Not Ready to Make Nice – Trump voters and the limits of compassion and empathy

By Tim Wise
Aug 21

Much has been said about the need for liberals and progressives — or at least Democrats — to understand Trump voters. We are told we should learn to listen to their fears and insecurities. We are supposed to respect their deep sense of anxiety, born of job losses, dying small towns, and cultural transformation occurring at a pace with which they find it difficult to keep up.
Missing from these calls for civility and compassion are any comparable entreaties for the same from the other side. No demands that Trump voters seek to understand, or even respect the essential humanity of black people in large cities, asylum seekers fleeing violence, or immigrants from the global south seeking a better life for their children. For these, calls of “send them back” or “build the wall” will suffice, or perhaps endorsements of stop-and-frisk so as to catch the presumably dangerous criminals responsible for what the president calls “American carnage.”
We are to empathize with white folks in small towns suffering the ravages of the opioid crisis, in ways they were never expected to — and certainly did not — when the crack epidemic was wreaking havoc on urban communities of color. The very same white people who called for stiff prison sentences and three-strikes laws in the latter case now plead for rehab and treatment options for their cousins, their children, themselves. Meanwhile, they stare wide-eyed at the lack of such programs, oblivious to the irony: namely, it was their calls for a ruthless prosecution of the war on drugs that has left them, as with people of color, bereft of such options now.
These one-way calls for compassion infect 2020 election analysis. Democratic candidates are expected to pander to small-town whites and sit with them in diners across the fruited plain to mine the depths of their despair. Why? Because these are, or so we are told, the swing voters without whom they cannot cobble together an electoral college victory. Republicans, apparently, need not appeal to the so-called middle, or moderates, or swing voters. They need not find out what black folks are talking about in the barbershop, what Latinx folks discuss at the bodega, or what members of the Unitarian Church are thinking. No, outreach is only for liberals.
Enough of this.
As the administration launches ICE raids on hard-working parents in Mississippi, ripping them from their kids on the first day of school, all talk of compromise with these people is perverse. To speak of understanding those who sanction such evil is a sickness.
I need not sit around and discuss politics with people such as this as they wolf down their biscuits and gravy or sop up their toast in a cholesterol pond of runny eggs, while adjusting their dirty trucker caps and holding forth about the Mooz-lims or the Mex’cuns who have come to take their jobs. Especially when those they’d be griping about would already have been working for three hours while Billy Joe Jim Bob sat there telling me about how he can’t work anyway because of his disability. For which he receives a check, along with his Medicare. But he wants me to remember that he’s tired of people living off the government.
What. The. Fuck. Ever.
I understand these folks all too well. There is nothing more to learn.
They are scared, simple-minded people who believed, against all historical evidence to the contrary, that the world would stand still for them. They are people who assumed their coal mines would never close, that the economy would never globalize, that jobs would always be there for them, that their norms and beliefs would always be paramount in the culture, and that they would forever and always remain the very floor model of an American. In short, they fell for a lie that only they, as white people, could ever have managed to believe. And while that must be tough, I find it hard to cry tears for them now.
After all, what they have only recently discovered — that the system is a scam, that companies move jobs overseas for their own profits and don’t give a shit about you, or your diners, and that you can take nothing for granted — is stuff people of color already knew. It’s stuff those people of color had been insisting upon from the beginning, but which white Americans could ignore, because after all, what do black people know?
I’m sure the folks on the middle-to-upper decks of the Titanic also wondered what all the screaming from steerage was about. Meanwhile the ones below thought to themselves: “Oh just wait, you’ll see.” Because steerage knew the folks on the promenade well, and knew how few lifeboats there really were, even while the middling classes thought there would always be room for them.
When manufacturing jobs began fleeing the urban core in the 1970s, leaving blacks who had moved north for good jobs unemployed, these white folks who now moan about job losses in their towns showed no compassion. They told black folks to up and move; to go where the jobs were. If blacks were out of work and unable to find new jobs, it was their own fault. It was their pathological culture, their dysfunctional family structures. It was surely not a systemic problem.
But now, as their own worlds crumble around them, they sing a very different tune. Now, these same people demand that politicians promise to bring the jobs back to them. No insistence that they up and move, as they instructed people of color to do. If job creation has occurred mostly in large metropolitan areas as of late (and it has), one might think it would be incumbent upon these Andy of Mayberry types to get up off their asses and go where the jobs are. But no. They like their little small towns and by God, intend to stay there, and we should accommodate them.
But then, when they don’t line up to take those jobs at the meatpacking plant, or picking strawberries, or roofing new home builds — and the people who do get rounded up like cattle and separated from their families — they dare complain about how things are changing?
It is not necessary to pander to people like this in order to win elections. They are not the key to victory for Democrats. Donald Trump is not president because bunches of these people once voted for Obama but suddenly switched to the guy who told them Obama wasn’t even an American. These are not people who voted for Obama and then turned around and voted for the guy who promised to take away the very health care Obama got for them.
Donald Trump is president because the Democratic base did not turn out in sufficient numbers in 2016. Obama voters didn’t switch to Trump so much as they stayed home. In Wisconsin, for instance, Trump got fewer votes than Romney; but depressed Democratic turnout and a significant vote share for third parties catapulted Trump to victory in the state.
One does not need to kiss the ass of people who chant for the building of walls, for the deportation of congresswomen, or cruelty for cruelty’s sake.
One need not appeal to the worst this nation has to offer.
One need not negotiate with terrorists.
One need only trust that there are more of us than there are of them, and then act like it.
And then, once we win, we can drag the rest kicking and screaming to universal health care, affordable college, and a cleaner environment.
At which point, all we will need to say to them is: “You’re welcome.”