Empathizing With Trump Voters Right Now, Cont’d

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

As brilliant and scathing as Alec Baldwin was with his portrayal of Donald Trump this year, SNL’s “Black Jeopardy” sketch was ultimately the real standout—for its humor and its humanity:

At the onset of our dialogue with Clinton votes and Trump votes—or at least voters who understand where some Trump voters are coming from—reader Ben diagnosed what he sees as a shortcoming of the left right now: an over-willingness to stigmatize people as bigots for what may just be misplaced or simply misunderstood views, rather than active hatred. (One of the examples Ben cited was the successful effort to get Brendan Eich fired as CEO of Mozilla because he donated to the admittedly awful Prop 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California for a time.) This reader agrees with Ben:

He has diagnosed a significant reason people voted for Mr. Trump. I’m a conservative who did not end up voting for him, but like Ben, I thought about it a lot. The left has adopted bully tactics through their control of the media and the universities. Rather than deal with the right’s arguments, they use creative name-calling: racist, xenophobic, homophobic, hicks. I can tell you for a fact, neither myself nor any of my conservative friends and family are any of those things, and yet we’re called that frequently. What in the world?

Mrs. Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment and Mr. Podesta’s e-mails that threw Catholics and Evangelicals under the bus are perfect examples of this moral snobbishness. The problem is, we won’t change our minds because you force us to celebrate homosexual unions or call us names in front of the entire nation. If you on the left want to change our minds, you need to understand us, and vice versa. Our country will keep splitting, the less we listen respectfully to each other.

People are angry. Unfortunately, the only Republican candidate who showed anger to match was Mr. Trump.

And unfortunately that anger morphed into a lot of ugly rhetoric and demagogic stances. Was that inevitable, or could such anger be channeled into something more constructive? Hopefully the actual mantle of responsibility in office will temper Trump—though a compromising Trump could actually inflame Trumpism, because his supporters will witness how even Trump won’t be able to enact extreme measures like building a wall across Mexico and deporting 11 million illegal immigrants.

Circling back to Ben’s argument, this next reader has a line that popped out in particular: “We cannot fight systemic issues by punishing individuals.” His closing line is also strong, and his overall argument is really nuanced:

My name is Dan, and I’ve been following your coverage of the campaign closely this year, especially the Trump Time Capsule series. I greatly appreciate the discussion The Atlantic has been hosting through reader emails and the insights they have produced. Your recent emails from Ben and Adam—about the backlash against the left’s “bullying” contrasted with the historic and continuing oppression and marginalization of minority groups—struck a chord.

I’ve heard many angry people lamenting that Trump was elected because straight white people could not bear the loss of their privilege. It wasn’t until I read Ben’s email that I realized that the bullying coming from the left is exactly what the erosion of straight white male privilege looks like.

We might define privilege as “not having to face injustice because you are treated as an embodiment of your group rather than an individual” (an inelegant definition for what is perhaps an inelegant term). In these instances of public shaming, people whose behavior would previously have been ignored due to their social privilege are instead faced with an unjust reaction because they are treated as the embodiment of straight, white, or male oppression.

While these injustices are relatively few compared to the everyday injustices faced by marginalized groups—for every person who lost their job [because of real or perceived bigotry], how many were never given a chance to be hired?—they are legitimately unjust. And they must be addressed as a consequence of minority groups gaining social power and the erosion of majority privilege. We cannot fight systemic issues by punishing individuals. I believe we should publicize these cases as concrete examples of systemic problems, but hounding people out of their jobs is unjust and unproductive.

Still, this is an issue that can either be addressed with discussion and debate within our newly developing social dynamics, or the privileged can fight back against it by re-empowering white supremacy within our society. With the election of Trump, white America has chosen to do the latter because even this small taste of the injustice you might face when you lack privilege has proved far more important to them than equality, justice, and acceptance for their fellow citizens.

Or in other words, two wrongs don’t make a right, even if one of those wrongs—outright bigotry—is much worse than the other—an over-willingness to label someone a bigot. And the latter is counterproductive to fighting the former.

A pastor also responds to Ben’s note:

I’m a moderate-liberal Democrat who has been in ministry in deep red parts of Texas for 15 years. Each of the four churches I’ve served has been heavily conservative and heavily Republican.

Meanwhile, I have pretty much been in the closet with my political beliefs. There was the year that it was rather obvious, though: I was the only Democratic voter in a primary election. The Republican judges had to go to the back to get the Democratic judges so I could vote. And, my church was the precinct voting place, “Hey, George! Get up here! The pastor needs to vote!”

Ben makes an interesting observation, but a large part of the Trump vote simply is from Republicans who assign various reasons for their leanings against Democrats: arrogant, judgmental liberals; lying liberals; crooked Hillary; government “handouts” (except for the ones they receive, of course); baby killing; big spending; and others.

However, all of these are subsumed under the simple fact that a poor Republican candidate beat a weak Democratic candidate.

