Everyone I know is struggling to understand (for real or just in lip service) how could he have won? or why would they ever vote for him?
This election was an unpopularity contest like no other. So, what the candidates were “for” isn’t necessarily what a person’s vote “for” them was about. I held my nose in some respects to cast my vote for Hillary, just as I know many people certainly did for Trump.
But if I’m so easily disgusted/gobsmacked about what Trump voters were apparently and monolithically voting “for”, what can I say honestly about the reasons for my vote? What was it about?
I voted for the status quo.
Feminism, reproductive rights, moral concern, compassion, civility, progress, expertise, democracy, whatever else Hillary came to symbolize either on purpose or by default — I do value all of that in my forebrain. But in my gut, or my amygdala, or just deep down in places I don’t talk about at parties, I wanted non-change.
A nicer word would be “stability.” But it wouldn’t be as frank.
As part of a two-freelancer household with a grab bag of pre-existing conditions, I want my compromised, expensive, but secure Obamacare.
As a late-30something upper-middle-class coastal/urban knowledge worker, I’m not feeling any tangible pain from the Great Recession in particular or from Wall Street motherfuckery in general. And rapid technological/economic change isn’t an existential threat to my earning power — it is my earning power! (My job is to make media that attempts to make sense of that kind of stuff for Scientific American, Fast Company, Bloomberg, et. al.)
As a father of young kids, I like the idea of a competent political professional staying the predictable, well-intentioned, but compromised course. Because whatever makes me feel less anxious about the state of the world in general — e.g., no sudden reversals of decades-old geopolitical security regimes, no resentment-fueled macroeconomic policy reboots, no flipping the bird at overwhelming evidence of global environmental disruption in our lifetimes — all of that makes me feel like I’m keeping my kids safe from forces I will never be able to control.
Trump is objectively destabilizing (besides being subjectively disgusting). Bernie wasn’t vetted (or particularly credible, imho, RE: national security or economic policy).
So here’s what I cast my vote for: Stability. Status quo. Sameness. Safe-ness. If that meant voting for Female Nixon as a fait accompli follow-up to Black FDR (tell me he couldn’t have won a 3rd term!), then that’s what I was gonna do. And that’s what I did. I voted my (perceived) self-interest, just like everyone else.
It didn’t exactly take courage. Unlike Trump, Hillary didn’t openly campaign as the literal, embodied antithesis of everything I was taught to value morally, civically, and intellectually, in school, in church, and at home. Still, I can’t pretend like those forebrained abstractions were the real gut-level engine for my vote.
Nope: by the end of the campaign season, the engine driving my vote was pretty much just fear and loathing. After the last 18 months, how could it be otherwise? And if I grant that, then how can I judge and/or despise the “other side” for having the same urges, that same engine, and voting the same way?
I’m anxious about and outraged by Trump himself, and by what his words and actions say about me as an American without my consent. I’m gearing up to assume an unfamiliar kind of civic stance for the next four years: skeptical, anxious, resistant. But at the same time, I’m not sure I can believe that “Trump Nation” is a monolithic, opaque, sinister Other any more than “we” are made out to be by Breitbart. It felt good(ish), or at least cathartic, to believe that about “them” during the week after the election. It was helpful for coping with the sheer shock of it. But it is too depressing and nihilistic to hang onto long-term. It’s probably civically and democratically toxic, too.
Presuming to superficially label/psychoanalyze, en masse, the 49-point-whatever-percent of the active electorate who put Trump in office just feels…gross. Intellectually dishonest, for sure. Willfully arrogant and dismissive, at least. But more than either of those things, it feels downright (I can’t believe I’m about to say this) un-Christian.
I’m an atheist, but I was raised Roman Catholic. I don’t believe Jesus was divine, performed miracles, or rose from the grave; if we could take a time machine back to thirtysomething BCE, I think we’d see someone with a lot more in common with David Koresh than with the Buddha. But that particular Nazarene cult-leader/political-agitator is long dead and wholly irrelevant to my experience. What still has the power to move me, sometimes spiritually but more so ethically, is the apolitical contemporary Christian ideal that he is (somewhat improbably?) an avatar for.
And so even though I fear and loathe Trump and everything he claims to stand for, when I imagine people who voted for him, certain phrases come to mind, almost against my will:
I can summon well-reasoned scorn and maintain clear moral repugnance for the president-elect without canceling a willingness to compassionately regard the perspective of individual Americans who voted for him. I could start with the people in my own family, and maybe work outward from there.
Notice that I haven’t mentioned empathy, that magical mental fairy dust that is supposed to solve every problem and heal every rift. Empathy means “I feel your pain” (or whatever it is that you’re feeling, usually something negative or uncomfortable). If you want to be more “cognitive” about it, you could translate it as “I understand where you’re coming from.” It’s a nice thing to offer when it’s genuine, but I don’t believe people are really capable of shoving their feelings into alignment with each other by sheer force of will. I’m a subscriber to the theory that people can’t actually control what feelings they have, or even most of what thoughts they have. So prescribing “empathy” in the face of an experience that’s incomprehensible or threatening just seems like asking someone to look at a blue sky and see red.
In blunter terms: I think empathy is, quite often, bullshit — an impossible ask or a phony pose. (Or just a segué into changing the subject. How many times have you heard, or said, the words “I feel your pain” immediately before a “but…”?)
It’s exceedingly likely that I won’t empathize with Trump voters, not even the ones I see at family get-togethers. And what about someone who really does honestly believe racist or fascist things, who hopes Trump keeps all his nastiest campaign promises and then some? If I were to have a conversation with that person, I’d hope to God I wouldn’t find myself empathizing.
Compassion offers a way out of this moral/emotional Kobayashi Maru. To me, compassion doesn’t have much to do with thoughts or feelings (which are not under my control), and a lot to do with attention and action (which are much more controllable, or at least subjectively intentional). To me compassion means, “I see your pain, and I wish you relief.” You can direct your attention/action in this way toward pretty much any living being, and actually mean it, without also having to feel “for” them, agree with them, approve of them, or even understand anything about them.
Maybe this is why none of the Gospels describe Jesus saying anything about empathy, while they do describe him saying tons about compassion. It’s doable. (Bonus for ex-Catholics like me: belief in the supernatural not required!)
Back to the point: If all of this reporting on Trump’s constituency is credible, a lot of the votes he got were essentially about fear and resentment. And usually what’s underneath fear and resentment is some kind of experience of suffering — big or small, past or present, visible or hidden. Empathizing with that suffering may or may not be possible — or ethically defensible, or civically productive. But a willingness to offer compassion can be all those things. It certainly is the “Christian” thing to do. But since many of us aren’t Christians, it may well be the American thing to do, too. Really, what’s the alternative?
I indulged in one
#notmypresident tweet last week, but this is my country and he is my president. And what I love about this country is that it’s literally American AF to say the following in public:
Because of what he has repeatedly said and done, Trump is my political and moral enemy until his words and deeds can prove otherwise.
I hope I can maintain the necessary resolve to turn that conviction into civic action, rather than just big talk.
But Americans are not my enemies. They can’t be. If we’re going to have any chance of keeping an eye on our new president, we will need to have each other’s backs. Maybe that’s why I feel the need to honestly acknowledge the imperfect, self-interested, non-courageous motives behind my own vote. The high horse wasn’t going to take me very far anyway.