‘I Voted for the Wrecking Ball’: Your Pushback

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

We’ve gotten a ton of reader response to the long detailed note from the Southern white guy with a master’s degree who voted for Trump because he wanted to bring a “wrecking ball” to Washington. This first reader, Pamela, scratches her head:

I read the Southern reader’s note with great curiosity and found his sentiments very familiar and heartening—until I realized that I still couldn’t comprehend where a vote for Trump, or a wrecking ball, or a middle finger, fit in. I reread it and had the same reaction. Towards the end, where he references “crazy is,” I was unable to follow him to Trump versus Clinton—it just didn’t jive with their policies. So, I am left wondering what his vision of the future is and how Trump fits that. It sounds like he leads a pretty decent life in a pretty decent place. Room for improvement, sure, but a wrecking ball? I still don’t get it.

This next reader is more forceful in his criticism of the Southern Trump voter:

Ok, this has been an interesting reader series, but time to push back. I don’t think all Trump voters, or even most Trump voters, are “racist” in some white supremacist sense. But I do think they are missing a pretty fundamental point. Southern Guy’s description of life paints a picture of a pretty nice world in which people of all colors and creeds have opportunities. I agree. I am a Clinton voter. I stand for the pledge, I decorate the graves of my veteran grandfathers on Memorial Day, and I fly the flag on the Fourth of July. We have a great country that has problems to fix (many of which are really hard issues arising from globalization), but it has also made enormous progress.  

So then the question is, why take the “wrecking ball” to it? If these folks could look at their own positions from another perspective, they might realize why people suspect that racism motivated their decisions in whole or in part. It is because the results of wrecking things are a lot worse for nonwhites, women, and LGBT folks than they are straight white guys like Southern Guy and me.

I work with a Muslim guy with whom I travel out of the U.S. regularly. He’s an American citizen. The president-elect’s website said—in a press release (not a random question) which was not changed even when it was called out—that he would ban my colleague’s re-entry into the U.S. [CB: Though this morning, Trump surrogate Giuliani backed away from the Muslim ban, telling CNN it’s no longer operative.] If you don’t think that would be possible or legal, read Korematsu [the Supreme Court decision allowing for Japanese-American internment camps during WWII].

Did Trump mean all that? I don’t know. Would he get away with it? Probably not. But guess what? I don’t really have to worry about it; I get to come home either way. My Muslim colleague does have to worry. That is my privilege.   

Another reader, Alex, expands on that idea of privilege—but not in the clichéd way that is bandied about too often, to diminish one’s accomplishments or end a discussion:

I am a Clinton voter. I imagine that your Trump voter and I have many different viewpoints, beliefs, and life experiences, but I also believe we would find many areas of agreement. I appreciate and do very much relate with his fairly nuanced views.

When faced with the choice of bigotry and authoritarianism, a major factor in making that decision is privilege. (Let’s remember that a large portion of Trump voters are actually college educated with higher incomes, not just poor rural whites who were left behind. [According to exit polling, 49 percent of college grads voted for Clinton, 45 percent for Trump—and he won the white college-educated vote, 49 percent to Clinton’s 45 percent.) Based on your reader’s note, he seems to be aware of these advantages and does touch on them—but then moves on.

And I don’t just mean the typical liberal attack of “white privilege.” Your reader is correct that it is used too freely and is not always a fair critique. I am speaking of generic privilege. He is a well-educated, middle-class white male. Part of the majority. Raised by two good parents. He is privileged. I do not say this in a derogatory sense. I myself am privileged in much the same way (educated Cuban male in a Hispanic-majority city, born and raised in Miami).

Being privileged, we both have the luxury of making a protest vote with limited consequences—in all honesty, a protest vote I might have entertained with different candidates on the ballot. But not everyone has that luxury. They are rightly worried of increased discrimination, hate, and distrust directed towards them by their fellow citizens and their government.

This next reader, Lauren, describes some of the people who are worried about increased hatred and discrimination in the wake of Trump’s election. She addresses the Southern Guy directly:

Thanks for flipping me the bird. Because while you may have thought you were flipping off some corrupt politicians, what you were really doing is flipping off people like me who were voting for the progress you deemed unworthy.

