Empathy and compassion are powerful and important forces in political discourse. They allow us to reach out to others, to direct our attention to causes that might exist beyond the borders of our fields of vision. In many ways, they are the bedrock of effective public service, which is itself the foundation of government and its practice. Without the ability to strive and struggle alongside others--especially those whose experiences elude us--we are rendered blind and impotent, incapable of participating in any conversation that is not rooted in solipsistic self-interest. People often misunderstand the natures of compassion and empathy, however. In their well-intentioned desire to broaden their perspective, to be as politically inclusive as possible, they mistake these drives for something wholly different: acceptance. To be compassionate towards one is to work to inhabit that person’s life, specifically their pains (“passion” refers to suffering in Latin, despite its more pleasant modern definition). What it does not encompass is the lack of qualification or critique, though too often it is defined as such. Compassion is a stepping stone in discourse. It is not the end point. In short, it is one thing to attempt to empathize with another’s viewpoint. It is a whole different mission to choose to accept that viewpoint uncritically, as a condition of their humanity.
Which leads me to a suggestion that will undoubtedly be called close-minded or shallow: do not pity Trump voters. Trump voters do not deserve your pity
It’s true; that is a pretty harsh and categorical line to draw. But, it is necessary. In recent months certain thinkers and writers have worked to dispel the fatuous idea that Donald Trump’s ascendency was the result of white working class economic anxiety, which for too long it was attributed to. “Believe it or not,” blogs and editorials started announcing, “there may be a little more to this thing. Furthermore, it actually may be a bigotry thing a tiny bit.” All of a sudden, and seemingly light years too late came the mainstream announcement that Donald Trump was indeed employing and stoking racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and Islamophobia in his supporters. Whereas, in the past, publications were happy to call a single comment by Trump out for its ugly leanings, and a little after that it stopped being gauche to suggest maybe the sum of so many bigoted comments made Donald Trump a bigot, it was now becoming alright to suggest that this special hate-filled cocktail Trump had brewed up was lighting a fire under his supporters’ asses--not because it was said by a man who also promised them economic salvation, but because they believed it. In many ways, the notion of “white economic anxiety” has always been a code for racial bias, a way to make the idea that a lot more white americans are shamelessly racist than we would like to admit. Hell, the idea that in America, race and class would not be tandem forces working in the white psyche itself seems a little ridiculous. Still, come mid-summer, it became official that maybe people openly excusing the repeated racist grotesquerie of their potential Commander-in-Chief had a little more on their mind than a mortgage.
Cue “basket of deplorables.” Cue the backlash over “basket of deplorables.” Cue the slew of Trump supporters who wore the title of “deplorable” as a badge of honor, ignoring that, in their rebellion against the criticism, they were implicitly endorsing the traits that Hillary Clinton argued constituted deplorability.
Now, I myself have an issue with the “basket of deplorables.” I think Hillary said the wrong thing. I think she lowballed us on that percentage. I would comfortably say that 100% of Trump voters are deplorable. And before you accuse me of childishly grouping a bunch of people together without considering that nuance, let me give you my reasoning. Throughout this election I have seen a number of liberals--usually white men--argue that, while there are klansmen and neo-nazis and rape apologists among Donald Trump’s ranks, there are also good people who have perhaps been bamboozled: told that a vote for Trump is a vote for a better life for them.
To me, this is simply a rephrasing of this “white economic anxiety” nonsense, but even if it weren’t it still lacks compassion more so than any of my previous statements has. If we really want to be compassionate to Trump supporters, than we cannot assume they’re stupid. If we want to say that we are empathizing with those at his rallies, we cannot pretend they are too dumb to understand what Donald Trump stands for. Are there people there who would themselves never attack a protester or openly mock a disabled reporter? Sure. Are there men and women there who think that Barack Obama was born in the United States? I hope so. Are there supporters among the increasingly ugly rabble who are worried about finances? I can’t imagine the answer is no. But (and this is a big “but”) these are all individuals who have heard Donald Trump speak. These are men and women who have been an audience to the abhorrent and disgraceful nonsense that comes out of his mouth. Donald Trump may be a lot of things, but at this point in the election he has ceased to be a conman. At this point in his campaign, Donald J. Trump has repeatedly displayed his opinions nakedly to his followers, and the country as a whole. He has carved his ignorance, hatred, shamelessness, and deceitfulness into the facade of 2016 as large and gaudy as he has his name on any of his properties. People who are voting Trump know what they’re voting for. Which means that, for these hypothetical Trump voters yearning for something more, the possibility of violence against marginalized groups is a price worth paying. It means that these voters are willing to sacrifice countless vulnerable Americans (and many more global citizens) at the altar of middle class comfort. They’re preparing to strike a bargain, but instead of trading their voice for some sweet new legs, these men and women are willing to trade the possibility of personal financial gain for the life, limb, and freedom of women, Black Americans, undocumented immigrants, Muslims, the disabled, the mentally ill, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, LGBT* Americans, and countless others. These voters are preparing to sign the contract, and while Donald Trump may vaguely resemble Ursula the sea witch (who’s to say, really), the crucial difference is there’s no “Flotsam, Jetsam: now I’ve got her, boys” aside. The terms of this bargain have been pretty legibly typed out. In short, even if you want to argue that some Trump fanatics do not feel 100% the same way as their poster boy, they know how he feels and their vote condones it. Calling them complicit is giving them too much leeway. Do not pity Trump voters. They have not been bamboozled. They are not the victims of some inane trickery who will wake the morning after the Donald’s inauguration to say, “Well, wait a minute. I didn’t vote specifically for that.” They are conscious human beings who have looked at the agenda that Trump has presented and have signed off. They have signed off even on the things they disagree with.
In this case, we have an opportunity to bypass the acceptance-calling-itself-compassion to hit on some actual compassion, which involves us critically diagnosing the disease of Trumpism (formerly just known as “racism,” but these terms are changing every day), and finding ways to prevent its spread. We can take the rise of Trump seriously, and take those who have pledged their vote seriously as well. We can make a firm commitment to not excuse the passivity and self-interest that has allowed Trump to become America’s throbbing orange id. Instead of rehearsing for the next wave of American racist apologism, we can prevent excuses from finding cracks in the hull by which to enter. Voting is a sacred American right, and as such we are accountable for how we vote. Our nation is accountable for where we find ourselves on November 9th. So, don’t apologize or excuse or pity your aunt or your coworker or your friend. They are not stupid. They have not been tricked. Their vote won’t suddenly be discounted if they change their mind. They know exactly what they’re doing.