We have to find a way to forgive them.
By “we” I mean, progressive white people; by “them” I mean, “Trump voters.” I don’t want to speak for anyone else; my minority friends are angry and distraught about this election and about the elevation of Breitbart neo-Nazis to the Oval Office—I’m not telling black and Latino and Asian and Jewish and Muslim and LGBT people to forgive Trump voters; maybe you’ll never feel ready for that, and that’s fine. The absolute worst men in America are now in charge of the federal government, and our democracy is going to be tested in unprecedented ways during the next four years. Lots of people are afraid and upset and are seeing the government of Donald Trump as an existential threat to everything they hold dear about America.
But—just in time for all of those awkward conversations around the holiday dinner table—we progressive white people have to forgive Trump’s voters. We have to try to make peace with Trump voters. We cannot assign the worst motives to all Trump voters; we cannot assume that they all voted for Donald Trump based on the worst of his rhetoric. We have to preserve our civil society and social fabric. It’s up to white people to do this. We need to build bridges and share our perspectives and find ways to achieve common ground with the white people who voted for Obama last time but voted for Trump in 2016.
My friend Reed Millar is a political consultant and organizer who was working on the Democratic campaign in one of the Upper Midwest states that unexpectedly went for Trump. He spends his career talking with voters and working with campaign volunteers and dealing with the nitty gritty work of making connections with people on the ground, one house at a time. Reed says that in order to win the next election we are going to need some Trump voters to switch back to the Democrats, so “passing moral judgment on them on Facebook is probably not the persuasion program you think it is.”
“I don’t want to say that people should not be critical of Trump or that they should not confront racism, because they should do both,” Reed says. “But liberals shouldn’t assume they know the reasons for why people voted for Trump. There are a complicated set of factors in why people voted for Trump, and yes, for some people racism is a lead factor, but for many others they voted for Trump in response to problems and insecurities we can agree on, even if the solutions are something that we presently disagree on. What Democrats need to do better is relate to a broader set of people’s problems and sell genuine solutions. Judgment and insults are often the end of meaningful conversation and not the beginning.”
It doesn’t do any good to call people names or get into troll fights on Facebook. Offering blanket statements and judgments of Trump voters is counterproductive; there are lots of otherwise well-meaning white people who voted for Trump who aren’t racist and don’t want to hear that they are racist, and calling all Trump voters racist idiots for the next 4 years is just going to drive more otherwise good-hearted white people into the arms of the enemy.
Why would someone vote for Trump other than “they’re racist?” I’ve heard several explanations from Trump voters in my life:
—They wanted a change
—They wanted to send a message to the establishment politicians
—They didn’t like Hillary/didn’t trust the Clintons
—They thought he’d do good things for the economy and job creation because he’s a businessman
-Party loyalty: they’re Republicans and they always vote Republican and he was the Republican nominee
—They’re anti-abortion and they wanted to vote for a Republican president who would implement anti-abortion policies and nominate anti-abortion judges
—They’re independent thinkers who didn’t like the way the liberal media was depicting Trump voters as idiots and racists and misogynists
—They felt unheard, unseen and taken for granted by the political establishment
I don’t necessarily agree with any of these reasons. But we need to understand Trump’s appeal and appreciate the perspectives of his non-racist supporters so we can pick off a few percentage points of his vote in the next election.
Democrats spent the 2016 campaign sounding the alarms about Trump: he’s dangerous, he’s unqualified, he’s temperamentally unfit to be president, he’s a 70-year-old man-baby with an unhinged ego, he’s worse than Hitler. I’ve been guilty myself as a media commentator of treating him as a joke and assuming that no one could ever vote for Trump for legitimate reasons.
But lots of Americans didn’t see it that way. Americans tend to live in our own bubbles of like-minded people with similar worldviews and the same sources of news. Lots of people in America did not see Trump as a ridiculous joke or a threat to democracy; they just saw him as an outsider candidate with an unconventional message who could help shake up the system in a positive way. Instead of voting for a less-than-popular Democratic nominee who was widely viewed as unlikable and untrustworthy (and yes, there’s a lot of sexism that contributed to that), lots of Trump voters felt like rolling the dice and taking a chance on someone new.
