The Internal Walls in America
Trying to Make Sense of Trump
Donald Trump will be our next president, and I am heartbroken. Simon Critchley recently wrote an article for the NY times in which he describes his nausea with this election. The nausea, he says, emerges from the realization that this is not the America that we thought it was. I sympathize with that feeling, but I also feel betrayed and heartbroken. Disgust is an understandable response to the rhetoric we have witnessed provided by Trump, but I also think that our disgust with the people who support Trump is a reason why Trump was elected. For that, we are responsible, and we should take the time to reflect on just how our feelings of disgust alienate people with whom we should be in discussion.
One thing that my liberal friends and colleagues have said that I find deeply disturbing is that they are willing to “block” or ignore people who have viewpoints that are very distant from their own. In one way, this makes a lot of sense: we do not want to indulge or condone racism, sexism, homophobia, or classism, so we think that we should remove those who say or do racist, sexist, homophobic, or classist things from our lives. This is a huge mistake.
What makes racism, sexism, or classism possible is a distance from others. Again and again, research shows that a lack of exposure to or engagement with different groups of people makes them easier to fear and condemn. By contrast, the more we interact with others who are very different from ourselves, the easier it is to recognize their humanity and our common desires and struggles. Blocking out and condescending to people with disgusting views is, I think, a substantial reason for the divide that we have seen in this election.
What is obvious from this election cycle is that white people in rural areas who have been mocked by intellectuals, comedians, politicians, and others have surprised us all. They did not listen to the warnings of economists, President Obama, Bernie Sanders, celebrities, and other conservative authorities such as George H.W. and George W. Bush, John McCain, and the Dallas Morning News. Rather, they voted in spite of these warnings.
When Trump began his campaign, I laughed. I thought he would never make it past the primaries. When he won the GOP nomination, I thought he would never be a challenge to Hillary Rodham Clinton. When his lewd and disgusting comments about Mexicans, Blacks, Muslims, and women were heavily criticized by the media, I thought that voters surely could not support him. I thought that his utter ignorance about foreign relations, military strategy, economic mechanics, and domestic policy (essentially, every aspect of presidential duties) would convince people that he is unfit to be president. But no amount of fact-checking that proved his lies, self-contradictions, and inconsistencies mattered. No evidence that is normally accepted as proof that a candidate is unelectable was effective. The horror has been in realizing that nothing he says or does seems to change people’s minds.
A lot of speculation about why Trump has been so successful with voters in spite of all these obstacles has been circulating. It seems likely that people want an “outsider,” someone who is “anti-establishment” and not a politician, to “change” America. It also seems likely that middle-class Americans are angry that their lives seem not to be improving regardless of whether they support either Democrats or Republicans. However, one aspect of this rebellion that has been less discussed than it ought to be is the character of the distance between Donald supporters and Hillary supporters.
I grew up in Texas, where I disagreed fundamentally with many of my closest friends and family. My political sensibility aligns much more closely with the attitude of the Northeast and of Hillary supporters (although I have only ever donated money to the Bernie Sanders campaign, a political candidate with whom I have agreed more than any other in my lifetime). Although my mother and stepfather are also liberal, the rest of my family is very conservative. They listen to FOX news. They thought Obama was a Muslim. They think government is a bad thing, even though they have had to use government help. They believe in trickle-down economics. To remember that we love each other despite our political views, we tend to discuss our lives in general rather than politics. We focus on what we share more than what we don’t share. This is how we are able to love each other in spite of our differences.
I do not think that my family’s political views are acceptable or that there is no limit to what I should overlook. This is precisely why their votes feel like a betrayal. When they supported George W. Bush or Mitt Romney, I was disappointed but not disturbed. I think that the Democrats and Republicans are much closer to each other in policy than they are willing to admit (which is why I looked forward to a political revolution á la Sanders), and I could at least understand their point of view. I could make sense of Republican policies, even though I disagreed with them as being the best path for America. I was not afraid for my future and the future of my friends and family at the thought of either of those candidates becoming president in the same way that I am afraid of a Trump presidency.
Fear of the status quo is not nearly as terrible as the fear of Trump. For members of my family whom I know for a fact have experienced sexual assault, voting for a (self-proclaimed) sexual predator is a betrayal not only to me as a woman, but also to themselves. I cannot understand how they could reconcile their professed values with his actions. If racism as well as incompetence and malpractice in his “successful” business endeavors were not enough to convince them, I thought surely his hostility toward women would be. I am heartbroken that it was not.
