Listening to Trump Supporters: A Liberal’s Guide

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Shortly after the November election, I wrote in a newsletter to (mostly) fellow liberals that we must “stop disdaining our political opponents,” understand what makes them tick, and seek common ground. I was referring not to GOP leaders, who should be held accountable for their odious complicity with Trump, but to the 74 million Trump voters who have a wide range of reasons for their votes.

My sentiments drew strong pushback from some readers so I elaborate here, primarily addressing other liberals who are financially and culturally secure. Let me emphasize: My plea is not that we reach out to the most conspiratorial, racist, partisan Republicans in hopes of persuading them to become good liberals; but given how closely divided our country and its elections are, flipping just ten percent of Trump’s supporters — think the cream of the crop — would have a massive impact on our political and civic fortunes.

Having sought to make this distinction clear, however, many still responded to my exhortations like this: Trump voters are irredeemable, probably racist, and essentially part of a cult; they are ignorant, hateful enablers, and I have no patience for hearing them out. The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson griped that, after Trump won, new “reports from every single diner” where patrons wear overalls were a misplaced and unfair focus because liberals actually gave Hillary more votes, yet “no one seemed terribly interested in our inner lives, our hopes and dreams.” The sentiment was echoed by a New York Times columnist who insisted he would “refuse to spend any more time trying to understand and help the architects of my oppression.” Anger at how “they” behaved in victory and power overwhelms any chance of reconciliation.

I get this anger. Watching the continual assault on our democracy, and its impact in particular on the most vulnerable, has been infuriating and heart-wrenching. Anyone who enables that must be held — somewhat — accountable. But none of that will stop me from seeking common ground, for three reasons:

The practical: We need to re-build a winning political coalition, which requires votes, not moral purity. Winning in politics doesn’t require liberal reporters making liberal readers feel heard; it requires understanding why we’re losing and acting to change it.

The ethical: Empathy has always been central to liberalism at its best, and this includes recognizing that even people who lack the education, trust, or magnanimity to share our interests and values deserve our compassion too, indeed that their deficits or limitations may account for some of what we view as their harmful views or behaviors.

The civil: Our social fabric can’t tolerate such rageful divisions indefinitely. Hell, neither can my psyche: it’s a truly crappy feeling being mad all the time, and assuming that half the population hates you or is worthy of hating.

In all three of these areas, Hillary Clinton seriously stumbled when she called half of Trump’s supporters “deplorables” (the campaign conceded it was a misstep, which other research corroborates). Yet it’s equally harmful when we let ourselves think this way. Even granting that Hillary was actually right about many Trump supporters (after all, she only applied her quip to half of them), how are the others supposed to know they’re exempt? And can we ourselves really know who’s who? Sometimes giving the benefit of the doubt is the wisest option.

In fact, there’s good reason to suspect we’re mistaken in assuming the worst in others — or at least that we have our own, dubious reasons for doing so. Psychological research is amassing studies showing that putting others down releases endorphins that make us feel superior to others and cement our bonds to our own group. NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt sums up the phenomenon this way: “Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.” In other words, “motivated reasoning” (the tendency to reason in ways that are advantageous instead of truly logical) biases us toward denigrating out-group members in an effort to shore up the support of in-group members — which is essential to our survival. We’ve all felt the rush of dopamine generated by a juicy conversation with friends centered on panning those not in the room, the euphoria born of feeling better and righter than someone else. Recognizing our addiction to feeling that we’re right and they’re wrong should put us on guard against indulging it, if we really want to be both accurate and magnanimous in our political assessments.

Indeed I’ve come to believe that one of the main reasons Democrats lose support is the perception among ordinary Americans that we stand primarily for the values and interests of liberal elites, who hold everyone else in contempt. This perception isn’t entirely right, but it’s right enough, often enough to be a huge problem. (I was first persuaded of this phenomenon when I read this devastating passage in a 2016 New Yorker piece by George Packer: “Buying synthetic-nitrate-free lunch meat at Whole Foods is also a way to isolate yourself from contamination by the packaged food sold at Kmart and from the overweight, downwardly mobile people who shop there. The people who buy food at Kmart know it.”)

In short, for the privileged, the basis of our positions are too often, unbeknownst to us, psychologically, culturally, or economically self-serving, and fail to incorporate real thought or knowledge about their impact on others with less privilege. Consider the facts on a few issues that many of us probably underappreciate:

Immigration:

Most liberals support generous legal immigration, sympathize with undocumented immigrants, and find Trump’s family separation policy appalling. I do too. But many working-class Americans — of all races — have good reason to resist unlimited immigration. According to the Harvard economist, George Borjas, the competition from recent immigration has depressed wages among some low-skilled Americans by up to $1500 per year, a significant blow if you’re making just $25,000 per year. Perhaps more maddening, immigration actually helps wealthier native-born Americans economically, creating upward wealth redistribution from the have-nots to the haves, through both wages and taxation.

It’s true that the majority of low-income voters aren’t Trump supporters. Still, over 20 million voters who make under $50,000 per year backed Trump. As for wealthier Trump voters, many, including some racial minorities, support Trump’s tough stance on immigration for reasons of fairness. In 2017 I canvassed a wealthy Los Angeles suburb where I encountered many affluent Latino and Asian American Trump supporters who cited the president’s position on immigration. Why? “My parents waited in line,” they told me. “Why shouldn’t everyone else?”