I’m not going to call you a racist, bigot, hate-filled misogynistic, or an uneducated redneck. There’s nothing in your piece that indicates you appear to be any of those things. But did you consider why those who hold those views have been emboldened by and found comfort with your candidate? Did it give you pause that Trump’s campaign chair was the CEO of Breitbart, a home to the Alt-Right, that often stokes the same gender and racial anxieties that are the lifeblood of white nationalists? Did it give you pause when Trump praised Alex Jones, a man that has denied Sandy Hook even happened causing incalculable pain to the parents that lost children that some now want to deny ever existed?

Before you set that wrecking ball in motion, did you consider that many might feel the consequences far more deeply and significantly than you will when the house comes crashing down?

You’re not the girls and women who woke up in the morning to realize 100 years after a hard fought right to vote was finally achieved, a woman will still not lead the country we love despite being eminently qualified and securing a majority of the votes—losing to a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women. [See the new piece from my colleague Uri, “Why It’s So Hard for a Woman to Become President of the United States.”] In 2016, we still only have less than 20 percent representation in Congress, only 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and we still make [$0.79 to $0.95] on the dollar.

It’s nice that you appreciate that abortion isn’t going away just because we elected a Republican, but a woman’s legal right to a safe and legal abortion may. This may be something you can intellectually appreciate, but it won’t be you seeking an unsafe procedure or experience the fear of consequences of breaking the law. You will not be the woman who desperately wants a child only to be told that child has genetic abnormalities, and that instead of having a safe and legal medical procedure, you will be forced to maintain the pregnancy until you miscarry, deliver a stillborn or deliver a baby only to see that child die in hours, days or weeks. You won’t be the woman who has to wonder if her medical choice for contraception is going to be overridden by her employer’s religious beliefs.

You’re not the Dreamer who was brought here as a child who now fears deportation to a country you’ve never known. Crazy is thinking that those who live in the country undocumented are not already experiencing consequences. Crazy is refusing to recognize that they are continuously paying restitution either by not being protected by labor laws or paying into a Social Security scheme they will never benefit from. Crazy is thinking a wall on our Southern border is going to fix the problem of illegal immigration or terrorism—or that anyone is arguing for open borders in the first place.

You’re not the disabled child who woke up to realize that sometimes bullies win.

Another reader, Fleur, looks to the environment:

I am an independent and always listen to both sides. I agree with almost everything this man is saying and I appreciate the time it took him to say it so well. But it is not true “that coal  still makes sense.” It does not make sense. I don’t know how scientists have failed to convince the American citizenry of the extraordinary danger we are in … but we have failed. I know about Big Oil etc, but too much of our citizenry does not see the danger and it is getting more horrific by the day. And as always, it is going to hurt the little guys worst of all.

Barry worries about the economy:

Obama was disappointing on many fronts, but largely the disappointing effects facing wrecking ball man were the product of Republican obstructionism and the Fox News Pravda, Tea Party News Network, whiners such as Wrecking Ball man, who expected the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression, the result of the exact economic politics we have just reelected into power, to magically resolve itself back to 1955—all while half the nation was already jamming up the works with the same outlandishly hypocritical “I am not a racist” nonsense applauding inaction. I would believe characters like your reader had they likewise tossed out the Republican-led Congress and Senate on its ear … but no, not so.  

Jonathan takes a conservative approach to the kind of radical change that a Trump wrecking ball could bring to institutions and the status quo:

First off, I wanted to applaud you on sanctioning and hosting the sorely needed discussion to find common ground between the Clinton and Trump, left and right camps. To my white, male, Christian friend with the wrecking ball, I want to first express what a shame it is that he feels he has to preface his perspective with a repeated insistence that he is not prejudiced, and that he actively eschews discrimination. In a pluralistic society such as ours, we owe one another the presumption that we are open-minded and tolerant until it is demonstrated otherwise, not the reverse.

Mike Rosulek

I would agree with him that our political system and its attendant institutions have grown extraordinarily perverse, and that swift and decisive intervention is necessary. The trouble with adjusting, let alone overhauling, such a monolithic structure is that any such societal paradigm perpetuates itself by convincing its constituent members that there is no viable alternative. Failing that, it menaces extremely adverse consequences to anyone who tries to replace it, and does its utmost to ensure this is the case. We have every reason to believe that our system will make good on its threat to take us all with it.

