Empathizing With Trump Voters Right Now

Supporters of President-elect Donald Trump hold signs at a campaign rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, on November 7, 2016. Trump won the state with 51 percent of the vote. (Chris Keane / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A long-time reader, Ben, tries to understand what drove so many Americans to elect Donald Trump yesterday:

So to get it out of the way: I didn’t vote for Trump. So I don’t like the results any better than you and your magazine do. But I did consider supporting Trump here and there, so I think I probably have a slightly better-than-average answer to “how could this have happened?” And I really think it’s kind of simple: Some people voted for Trump, but way more people voted for “stop calling me names and being a bully.”

I think the left was right on gay marriage, at least in the sense of “it should be legal if the government is going to have their hands in it.” But immediately after it became an inevitability, it also became a club: If your pizza place/cake baking business/photography business doesn’t want to be part of it, you get vilified and threatened. If the fringier parts of the left had its way, Brendan Eich’s ouster would have been duplicated a thousand times.

I think the left is right that black people are still treated like a subclass and don’t get anywhere near a fair shake. But traveling down the right road, there were plenty of pit stops that signaled that free speech was an acceptable sacrifice. There was a more-than-general smattering of clues that private opinions would be dug out at any cost and used to get you fired from your job.

The far left took a gamble that calling half the country racist, backwoods, bigoted hicks wouldn’t unite them under literally any alternate flag. It said, “If you aren’t 100 percent with us, you are 100 percent evil” without considering that inevitably this would result in absolutely no motivation for anyone on the right to shift even a little to the left. Give people the impression that you will hate them the same or nearly so for voting Jeb Bush as compared to voting for Trump, and where is the motivation to be socially acceptable with Jeb?

The far left took the gamble, and the moderate left backed them up with a range of active support and silence. And somebody popped up who said whatever he wanted. People called him a racist bigot idiot who wouldn’t fit in in San Francisco, and it bounced off. So he’s a racist and a bigot for real. You think people wouldn't envy his bulletproof vest?

If the left had been responsible with its dominance of culture, media, and social mores, this would have been an easy win for them—more than that, Trump would have never been possible. I would have liked that. At the same time, it’s hard to feel guilty when I see a lot of people who just got done saying “We will destroy everything you believe in and make it impossible to be anything but us” for years and now finding out it backfired.

A bully can be right and still be a bully. The bullied can be wrong and still fight back. I hope this lesson is understood and remembered.

Disagree with Ben? Or, are you an American who voted for Donald Trump and would like to share your thoughts right now? Please send us a note and we’ll post: hello@theatlantic.com. Update from reader Adam, who has a strong dissent against Ben:

I’m a San Francisco native (so yea, a bleeding heart liberal) completing a masters program in Kansas, where I’ve encountered plenty of Trump support, and specifically the sorts of embittered White culture Ben describes. While I’ve met plenty of people on the social right-wing who feel bullied as Ben describes, I do disagree that they have any right to their victimhood—specifically on gay rights and the harassment of business owners who refused service to gay customers.

Ben considers this the left “bullying” the right, but in doing so he overlooks this country’s dark (and RECENT) history of businesses refusing service to minority groups—a comparatively extreme form of bullying. In the communities I visit in Kansas, it is racial and sexual minority groups who must cope with bullying in the day-to-day, sometimes physical sense—far more consequential than the so-called bullying from the media.

Yes, the left is shrill and self-righteous, and sure, people on both sides of the aisle cross the line. The difference is that fundamentally, the right’s positions on cultural issues is to eliminate the liberties of minority groups—religious, sexual, racial, and otherwise, whereas even if the left can be bullies, it’s in the name of increasing individual liberties.

There are ethically gray areas like abortion, sure, but there’s nothing to debate when it comes about the right to receive service at local private businesses and government institutions (i.e. Kim Davis). So, is it really realistic to expect the left (also flawed humans, mind) to reach out to the right on these issues—especially when so many in power, and out of it, continue to campaign aggressively to deny liberties to others? There’s simply no equivalency here. Having friends who are Black/Muslim/Gay, when I hear right-wing rhetoric, I become angry and scared, not put in a place to “hash out differences.”

To Ben’s point: Bottom line, from the standpoint of diplomacy, the left could have done more to court the religious and social right-wing. Maybe won the election. But ethically, it’s the people who hold the myopic, prejudiced, and yes, hateful views who are culpable for this president. I have no sympathy, because the right-wingers I’ve met in Kansas? They are smart enough to know better.

More of your emails to come. For the time being, be sure to read Peter Beinart’s latest, “After Trump, a Call for Political Correctness From the Right,” which runs through evidence suggesting that Trump supporters, on average, have more bigoted views toward blacks, Muslims, and women. Money quote:

In general, conservatives prefer cultural to materialist analyses of human behavior. For years, for instance, conservatives have insisted that economic distress does not cause jihadist terror. The real source, they insist, is Islamic culture. For decades, they’ve argued that economic distress does not cause unwed pregnancy and drug addiction among African Americans. The real explanation lies with inner city black culture. Given those precedents, you would think conservatives would embrace a cultural rather than economic explanation for Trump’s appeal, especially when the evidence points so strongly in that direction. But when it’s whites acting badly, not blacks or Muslims, suddenly economic distress matters a great deal.     

Update from Ben, who first responds to me asking if he’d like me to add his last name for the sake of public attribution:

I betcha I could get fired for that note if people didn’t read it carefully, and you and I both know nobody does. I don’t think the “I don’t like Trump either, but there’s fundamental problems that exist on both sides that made him possible” message would probably parse well.

I like reader Adam’s hand-wave and dance around the actual issues I brought up. I mention a pizza place that never refused to serve anyone and a wedding cake shop, and he brings up Kim Davis. For the record I don’t think scorching Kim Davis was bad, and where vital services are at play, I generally agree with Adam.

But the general immediate dismissal of everything else I bought up—firings for private views, freedom of speech on campus and elsewhere being squelched—is sort of proof of my point. Even without getting into the “let’s change culture to completely cut these people out” aspect being addressed, Adam called everyone on the right a racist bigot who just wants to crush minorities and the LGBT community. That’s his— and a large portion of the left’s—knee-jerk reaction for dismissing all of their problems.

It’s not just not “courting” that Trump vote. I wasn’t suggesting the left should change their views or be disingenuous. I’m just suggesting that it’s not the best tactic to say:

If you are a Republican or conservative in any way, that means you are a homophobic bigot racist. I’m going to immediately assume all your problems are fake and all of your complaints are invalid. I’m going to actively work against you in all things.

And again, this isn’t about winning their votes; it’s about giving them any motivation to care about anything you think at all. I’m not suggesting the left should have been trying to get Hillary in the White House. I’m suggesting that they should have tried to get Jeb Bush campaigning instead of Trump. But, hey, guy, keep doing the same stuff; it’s totally not like you didn’t generate a giant backlash that pushed the worst candidate ever into the presidency or anything.

Sorry, rant over. And yeah, the election really sucks. I abstained from the vote for reasons probably obvious to you if you’ve been tracking my personal politics, but I definitely don’t consider Trump to be anything but a horrible outcome.