Lost in the daily maelstrom that is the Trump Presidency, one defined by the behavior of an infantile, mendacious, bigoted, misognyistic, xenophobic jackass, is the troubling fact that nearly half of those who voted in the election voted for such a man. And while his approval ratings are at unprecedented lows, even they show that over one-third of Americans approve of him, and this despite daily insults to the dignity of the Office of the President and the integrity of our democracy: attacks on the press; the appointment of political hacks and racists to his cabinet and as his closest advisors; the constant assertion of things, like massive voter fraud, that are outright lies; more and more proof of his collusion with Russia to hack the election; etc.
Already a robust opposition to Trump and Trumpism has arisen, in the forms of protests, rowdy town halls, calls and letters to elected officials, boycotts, good journalism, lawsuits, and opposition to his proposed legislative agenda and cabinet. Much of what is driving this opposition is the fury that most of us who voted against him feel: fury at Russian meddling in the election; fury at FBI Director James Comey’s hypocritical gift to Trump in the final weeks of the campaign; fury at those who voted for a cowardly man-child; and fury at the disgusting attacks on clean air and water, civil rights, and immigrants and refugees, to which we are now daily witness.
As someone who has studied the tactic of Nonviolent Direct Action (NVDA), which I will define as the tools used by the Civil Rights movement to successfully achieve political and social progress for people of color, I think it’s imperative that we ask the following question: how should we, opponents of the hatred that Trump represents, feel about those who voted for and support him?
Why does this matter? Why should we even care about voters who seemingly cared more about blaming immigrants for their problems than about honesty and integrity? Well, this is a question with two components: the spiritual and the tactical. What I mean is that, at some point we must deal with the fact that tens of millions of our fellow citizens support, or are willing to excuse, fascism. We can look at the issue purely from a pragmatic point of view–if we want to “win,” to advance a progressive agenda, is it necessary that we win over these voters?–and we can look at it from a spiritual perspective–does the philosophy of NVDA require that we not only win, but that we win over, with love, those who we oppose?
Before we continue to plunge ahead like an angry mob, we have to come up with an answer, for even after Trump ceases to be in power his supporters will still be a part of our democracy and society. Now, we may decide that, morally and practically, it is valid or advantageous or acceptable to hate and dismiss them, but I think that if we are to do so, we should at least be rational in taking that decision. For it is clear that emotions are still raw; speaking personally, I find myself struggling to make sense of the insanity of the present situation, and this insanity fills me with rage and fear. In short, I understand the emotional response to Trump–I share it–but I also recognize the danger of it.
Let’s start with the easier question: if we want to win, what do we do about Trump supporters? First, we must note that American voters are a strange lot. The same states that voted Trump–Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina–twice voted for a black Democrat, Barack Obama. Moreover, in 2008, even states like Indiana, which were never “in play” in 2016, went Democrat. And let’s not forget that in 2009 not only did the Democrats hold the White House, they also had control of the House and the Senate.
Seen in this light, it becomes hard to assert that Trump supporters are a lost cause. In fact, at least some percentage of them seem to be willing to ignore almost anything in a politician–skin color, ideology, age, temperament–if they think that said politician will cure their woes. Sure, Obama won by offering hope and Trump by casting blame and sowing hate, but both offered something to blue collar white voters in swing states. Therefore, we might be perfectly justified in assuming that, given the right candidate and the right message, Trump voters could, in the future, vote for a progressive agenda.
On the other hand, and this is a critical point, Hillary effectively lost the election due to 80,000 votes in three states–Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania–and she won the popular vote by nearly three million. A rational analysis of the election can easily lead to the conclusion that there is a core of voters (about 30%) who will never vote for a progressive agenda and are, therefore, from the viewpoint of winning for that agenda, hopeless and useless. Further, this analysis means that winning requires that we simply win over a relatively small number of so-called moderate swing voters–the same ones who voted for Obama and, due to Russian meddling, the intervention of the FBI, a slow economic recovery (and, yes, some other factors, but perhaps including racism and misogny), voted for Trump.
The very fact that nowadays elections come down to a handful of swing states lends credence to the assertion that if the focus is on winning, winners should focus, not only on swing states in general, but in particular on swing voters–the swing voters who, in my opinion, were the most likely to have voted for Trump while holding their nose as opposed to doing so while embracing him. And this is the conclusion with which I agree.
Okay, so winning does not require that we care about the Republican base that voted for and supports Trump. But what about if we want to do more than win? What if we want to transform our society into one more widely based on love, acceptance, tolerance, and understanding? This is where the philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King–the philosophy of nonviolence and NVDA–comes into play.
