Here’s a thought that occurred to me during one of this week’s sleepless nights: Donald Trump is Marion Barry for rural white people.
That’s probably too cryptic for a lot of people, since I’m now an old man who yells at clouds, but what I’m referring to is Barry’s second election as mayor of DC, the one after he served time in federal prison for being busted smoking crack. Even prior to the bust, Barry was pretty much a disaster due to his drug problems, so when he ran again it was widely seen as a joke. But then he won.
I was in grad school at Maryland at the time, and remember a lot of shock and disbelief that the DC electorate would vote for such a walking disaster. And very quickly after his re-election, most of the DC government was put into receivership (the Republican Congress elected in 1994 was not a fan of Barry…). I recall lots of people asking each other “How could they vote this clown back into office? Don’t they know that he’s a wreck?”
The most persuasive explanation I heard of this was that yes, the voters of DC were perfectly aware that Barry was a disaster, but they didn’t care. They voted for him because they viewed it as a way to send a message a system that was screwing them over in numerous ways. If anything, his cartoonishly awful behavior just made him more attractive as a way to shock and horrify the elites who really ran things. And, sure enough, after one terrible term as mayor, the next few mayors were more traditional politicians who got the DC government back into reasonably functional shape. (By DC standards, anyway– none of them have really been paragons of virtue, but at least they’re in charge of their own affairs again.)
I think– and this is not a terribly original opinion– that a lot of Trump’s success stems from something similar, on the part of rural white people. That is, they voted for Trump not because they necessarily approve of his awful behavior, but because they wanted to send a message. And just as with Barry, in some ways the awfulness of his behavior was a feature, not a bug. There are a lot of people who feel like they’re being screwed by a system run for the benefit of people in big cities on the coasts who sneer at them as ignorant, racist hicks. Some of them positively relish the chance to vote for a vulgar buffoon who horrifies people from the coastal elites, even when they themselves would not behave a tenth as boorishly as Trump does.
Looking at it this way explains a lot of stuff that otherwise doesn’t make much sense. A rich developer with a history of stiffing small businesses is an odd choice for a champion of the downtrodden, but then DC residents voting to re-elect a guy who’d been doing a bad job before he went to Federal prison was pretty weird, too. A substantial number of people say Trump doesn’t have the right temperament to be President but voted for him anyway, in the same way that many of Barry’s voters were under no illusions about his personal character. And, of course, electing a bigoted buffoon plays to the worst stereotypes of rural white people, in the same way that electing an erratic drug addict played to the worst stereotypes of black DC residents, but as far as those voters are concerned, they’re being unjustly stereotyped anyway, and thus have little to lose.
In both cases people voted for candidates who, at best, do not plausibly advance their interests, but that’s because they’re not voting on the basic of dispassionate rational logic. Rather, they’re using their votes to send an emotional message.
This is what the much-derided calls for empathy for Trump voters were about. Empathy doesn’t mean uncritically adopting the worst policy ideas of your opponents, but rather making an effort to understand where they’re coming from and why they’re doing what they’re doing. That understanding can serve as a starting point to find ways to try to address their pain and anger without compromising fundamental principles of equality and tolerance. There can not and should not be any compromise on explicit racism and misogyny, full stop. But there might be ways to speak to those voters who let their anger at the system override their personal disapproval of Trump’s behavior, and bring them around. Empathy is a necessary prerequisite for that: understanding that their “deep story” is fueled by emotion, not rational analysis, and addressing it on that basis.
Of course, a non-trivial number of Trump supporters really do literally want all the most bigoted elements of his stump speeches, as we see from the seemingly endless catalog of horrific attacks over the last several days. Those actions, and those people have no place in civil society.
But out of the millions who voted for Trump, there are an awful lot of people who voted not from explicit bigotry and hate, but from anger and fear, people who might be reached. How many of those there are is open to debate, but you don’t need many– even if thirty-nine out of forty Trump voters were racist Twitter eggs, flipping the vote of that one decent human being would’ve been enough to tip key states to Clinton and avoid the current mess. That’s an effort worth making.
I expected to be writing along these lines on Wednesday morning in the light of a narrow Clinton victory, because I hoped that Trump’s awfulness was so cartoonish and obvious that not even the Marion Barry effect could save him. Like basically everybody else, I was wrong, and now we face the horrifying reality where the racist Twitter eggs feel empowered to lash out at everyone they hate. And we’re going to be dealing with that for a long time to come.
I don’t know how we’re going to deal with it– a bad President has infinitely more ability to do harm than a bad mayor of DC, and this Congress isn’t likely to step in and strip him of that power. And I acknowledge that my race, gender, and social position will largely insulate me from the worst personal effects. Even from this position of relative privilege, though, it’s been a heartbreakingly awful week. As I said Wednesday morning, all I can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other: doing what I can to stand up to bad behavior, contributing what I can to limit the damage that Trump’s election will do to civil society in general, and teaching my kids to be better people than their president.
Part of that fight involves working to treat everyone with respect and decency and empathy. We need to be especially sensitive to support people who have been victims of centuries of abuse and oppression, but that can’t be taken as a license to be insensitive to the relatively privileged who find themselves falling on hard times. Whether they’ve earned their anger or not, they are angry, and they’re willing to use their votes to send a message, even when that’s pretty obviously a disastrously bad decision.