The media is fascinated with Trump voters. Who are they? What are their unique rituals and folkways? How can we empathize with their struggles, and appreciate their quaint subcultures? Why are they so angry?
These articles attempt to evoke empathy and understanding for these people, but they reek of an anthropological contempt; they portray Trump voters as mysterious but authentic, speaking out about their long-overlooked suffering and oppression. In fact, overall, Trump’s supporters aren’t especially poor. And many working-class people and rural people of every color want nothing to do with him. But the media has its story: that the latte-sipping, multicultural liberal elite has been ignoring the Jeffersonian white-populist heartland, and now they must give these voters the respect they deserve. Reporters will swoop in to tell these stories, guilt will be assuaged, empathy will flow, and the republic will be healed.
The problem is that empathy, especially as expressed by the press, can be a self-serving pleasure. Without some sort of ethical commitment, compassion quickly becomes an indulgence.
That’s certainly the case with many articles about Trump voters. One of the most recent, published by the Washington Post, touches on the usual themes: Rural white voters feeling ignored and marginalized. “They just felt put down, and they felt a drifting downward in their economic circumstance, but didn’t hear anyone listening to them about their distress,” explains University of California, Berkeley sociology professor Arlie Russell Hochschild in the piece. She notes that one of her interlocutors loves Rush Limbaugh because he defends conservatives and white rural people from liberals. “That reversed the picture [of him] to me from accuser to defender,” Hochschild mused.
Hochschild’s voter may feel like Rush Limbaugh defends her, but the fact remains that Rush Limbaugh is a racist bigot. If people feel that he is defending them, then the question must be asked: What is he defending them from?
There’s no doubt that many people—not just white people, and not just Trump voters—are experiencing economic hard times. But empathizing with people just because they feel oppressed without looking at the actual causes or reality of that oppression can quickly lead you quickly through the field of empathy and right into a moral sewer.
In fact, victimhood has long been a strategy used to justify violence or persecution. The Nazis saw themselves as weakened, betrayed, and humiliated by a Jewish conspiracy. If Hochschild had chatted with German supporters of Hitler, no doubt they would have assured her that he was defending them.
Proponents of racism have consistently presented themselves as victims of oppression in the US. The narrative of the Confederate lost cause—as seen in The Birth of a Nation through to Gone With the Wind—is built on the persecution fantasy of black oppressors invading the South to steal white plantations and rape white women. (The Civil War, in some parts of the US, is still known as the “War of Northern Aggression.”)
Trump follows in this self-pitying tradition. His racism inevitably portrays political targets as physical threats. Mexicans are rapists who persecute Trump in court; Muslims are terrorists who must be kept out of the country for our safety; immigrants are taking our jobs; Black Lives Matter is responsible for violence against police. Trump’s world is one in which Real Americans are under constant, terrifying assault from inimical outsiders. When he says “Make America Great Again,” he is promising to sweep away all those oppressors, just as the white tide rushes down to cleanse the nation of black people in The Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith’s ode to empathy for the pale and dispossessed.
The United States needs to do much more to help poor people and working people of every race, whether they live in urban or rural areas. But when you start to empathize, it’s a good idea to figure out exactly who you’re empathizing with, and for what reason.
Again, Trump voters are not all poor, as Peter Thiel demonstrates. They’re not even all white (though the majority of them certainly are white and male). The thing that unites Trump voters is not a particular income or a particular zip code—it is the decision to vote for a man who is running a campaign based on conspiracy theories and bigotry.
Do liberal (and conservative) elites need to set aside more empathy—and more importantly, resources—for the working class, whatever their gender or race? Yes, absolutely. But we cannot confuse empathy for Trump voters with empathy for them as Trump voters. Sympathizing with racists, or pretending their racist grievances are legitimate, isn’t going to stop racism. Racism thrives on grievance.
Many of those voting for Trump are embracing this country’s worst impulses. As people, they deserve more respect than another condescending Trump-voter think piece. But as Trump voters, the only thing they deserve is defeat.