all push back forcefully against that narrative. But I don’t think that is the issue here. The shock of those who did not vote for Trump, including Romney, Kasich and several Republicans, is about something entirely different, I suspect.

People waste no time pointing to Obama’s single comment about some “bitterly clinging to their guns and religion” as ample evidence of his identity politicking or bigotry. Many were aghast at Clinton’s truly deplorable comment describing some of Trump supporters as irredeemable “deplorables.” And who can forget Romney’s “47 percent” comment that likely contributed to his loss in 2012. Each comment, while deplorable, was made by a politician in an unguarded moment. That doesn’t excuse it. But you know what? Each of them apologized profusely and paid a price. More importantly, not one of them repeated or stood by those comments for the rest of their campaigns. If Trump had made a couple of such unfortunate comments, apologized, and moved on, I would hope we would too.

But in Trump’s case something quite different happened. Right from day one, he seemed to have chosen purposefully to use xenophobia and bigotry as tools to sow division. Not only did he repeatedly do this, but based on the evidence we have all seen and heard, I feel comfortable describing Trump as a xenophobe, bigot, and misogynist. Unfathomably, Trump’s campaign seemed to condone support from anti-Semites even though he has Jewish family members. If he is none of these things as some say, but chose to play a part to win this election, that is even more despicable.

Again, it is preposterous to suggest that all Trump voters share these characteristics. However, a not insignificant segment of Trump supporters, by their words, deeds, clothing at campaign rallies, and associations with hate groups, do seem to share some of these characteristics with Trump.

It is one thing to vote for a populist or even volatile candidate who rails at the usual suspects of corrupt politicians, out of touch elites, the media, big business, unions, opposing parties and the typical broad groups both sides attack in elections. What is different here is that clearly non-bigoted and decent voters, some of whom voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, voted for a candidate that explicitly used bigotry, xenophobia, and misogyny as campaign tools to sow division.

Even if you want to blow up the system, you don’t throw your fellow Americans under the bus. That is what is disturbing.

Update from Nana:

I don’t know if it matters at this point, but here is a point of clarification. Reading my email, I can see how you might think this, but I really do not have any major qualms with Clinton. Moreover, the issues I think need addressing—border security, immigration, health care—are universal. Clinton voters also want to see those issues addressed but in a different way. My point to all of us—and to push back a little at both Lindsey and Robert today—who from either side seem to be resorting back to the usual “let’s blame the ‘media,’” this election was really about us and our values, regardless of what the “media” did or did not do.

There is a larger point to be made to these Trump voters who bristle at being tagged with Trump’s sins of bigotry, xenophobia, and misogyny, and I agree they really shouldn’t be tagged with them. But, if you will notice, none ever say Trump himself is not guilty of those sins. Minus Trump’s bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobia and the willingness to use them in the election, I wouldn’t begrudge any voter for picking him, although I personally wouldn’t for a variety of other reasons. But the choices would not have been that different from your usual suspects.

What I think is staring us right in the face but we seem unwilling to confront is the following: Now that he is president, we must move forward and determine how best to live with our collective decision. But picking the Trump we know with his bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobia, smacks of those voters saying, “I don’t commit those sins myself and abhor them, but I will condone them from Trump, wielded in my name against a large segment of my fellow citizens, because I like the benefits we saw from his campaign (e.g., Lindsey) and believe he can solve America’s problems for all our benefits (e.g., Marco and your Southern reader).”

Maybe it’s because of my immigrant perspective, but who wants benefits acquired by those means? What sins in our name will we be willing to accept next month, next year, or during the next election?