To be sure, that unsettling possibility alone is not reason enough to shrink from confronting a social system, but my question to the Southern reader is what gives you or anyone else the right to indulge your desire to tear the system down at the expense of all those who will suffer immensely in its wake? I don’t mean that to rhetorically imply the absence of a rationale for this, but I ask this sincerely.

I’ll update with a response from the Southern reader if he’s game. Beverly anticipates his response:

Yes, I know that this is what you shudder to hear: the cry of guilty white liberals who must apologize for their own good fortune. However, a person who has the privilege of turning down Yale also has more responsibility than others for not only knowing, but also facing and interpreting, the history of the country in which he lives.

He must know, and admit, that people came from across the sea, and, by virtue of their imagined authority of nation, sovereign, and flag, had the privilege—yes, privilege, for it was not their right—of appropriating another people’s land for their own. The past is prologue. He must know, and admit, that fortunes which have been preserved to this very day, were acquired from the forced labors of enslaved people. The past is prologue. He must know the history of de-facto and de jure policies which artificially limit, and continue to limit, the lived spaces, employment, and educational prospects of so many Americans. After all, he admits to “reading a few history books.” I don’t know what he’s read, but perhaps he’d like for me to recommend a few more.

Here’s one more response from the wave of email that’s come into hello@, from Amanda:

I respect people’s reasons for voting Trump. I empathize with the concerns of many of them, and I thought the “Wrecking Ball” reader’s essay provided another view into people who made this decision. Then I got to these lines and had to respond:

Here’s the recipe for success and comfort in modern America: Stay in school, do your best, stay away from drugs, don’t have kids until you are no longer a kid, don’t break the law.

That's not the recipe for success at all. Talk to people in my generation. I’m 32, at the older age of the millennials. I went to a great, nationally ranked liberal arts college. My friends and I, we followed all your rules, and we do not have comfort and success in modern America.

My friends from school don’t own houses, most of us don’t have children, and we’re all struggling to manage paycheck to paycheck. We have master’s degrees, because employers didn’t think our bachelor’s were enough. We stayed in school and then some. I have a J.D. from an Ivy League law school. I make my public sector salary work—and let’s note that I work in the public sector because it provides me with reasonable hours. My chronic illnesses prevent me being able to work those high-paying law jobs everyone always talks about.

We stayed in school. We did our best. We have to put medical expenses on credit cards. I just had to have a tooth pulled because I could not afford the $1300 crown and root canal. I have a hole in my mouth.

We didn’t exactly stay away from drugs, but, well, we weren’t addicted to them either. We were lucky, in retrospect. We were privileged here. As for the law, I think the extent of our law-breaking is related to the casual drug use, but I haven’t surveyed everyone on this part.

You don’t have to worry about the kids part; we can’t afford them, and we’re doing everything we can to keep from having them. Your opposition to abortion presumes that the only people who need abortions are careless, are doing something wrong somehow.

I respect your views, but I want to point out that, with that line, you evidenced how you don’t understand what is happening in our economy and country. It is not just people mooching off of welfare, downtrodden coal miners, and people like you—who aren’t rich! But are incredibly privileged. People with this privilege often don’t recognize it and don’t want to recognize it. Your letter indicates your parents probably did well for themselves, enough for them to be comfortable and help you out to.

As Americans, we need to be frank and admit that working hard and doing your best are not enough in most cases if you do not come from a middle-class or better background. It’s not just blue-collar folks who are getting set back months, or years, by a broken-down car or a medical expense. We did everything (almost) to the letter. So why aren’t we seeing the results?

My parents could never afford to help me. I took out loans, I got scholarships, I did what I was “supposed” to do to get ahead. I am drowning in medical debt because of the health insurance situation in this country. I am doing the very best I can and it is not enough.

And I know that Donald Trump does not give a shit about any of this and doesn’t want to help people like me. After all, it must be that we didn’t work hard enough! If only I’d worked as hard as Trump and his kids.