Let’s start by imagining that you are an African American living in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1950s. The principle of “separate but equal” has the effect of segregating you, not only from whites, but also from the opportunities, educational and otherwise, that are open to whites. So on the one hand, you stand to benefit from, for instance, school integration, for this integration will mean that your children can attend better schools and have better opportunities for a good education and upward mobility in adulthood. But on the other hand, you recognize that a legal order to desegregate, by force if necessary, is not enough; and in fact, when the National Guard was called in to force desegregation of schools, it served to highlight that, while laws could make it illegal to prevent a person of color from entering a white school, they could not force those whites to accept or love said person.
This is why Dr. King argued that it was not enough to win, that winning without winning over would constitute a hollow victory. Moreover, only the tactic of nonviolence could result in that loftier victory, for while force–physical or legal–could lead to change, it could not do so without engendering a feeling of resentment and fear. His worldview, in short, called on people of color to be both spiritual and practical, something that, given his training as a Christian preacher, is unsurprising.
So far so good, but the reality is far more nuanced. In particular, the circumstances in the 50s and 60s were quite different from those we face today, with the fundamental difference being the nature of the oppression. Back then, the enemy could quite easily and clearly be defined as the white power structure–business leaders, politicians, the KKK, and the silent majority–that directly oppressed people of color by putting up whites only signs, by preventing blacks from eating and drinking next to whites, and by imposing innumerable daily humiliations and barriers upon their dignity and hope. And because the enemy was identifiable, it was easy to determine who it was that should be won over with love.
Who is the enemy today? There are no Bull Connors preventing integration with biting dogs and overwhelming fire hoses, and there are no hordes of white people standing on the sidewalk, approving or simply observing and saying nothing. Instead, the infrastructure of racism and injustice has gone underground–from city hall and the local school to the sewer and gas main. Put another way, blacks are no longer kept out of schools in so obvious a manner as physical intimidation; no, they are now kept behind due to mass incarceration, a lack of affordable housing in communities of color, voter laws meant to make it harder for them to vote, and a whole host of other tactics that, while being just as evil, are much less visible.
The enemy, in short, is diffuse, making it hard to determine who the oppressed are supposed to win over with love. Politicians? Voters? Policemen and women? Republicans? Independents? Democrats? The faith community? The answer is complex, and complexity does not lend itself to simple solutions.
And this is where I struggle. What’s the point of trying to love Trump supporters, whose beliefs and actions I find utterly abhorrent, when it isn’t clear that there is any advantage in doing so? I am not a Christian, and therefore do not believe that God calls on me to love my enemies. I am, however, deeply interested in social justice, but if it’s not clear who my enemy is, it is therefore not clear who it is that I should love. So while I would be willing to go through the agonizing process of trying to understand and emphasize with Trump voters if I were certain it would lead to positive outcomes for the oppressed, I am not willing to do so for the sake of it.
After all, if you even take more than a cursory glance at the beliefs of Trump supporters you end up stumbling upon an unsavory set of beliefs. Trump voters, it must not be forgotten or forgiven, voted for him despite mocking a disabled reporter, calling Mexicans rapists and murderers, promising to deport millions of innocent people, inciting violence, objectifying women, and trafficking in conspiracy theories and hate. Why should I try to understand their real economic concerns (yes, they have been left behind in the economic recession and globalization) and look past all that, especially if doing so will do nothing for the oppressed?
If love of Trump voters, who by virtue of not necessarily being the direct enemy of the oppressed, is not a good tactic, then doing so can only be a question of philosophy or religion. There is an argument to be made here, though: even if love doesn’t matter in terms of winning, it’s hard to imagine an equitable society in which one-third of its members abhor another one-third of its members.
At this point, the philosophical and the politically expedient begin to blur, and how we reconcile that blurring will come down to our personal set of beliefs. It’s possible to say that loving Trump voters, even if they are not the enemy, is an imperative because having hate in our hearts is corrosive; or we can say that the more people we win over, the more durable the victory can be. Either way, I find myself stuck. It is very hard for me to feel compassion for anyone that supports a man that is, clearly to me at least, evil. That said, I recognize that there is some semblance of good in all people, that hyper-partisanship is a recipe for constant discord, and that we can love without accepting–and while vigorously opposing–hate (an oft-quoted saying is that one should hate hatred and not those who hate).
For now, just a few months out from the election, the wound are too raw, the anger too justified, for me to realistically say that I can love Trump supporters. And while I recognize that doing so would likely be both expedient and wise, I will, for the time being, focus my energy on obstructing the flow of evil and not damning it at the source–the human heart.