So for the next 4 years, white liberals need to do some mental jiu-jitsu with the white Trump voters in our lives: we need to accept their belief that they’re not racist and stupid, even though their actions helped elect a racist, stupid person. Because from their perspective, they’re NOT racist and stupid. See how that works? We have to accept that they’re seeing things from a different perspective, even if we don’t agree with that perspective. And we have to work to have tough conversations and find common ground and enlist their support in holding this administration accountable and opposing and resisting the worst of Trump’s abuses to come.
This is work for liberal white people to do; we need to have these conversations with our fellow white people to try to understand each other’s perspective and enlist support for our shared fundamental values, even if we never agree. This is how we coexist in civil society; this is how the center holds. If we want Trump voters to speak out against hate crimes and get their help to protect the civil rights of all Americans, we can’t just call them racist; we need to open up a broader conversation to find common ground. That sounds so frustrating and irritating, I know; we shouldn’t have to work this hard to get people to denounce hate crimes and compensate for white fragility. But this is where we are right now. Liberal white people need to do this extra work; as white people, this is our burden to bear. If racial minorities just want to hunker down and try to avoid all white people for the next 4 years, I don’t blame them one bit.
Mike Rowe, host of Discovery TV’s “Dirty Jobs,” posted some commentary on Facebook about the election that I found worthwhile.
“We’ve survived 44 Presidents, and we’ll survive this one too. I’m worried because millions of people now seem to believe that Trump supporters are racist, xenophobic, and uneducated misogynists. I’m worried because despising our candidates publicly is very different than despising the people who vote for them. Last week, three old friends—people I’ve known for years—each requested to be ‘unfriended’ by anyone who planned on voting for Trump. Honestly, that was disheartening. Who tosses away a friendship over an election? Are my friends turning into those mind-numbingly arrogant celebrities who threaten to move to another country if their candidate doesn’t win? Are my friends now convinced that people they’ve known for years who happen to disagree with them politically are not merely mistaken—but evil, and no longer worthy of their friendship?...I don’t think Donald Trump won by tapping into America’s ‘racist underbelly,’ and I don’t think Hillary lost because she’s a woman. I think a majority of people who voted in this election did so in spite of their many misgivings about the character of both candidates.”
I disagree with Mike Rowe on part of this: I do believe Trump got some votes because of his openly racist appeals to “make America great again (for white people)”—the recent nationwide surge of hate crimes is proof of that; and I do believe that Hillary lost some votes because she’s a woman. But Mike Rowe’s perspective is a valuable reminder that there really is a silent majority of Americans who are not constantly engaged with political news and furious about politics; lots of Americans vote for reasons that are more moderate and less militant than diehard political junkies might expect.
And that’s where Mike Rowe makes a good point: do we really want to throw away relationships with people in our lives just because they voted for the other candidate? I don’t know. Everyone has to know where to draw the line for themselves; if you have people in your life who are racist and misogynist and toxic to your well being, who are beyond the reach of reason or basic human decency, then maybe you should cut ties with them.
But lots of liberal white people need to use this election as an opportunity to reconnect and find common ground with the white Trump voters in our lives. Politics matters, but it’s not the only thing that matters; we still need to coexist in everyday life and work together on issues where we can find common ground. If white liberals treat Trump voters with across-the-board disdain, if we just keep talking past each other or screaming at each other on Facebook, we’re just going to drive them further away. And that’s going to damage everything else about this country that is worth fighting for.
I’m trying not to throw away relationships with real people in my life based on who they voted for, and I’m trying not to assume the worst about all of the 25% or so of eligible voters who voted for Trump. Most of them are not “alt-right” neo-Nazis. I want to believe that many of Trump’s voters are decent people who are still reachable by appeals to our common humanity and who will reject the worst of Trumpism if we can just help them see it.