Liberal Democracy in Question

Am I a Bigot?

Waking up today after last night’s stunning election of Donald Trump, I noticed a quote floating up from one of the various turbo-charged news sites I’ve been looking at and it got me thinking. Rob Dreher, apparently an editor at “The American Conservative,” argued that many mainstream journalists failed to notice their “bigotry against conservative religion, bigotry against rural folks, and bigotry against working class and poor white people.” Could the same be said of me? Or of many of my friends?

Like it or not, I too am part of the incredible polarization of people in the United States. Like many, I live in a relatively well-insulated bubble in which my own wonderful voice echoes effortlessly back to me in the words of sympathetic others. I don’t personally know anybody that voted for Trump. In fact, nobody in my immediate circle ever really seemed to take his candidacy seriously, or did much of anything but mock his general idiocy and often the implied idiocy of anyone who would vote for him.

Granted, from my point of view, it was obviously pretty hard NOT to mock, as so many mind-blowing comments and contradictions just kept on coming during the run-up to the election. The mainstream media that I generally look at (BBC primarily, as well as the New York Times, The Guardian, and Al Jazeera) supported both my somewhat smug sense of superiority, and my incredulity that anyone could actually get behind so egregiously flawed a candidate. It became increasingly easy to believe not only that I was unquestionably on the side of all that is right and good, but also that Trump supporters were all gullible dupes at best and racist, misogynist, uneducated, greedy, stupid, belligerent, paranoid, bible-thumping, backward, ignorant, and hate-filled dupes at worst.

I admit I cannot shake the sense that I am still on the side of all that is right and good (at least sometimes), but today I’m coming to realize my own complicity in generating (or at least accommodating), this divisive, black-and-white view of things. Surely one genuine idiocy here involves tolerating a polarized vocabulary in which the diversity of Trump’s supporters gets swept away into a simple category of ignorance or malevolence? Over the past few months, I very easily became able tacitly or consciously to discount and dismiss the potentially complicated views of half the American population, allowing myself to be positioned squarely on one side of a facile “good-us versus evil-them” contest. Clearly such reduction of political debate to playground-style name calling is a serious worry. Not that I ever actually called anybody names, but I count my failure to countenance the possibility that at least some Trump supporters needed to be carefully listened to rather than blithely dismissed as equally problematic.

My bad.

It isn’t, however, too hard to understand how this happens. During the campaign, Trump suggested that within the United States there is a clear and present danger of Muslims (in general) committing acts of domestic terror, and he made flamboyant, impractical calls for various restrictions of the freedoms of Muslims. I, like many others within my general demographic, was pretty much appalled by such absurd sweeping generalizations. But Trump supporters who sometimes watched the news saw acts of terrorism being committed by “Muslims” and apparently agreed with the general and unassailable principle that “something must be done.” Likewise on the subject of Mexico. Trump actually said out loud that “they’re sending people who have a lot of problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” and I just sort of freaked out in disbelief. Who says that? But again, lots of Americans see their country’s crime and job-loss (and various other evils) and are apparently willing to accept a simple but false explanation rather than wade through a lot of complex truths. Or, for one final example, when Trump’s pathological groping of women or his grade-school tendency to rate women on a scale of 1 to 10 came to light, Trump supporters tended not to share my shocked, embarrassed, and disgusted reaction. Is this because many of them, including the women, believe that butt-patting at least is an acceptable part of flirtation and want to live in a world in which men and women remain in long-established traditional gender roles? They like to watch “Miss Universe” contests and just can’t really see why there is so much fuss about “boys being boys”?

So, if I want to criticize my Trump-supporting brothers and sisters for having been a little too swift to adopt or accept uncritically the positions suggested above, I should accept that I too have been a bit too swift in uncritically accepting the negative caricature of such people presented not only by the mass media, but also by my Facebook feed. Just as some people were lead to foolish generalizations about 3-million Muslims based on certain acts of lunacy, it has been all too easy for some of us to generalize about 50-million Americans on the basis of certain YouTube videos of very nasty people behaving badly. Similar to many Trump supporters, I am apparently just as willing to accept easy answers and go along with facile demonizing when I really ought to know better.

The questions being asked today (“How is this possible?” “Who are these people?”) should not be so hard to answer and are worth the inquiry. The task, or at least one among many tasks that we face going forward, has to involve a deeper, more respectful, and engaged attempt to understand the diversity of the millions of American people who not only like, but even love Trump. Chiara Bottici has repeatedly brought up the issue of various political myths, including the myth of the clash between Trump and Clinton. The time has come to consider the myth of the Evil Trumpeters and to think about how such myths disable democratic progress.

Obviously, there is also still a tremendous responsibility for those on the multicultural Left to continue to dust ourselves off and stick up for our principles with whatever tools we have remaining at our disposal. But my general point is simply that this level of “polarization” does not occur without both sides playing a role, and at a personal level, I have to acknowledge how terrifyingly easy it is to get swept up in the rhetoric that would have me believe 50-million Americans are both clueless and contemptible. Those concerned about the specter of fascism should be at least a little concerned about this flipside of Trump’s demonizing campaign. Hence, as peacenik and sissy as it might sound, I am coming to think that much of the continuing struggle for liberty, equality, and solidarity going forward has to involve not only the crafting of rational speech, but equally the capacity for rational listening.

Also for you:

Benjamin Evans

  • I really appreciate how Evans engages in self criticism as he tried to confront the
    ways that leftist bigotry imitates the bigotry that now is likely to
    dominate our lives, not as a move of courteous self criticism, but a a
    step toward democratic empowerment.

  • Light amidst the heat! As someone that has lived on both coasts, in “machine” Chicago, and in very rural areas in the heartland, I’ll say—spot on and well done. If we are to salvage our public culture, it starts on all sides with the conceptual, intellectual, and spiritual generosity that you demonstrate here.

    • Thanks Aron, and also Jeffery. Yeah, I also lived in Ambridge, PA, in the heart of the rust-belt. I never met any evil people there, though it all was very confusing coming from small town Canada. I have to be honest though, part of me is not feeling quite so conciliatory today. My desire to understand is also matched by a desire to put my fist through a wall. Ug. I live in France now, and the talk here is all about how this might well pave the way for Le Pen and others in Europe…

  • Scott

    This article is spot on. Progressives must not simply be reactionary in this moment, but also must engage in some soul-searching as well. Not only the material infrastructure of this country needs rebuilt, but also the democratic infrastructure, including norms for reaching understanding across the considerable political divide. Trumps victory might have signaled the end to politics as we have known it. It is an opportunity to ensure democrats transform from a party of elites (political, economical, and cultural), to one that is truer to its ideals and doesn’t alienate a broad constituency with a narrow focus on identity politics.

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