Race:

The scourge of racial injustice and anti-black violence in America is a vast moral stain that we are all called to help rectify. This summer’s protests of police brutality reflected a commitment to that obligation, and appears to have spurred a spike in Democratic voter registration. Yet many liberals believe that the videos that have rightly sparked outrage over police violence demonstrate an epidemic of racially motivated police killings, unaware that actual data show that such incidents have dropped in recent years. And while there’s no question that racism contributes to these killings and their unacceptably high volume, it’s much harder to know if police racism, per se, is the central issue. Many liberals have startlingly little knowledge — and have given little real thought — about what policing actually involves, and why it’s so difficult to eliminate police killings — of anyone. (This analysis of an important Sam Harris podcast is greatly illuminating on these issues. As is, generally, Harris’s 8-minute podcast on how Trump’s refusal to moralize — because how could he ever? — is the key to his appeal, ensuring that his supporters feel like good people instead of objects of condescension.)

I supported the racial justice protests wholeheartedly because they reflect a recognition that racial injustice broadly (not just racist policing) and the suffering of black and brown people are unacceptable problems. Yet too many liberals have viewed this year’s racial reckoning as an overdue self-flagellation for a country that they regard as irredeemably racist in every last sphere of its past and present. This has a corollary in assuming that every Trump voter must be racist. Or that supporting any form of limitations on immigration makes you racist.

These reductive assessments are hard to square with the fact that an estimated eight million 2016 Trump voters previously backed Barack Obama. Likewise, given there is a reasonable basis, as described above, to support certain limits on immigration, especially for those whose meager income it may threaten, the specter of affluent people impugning as moral monsters those who worry about fairness and their financial well-being can only add insult to injury, spurring more anger at liberals.

Democratic Norms

To me, the worst damage Trump has inflicted on this country is also the hardest for most voters to grasp: his assault on the democratic norms — largely by battering trust in the institutions, relationships, and alliances — that allow a pluralist democracy to function. Millions of ordinary people — and especially less educated Trump supporters — don’t seem to appreciate the damage wrought when Trump uses pardons to send the message that it’s fine to lie to the FBI; profits from government business; calls the media the “enemy of the people”; pressures foreign governments to interfere with domestic politics; and lies with such impunity that the only purpose can be to demonstrate his unbridled power.

The trouble is that, while political norms and trust in institutions are fundamental to a healthy democracy, most ordinary people can’t easily see how adhering to — and hence violating — them affects their daily lives. This is frustrating to me, but hardly surprising, and shouldn’t, I think, inspire hatred or hopelessness. Most people have neither the time, savvy, nor interest to ferret out the meaning and impact of what can seem like mere rhetorical excess.

The solution to all this is neither to disengage nor to expect an elevated level of sophistication or discourse under the delusion that rational deliberation among 300 million people will nudge history in the right direction. The solution is more practical: commit to figuring out how to make the most humane party’s brand more appealing to more people. And part of that starts with looking in the mirror. As I’ve written about at several points, this is how the LGBTQ movement won such stunning victories: After years of angry, confrontational politics yielded some progress but reached declining returns, we found that a calmer, empathy-based approach worked better to change hearts and minds. It was not our outrage, justifiable as it was, that advanced marriage equality, for instance, but a positive message that invited those not yet with us to truly hear and consider our appeal. As activists, we listened to our opponents’ fears (both literally and using opposition research), refined our message, and figured out how to deescalate that opposition — by sharing our stories and emphasizing common values like love and fairness.

The point is to lower the temperature all around. As Judith Glaser explains in the Harvard Business Review, when we’re afraid or suspicious, cortisol floods the brain, triggering the fight, flight, or freeze response, and shutting down “advanced thought processes like strategy, trust building, and compassion.” The fight response, which creates adrenaline and dopamine highs, is the most common because it feels empowering, but it’s also the least socially fruitful because it prevents “the honest and productive sharing of information.” The antidote is to generate a socially more useful hormone that still feels great, oxytocin, which is activated by making human connections.

When people are threatened, their brain’s alarm system kicks in and shuts down rational thought. That applies not only to those who fear loss of economic or social power, but also to those of us who are secure in society but may find our worldview threatened by challenges we somehow feel we shouldn’t have to rebut. That is, when looking at others, we must look at ourselves. We must, as the Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild puts it, turn our “alarm system off and actually listen.”

Because of the very threat responses discussed above, there’s a good chance your brain may be busy reacting angrily to things I didn’t quite say in this essay. So let me emphasize again: I don’t agree with virtually any of the conservative positions I’m trying to empathize with above. I want a generous and humane immigration policy; genuine racial justice that includes specific steps to reduce violence and disenfranchisement of racial minorities; serious climate change mitigation; and democratic reforms. And I’m not proposing that liberals seek to engage with the true deplorables, or the bulk of Trump’s base.

What I’m arguing is more pragmatic: that we are less likely to achieve our own goals if we don’t fully understand why others disagree, if we let anger, hatred, arrogance, or hopelessness guide us. I’m appealing to the most open-minded of my fellow liberals to appeal to the most open-minded of Trump’s voters, to work toward just enough reconciliation that this great experiment in democracy can survive — and thrive.

Author, commentator, researcher, historian, dog-lover.

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