This is the first of a three-part series on Trump and his supporters.
When Trump won the election over a year ago, I pledged to engage white Trump voters with whom I disagree to better understand their position. My personal pledge reflected a consensus media narrative that white folks left behind from the economic disruptions of a globalized economy had taken their anger out on the system through an imperfect candidate, but a person who channeled and spoke to their frustrations. Such a broad brush of Trump voters never really painted the full picture. Yes, there were plenty of folks who voted from an economically aggrieved position AND there were significant elements of racism and xenophobia evident at Trump rallies and amongst some subset of his supporters. Indeed, in my own family there is a real spectrum of Trump voters ranging from:
- Folks who couldn't bring themselves to vote for either candidate - Plenty of typical Republicans/conservatives were so disgusted with Trump's behavior that they could not bring themselves to vote for Trump. Likewise, they could not bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton (the reasons for which we can address another time). On election night, Michael Moore noted that there were 90,000 votes in Michigan where folks refused to vote at the top of the ticket and yet voted in the down ballot races. That switched reliably blue Michigan to a gain for Trump.
- Folks who are genuinely feeling economic pain who felt left behind - White working class folks have a real economic ax to grind that has been left largely unaddressed by Democratic policy makers (though in fairness moving on such policies have often been blocked by the GOP). During the Bush Tax debate in late 2012, I suggested that President Obama do a bus tour from Pennsylvania through the Upper Midwest to make the economic case as to why we needed higher taxes for rich people and to make the case for how progressive policy is helping people in their daily lives. Democrats would be well served to follow the example of Bernie Sanders by adopting a truly progressive economic agenda keep going to communities from West Virginia and other less urbanized areas of the country to make the case consistently and with passion.
- Upper middle class and wealthy folks voting for their economic self-interest - Largely missing in the media conversation about Trump voters, there are a lot of upper middle class and wealthy folks whose investment in the GOP and thereby Trump continues to pay off in tax cuts to income and inheritances. While they're votes aligned with the previous group, their economic interests are not. Right wing media does its best to align these two groups through use of racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and anti-poor rhetoric combined with a the GOP economic promise of lower taxes.
- Outright racists - No one in my family is a KKK member (at least that I know) but you can see from their social media posts and from the conversations we've had that they are clearly racist. Some have used the n-word and anti-semitic language in different family functions over the years. They like Trump largely because he gives license to their racism and addresses their fears about a diversifying American population. And or course, actual members of the KKK and Neo-Nazi groups have adopted Trump as their standard bearer and he has given the love back assuring the rest of the country that they have good people amongst their ranks.
Even as I've divided these audiences, it is important to note that there is a good degree of overlap between these groups. A Trump voter can have legitimate economic grievances and at the same time hold internalized or overt racial hostilities and both sentiments affirm a vote for Trump given what he represents.
In the last year, I struggled with this pledge of engagement. With each succeeding episode of blather coming from Trump's lips or his thumbs on twitter, it has become increasingly difficult to engage folks who defend such vile, egomaniacal, and racist utterances. There are of course folks who know better, but because of political expediency or lack of courage, refuse to condemn racist statements from the President.
Nonetheless, I believe that such engagement is important, especially for white folks such as myself that have Trump supporters in your networks. We must always challenge racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia and other forms of oppression where we see, even within our families and communities. For whatever frustration and disconcert it brings to our lives, it often pales to what the victims of oppression must contend. My white male privilege demands my engagement to address of those who perpetuate and defend systems of racism and oppression.
That being said, I'm not suggesting you bang your head against the walls of ignorance or vehement racism. I understand the frustration. Ultimately, you have to extricate yourself from conversations with folks who refuse to engage responsibly without insults and move on to the next challenge. I leave those conversations with some fairly simple advice to them:
1. Spend a lot more time speaking with folks who don't look and think like you, and;
2. Read and consume content from a wider range of views.
From within the right wing media vortex, it is tough to hear different viewpoints and even to get basic facts on the table (see climate change as the debate only exists amongst the right wing of US, while the rest of the world has accepted the basic science and facts on the matter). If folks' self-identity or their frame of reference is so caught up in the years of right wing propaganda, talking right now might not help. In those cases, you can only offer the opportunity for learning and engagement.
If some segment of Trump voters spends the time listening to folks who are the subject to oppression and learning some of the basic facts of policy that it will change their minds and perhaps more importantly their hearts. Not many will open themselves to such learning because it requires the humility, not a strong suite of Trump and many of his supporters. There will be some, eventually. We are planting seeds and playing a long game.