This next reader also has a simple reason for Trump’s success:

I was not a Trump supporter, but I voted for him on Tuesday. I’m a big city refugee—Manhattan, Chicago, and Houston—now happily living in the rolling hills of rural NE Oklahoma.

In trying to empathize with the rationale of Trump supporters, Ben has missed the simplest of all. Every voter wants an honest government, and a government for the people. We all want an end to politics-as-usual. Trump is the outsider, promising to be the outsider, just as Obama did in 2008. Those of us here, who voted for POTUS Obama in 2008/’12, feel let down. We’ve seen some social progress, but failures everywhere else, and we are willing to give the outsider the benefit of the doubt.

Consider this: Oklahoma Evangelicals came out for Trump, actually crowded the polling stations, despite his playboy ways and lewd talk. They didn’t rush to the polls because of the usual divisive social issues; they rarely do. They just want someone, anyone, to make a change against politics as usual.

But if Trump supporters really “want an honest government,” why would they elect a pathologically dishonest person?

Here’s our last reader for now, Sean, who echoes some of the themes above:

A little background information: I am a 27-year-old Wisconsinite that voted for Hillary Clinton. I consider myself a middle-of-the-road moderate, simply because I find the idea silly and impossible that one party has the correct answer for every single issue our country and world faces.

I’m still processing the events of the election result, but I feel like this is a perfect time to submit my first email to The Atlantic. Although readers Ben and Adam had unique insights as to why some people were compelled to vote for Trump, I respectfully disagree. I think there are two reasons for Trump's victory:

First, I believe it was simply a backlash to the American “system.” I believe Trump won the election because most people my age and younger have already accepted/agree with socially progressive ideas but yearned for a change in economic stances and the “status quo.” Trump represented a change in the political machine while Clinton basically represented more of the same political gamesmanship. Progressive social ideology was not enough for Clinton to court enough voters because again, I think most young voters have already accepted progressive ideas to be the norm. Now, why a lot of my peers think Trump will be a good change to the political machine (which I do not agree with) is a different discussion ...

Second, I think that this is the first time a vast majority of the electorate has ranked a candidate’s message above that candidates “character.” By that, I mean that a lot of people were willing to bite the bullet for Trump’s glaring character flaws for the chance to try a new approach to the American experiment. In previous elections, it was always assumed that the two candidates would be extremely polished, and would be immediately disqualified for saying some of the things Trump said. However, I think he was able to brush past these traditional political land mines due to an unexpected effect from my first point: a lot of people were sick and tired of traditional politics. They put much more weight into a candidates political message rather than their personal character.

Update from Dan, who gets the last word here:

Thank you so much for your kind words about my note on feeling empathy for Trump supporters. I do take issue with the implication of what you wrote in the “in other words” section following my note:

Or in other words, two wrongs don’t make a right, even if one of those wrongs—outright bigotry—is much worse than the other—an over-willingness to label someone a bigot. And the latter is counterproductive to fighting the former.

Perhaps I was not clear enough, but my belief is that liberal bullying of perceived bigots is only a tangential effect of progress in dismantling system of social privilege and power. It is not part of the work to dismantle those systems; it is merely the result of marginalized people finally gaining the power to express their anger at those who have been collectively furthering their oppression in individually minor ways. It is a problem that will inevitable arise with a new balance of social power, especially without any widespread engagement from the right or even acceptance of the reality of these concrete issues of marginalization and oppression, without some sort of “truth and reconciliation” for American society.

It is not actually a part of the work that is being done to address these issues, so I disagree with the implication I see in your comment that this behavior must be stopped before we can continue making progress. If people oppose the dismantling of systems of privilege because of these cases of bullying, and instead support the resurgence of straight white male supremacy, that is a failure on their part. It is a failure of perspective and values and they are responsible for that failure.

And that failure of perspective brings me to the email from the person who “voted for the wrecking ball.” That person knows so many things about this country. That person knows exactly what you need to do to succeed and overcome adversity. That person knows exactly how all their fellow white people feel about marginalized groups and how they would treat marginalized people if those people could only be just a little better.

That person does not know what they do not know about the experience of life as a marginalized person in this country. That person does not know that the opportunities his parents and their parents and their parents had to pursue the right kind of life were not afforded to the parents of others. That person does not know that the issues marginalized people complain about are not excuses for a failure of hard work; they are legitimate and real challenges that this person has not experienced. That person does not know that it’s not that “not everyone starts off on the same spot”; it’s that many grow up constantly being dragged down and boxed in by the people around them. That person does not know that bigoted speech, whether they agree that it is bigoted or not, leads to harmful action.

But on that last point, your reader will likely learn better. Because he knows that his “wrecking ball” will leave him relatively untouched. But he doesn’t know that the hateful people swinging this wrecking ball with him are real, not a liberal bogeyman. He does not know that marginalized people are going to be hurt; they are going to die because of this. They are going to keep being hurt and keep dying for years because of this. And the people who voted for Trump—however understandable and relatable their motivations might be—are responsible for this, whether they know it or not.