However, when I think about what this election means about my family and about myself, I must take a more nuanced view. First, I take responsibility for not having uncomfortable political discussions. My family gets only one side of the political story, the FOX News side, and I failed to challenge that narrative. Such conversations are difficult because they make us uncomfortable. The political divide feels like a divide between enemies. They hold beliefs that make me angry, and I hold beliefs that make them angry. Because I do not want to make enemies of people I love, I avoid challenging them. That is my mistake. The unfortunate consequence of the us-versus-them mentality is that we end up isolating ourselves, either by “blocking out” people who do not agree with us or by avoiding necessary discussions.
I spoke to my grandmother last week about this election. I said that I was really upset about it and that it has been an unpleasant distraction from my work. She said that she, too, has been really upset about it. “But,” she said, “I was listening to a Trump speech the other day, and he said that he’s learned so much from traveling around America and talking to people. Maybe he has changed.” My heart sank a little more.
She said, “You know, I’ve been around a long time, and although I would love to have a woman president, Hillary is corrupt and is a bad person.” I said that she might be, but I doubt that she’s much different from other politicians. We agreed about that. I said, “But Trump doesn’t even pay taxes. He gets away with it! We all have to pay taxes because we need to be able to pay for all of the programs that we’ve instituted. This is a huge reason why we have so much debt.” She agreed that Trump doesn’t pay his taxes, but she said, “Those are the rules we’ve come up with.” I agreed, but I said that he exploited them, and we desperately need someone to close the loopholes. She agreed.
She told me about an example of a family that she knew who is struggling to get by and who couldn’t get government assistance. “Why,” she asked, “can’t they get the assistance they need?” I agreed that this family needed help, but I said that reducing taxes wouldn’t help them at all. Trump has no plan to help people who need government assistance. We agreed on that.
She said, “Well, you know, this election isn’t going to change that much. Our lives won’t be affected that much. Maybe it will be several decades in the future, but not now.” With this, I disagreed entirely. She thinks he’s just another president, and that it does not really matter who we elect because none of them change our lives much. She thinks that, by keeping politicians from the White House, this election was about sending a message to them. I think that we are about to see an economic and social collapse of epic proportions, and I also think we will suffer from his presidency for decades to come. I said to her that I was worried about the distant future and thought we all should be. She agreed.
Our conversation soon ended. It had been difficult, but we had really listened to each other. We both felt strongly about our positions, but we were able to unpack a lot of what exactly we disagree and agree about. In the end, we still love each other. I am deeply hurt by her willingness to stand behind someone so disgusting, and I feel that she does not understand the impact that her decision has on our country.
I do not accept her reasons as good reasons. I think she tends to identify with aggressive men, rather than challenge them. I think that she has been misguided by the media outlets she chooses to listen to, and I think that if she had received the same education I had she would better understand the history of America and the implications of Trump’s “policies” and of his rhetoric. Instead, she seems unaffected by it. She thinks it is normal because in her world, it is. In Texas, white people get away with saying whatever they want about women or minorities or other religions, and there are no consequences. There are very few challengers. Challenging someone feels dangerous.
However, my attitude about her being fooled and conned by a manipulative rhetorician as a result of her lack of education is a source of the feeling that Trump supporters have that intellectuals are condescending and dismissive. I think we should all take great care to respect that feeling. It has real consequences, and it has deepened the divisive us-versus-them mentality that makes open discussion increasingly less attainable.
To be clear, this does not mean that we have to tolerate each other, if tolerance means that we have to accept as legitimate points of view that are factually or morally wrong. Rather, we have to respect each other as people, even if we do not always receive that respect. We have to be willing to embrace the ambivalence that we have toward some people instead of blocking it or them out.
People are not concepts, and they do not deserve to be treated as concepts. It is imperative that we begin to understand that discussion is the only way to prevent the alienation that makes people feel forgotten, discarded, and unwanted. That alienation — between the urban and the rural, the educated and the uneducated, the white and the non-white, men and women, queer and straight — is doing real harm to our nation.
We have no time to continue ignoring or bashing those with views that disgust us. They are precisely the ones we need to talk to. The alternative is a Trump world. That is the lesson I have learned from this election.
Education does not always mean that you have read the classical canon or that you know how to write a research paper. Learning can happen by talking and listening to other people and by challenging false assumptions that do not hold up under scrutiny. There is no guarantee that discussion will change minds, but blocking people out of our lives has failed us miserably and will continue to fail.
Blocking people out solidifies the walls around the East Coast and the West Coast. These walls are about race. About gender. About homophobia. About class. And certainly about capitalism. The only way to break down these walls is to be willing to accept that we all have something to learn from each other and that we have all failed each other. Open and respectful discussion is the hallmark of a free society for a reason.