There’s been plenty of political punditry in response to the results of this election, but among the most insufferable sentiments making the rounds is the idea that the people who openly supported fascism should be met with forgiveness. It’s an idea exemplified by an op-ed published by the Times entitled “”Stop Shaming Trump Supporters” by Michael Lerner. While it may initially present as a reasonable request to take the concerns of a white working class, the stereotypical image of the Trump supporter and a group undeniably poorly served by the establishment, it quickly moves into assigning blame.
Lerner’s language is frighteningly familiar—quick to accuse liberals of being afraid of religion, and “blaming white people as a whole for slavery, genocide of the Native Americans and a host of other sins.” His argument is that these supporters are at heart good people, whose disenfranchisement has left them vulnerable. In his own words, “The racism, sexism and xenophobia used by Mr. Trump to advance his candidacy does not reveal an inherent malice in the majority of Americans.”
It’s an incredible act of cowardice, one that seeks to an appeal to empathy while attempting to ignore the real material harm enacted by these viewpoints. Social media has led to a surge of reported hate crimes, something which the Southern Poverty Law Center backs up, who report that hate crimes post-election are at the highest point since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It’s not difficult to find examples how Trump’s rhetoric has normalized these blatant acts of violence, especially as many of them go out of the way to mention him. Lerner’s language also follows a format that seeks to conflate whiteness, as a power structure and racial organization, with white individuals, and to deny the very real ways that whiteness has been used to exclude and oppress groups. It ignores the historical connection that this racist, sexist, and xenophobic rhetoric has to whiteness, and how it in many ways it shaped whiteness itself.
Among many of the lessons to be found in WNYC’s The United States of Anxiety, a broadcast examining the anxieties of Trump supporters, is that many white people were happy to support racially progressive values in the abstract, so long as they were isolated from any of the actual effects of them. That’s something that shapes the homogeneity of the suburban life, and white flight that made it easier for minority neighborhoods to go unsupported. In fact, when challenged with integration, white groups often fought against it, bringing out racially charged rhetoric that will be familiar to anyone who’s followed Trump’s campaign. And just to be clear, I’m not talking about the reality of integration from decades ago, but here in 2016.
Lerner’s characterisation of Trump supporters as disenfranchised working class whites is misplaced as well, as he won the majority among whites in almost every category, including college educated whites and white women. There’s an undeniable aspect of racial identity here, one that crosses both educational and gender lines, especially when taken alongside the numerous reports of sexual assault. It points to a white majority that is willinging to take outright bigotry when promised a return to the security that once insulated them from the harm that affects people of color and other marginalized groups every day. This narrative of “economic anxiety” driving these votes also ignores the historic correlation between a downcast society and its willingness to allow fascism. That’s something that’s been common among the rise in right wing groups in Europe, Brexit, and post-World War 1 Germany.
None of these groups believed themselves to be bad people, but they were all willing to allow violations of human rights to occur, or even take part in them, because it brought them security from fear in a time of vulnerability. Their fear of immigrants, of Muslims, of queers and people of color—anyone who could be deemed “the other” and scapegoated for their current situation—convinced them that the oppression of these groups was not only tolerable, but desirable. These are groups that have historically suffered even under “democratic” governments, what do their lives look like under leadership who promises to suppress them?
Knowledge of operations such as COINTELPRO have revealed a willingness of the government to stalk and suppress activists and communities of color, and similar surveillance programs have been revealed to be tracking the activities of Black Lives Matter activists, this time working alongside internet companies and social media sites. Similar action has occurred within Muslim communities by the FBI and NYPD, with Muslims and mosques constantly surveilled, and instigators sometimes sent in. Alongside what we know about programs such as PRISM, and an FBI director who has already been shown to be willing to meddle in the affairs of the election, what does the policing of these communities look like under a man who has loudly proclaimed that he will make Muslims register, expand stop and frisk, and deport millions of immigrants? If these “good people” were already willing to not only put up with the current policing of oppressed groups, but sign off on a man who promises to expand it, what else will they be willing to tolerate, or even encourage, for the greater good?
The appeals to reach across the aisle, to wait and see, and to have empathy for the situations that allowed half this country to vote for a fascist, are empty platitudes. They put the onus on the people who suffer most in this country to lend a helping hand to others who have, knowingly or unknowingly, profited from the oppression of others. Trump supporters may be finally waking up from the lie that America is not a meritocracy, but for the rest of us this is the country that we’ve woken up to our entire lives. To ask us to reach across the aisle while we still have a foot pressed on our face is an appeal for empathy towards a group that has never shown us any, and by all accounts intends not to. It’s a dehumanizing tactic that interprets only the anger and fear of the people who voted for Trump as legitimate, and demonizes the anger of the people who will suffer most under him.
Instead of asking us to “forgive” this hateful majority, we should make clear that these fascist ideas are not welcome, and not acceptable. We should work to unravel and attack the biases and attitudes that allowed this to occur. The disenfranchisement of these white voters didn’t create the bigotry that drove this vote, only allowed it to be brought into the open. No amount of forgiveness, appeasement or economic stability will combat that, not without a reckoning of this country’s history of oppression and the everyday ways we contribute to it. We may see ourselves as a nation of tolerance, despite our history, but when does that tolerance run out? When does a situation become intolerable, if today isn’t already?