By Sarah Myers
It’s 2018, but I’m going to say it anyway — the 2016 election made me angry. I was angry that 62 million Americans voted for a man who, in my opinion, was — and still is — bigoted, underqualified, selfish and power hungry. Every time Trump makes an offensive remark, uses his platform to create and spread verifiably false statements, strips away regulations designed to protect us, creates chaos in government or initiates dangerous international crises, I think of my 62 million fellow citizens who put him in the White House.
When Trump tried to cut the very social programs many of his supporters rely on, I wasn’t nearly as angry as I should have been. They voted for him, they should experience the consequences of their actions. When Trump’s tariffs lead China to enact tariffs on American goods which specifically targeted Trump voters, I couldn’t help but feel a vicious stab of satisfaction.
Suddenly, I understand articles about polarization in America all too well. I’ve read about Democrats and Republicans having unfavorable views of each other. I’ve heard that political preferences now also correlate with living preferences and a host of seemingly unrelated variables. Somehow, though, I convinced myself that this trend wouldn’t affect me.
I like arguing with people who aren’t liberals. A few of my relatives support Trump. Sure, it happens that those relatives live in Florida, while the rest of my extended family lives in the Northeast, but they’re still part of my family. In my head, those details, along with a completely unjustified faith in my own empathy, were enough to reassure me that polarization was something that happened to other people.
I was very wrong. My anger at Trump and everything he’s done since entering the 2016 presidential election easily transferred to everyone who voted for him, or even refused to vote for Hillary (sure, she’s not my favorite, but it was obvious that not voting or voting for a third party candidate would help Trump). That anger convinced me that people who voted for Trump, or even live in an area which voted for Trump, somehow deserve to bear the brunt of his incompetence and disregard for other people.
That’s not alright. First, anyone who lives in a pro-Trump area but doesn’t support Trump is obviously having a tougher time than me (someone who lives on a college campus in California). They don’t deserve to be screwed over more than they already have been.
Finding empathy for Trump supporters is harder. 62 million Americans voted for Trump — even after he promised to cut the programs many of his own supporters rely on; even after he threatened to start a trade war (and multiple news organizations, including CNN and the right-leaning Wall Street Journal, explained how a trade war would hurt most Americans); even when Trump promised to bring factory and mining jobs back without explaining how he would overcome the automation of such jobs.
Those people are adults, who presumably had access to at least some information about Trump and his platform. I am not willing to excuse them of responsibility for this by claiming that they are victims of economic anxiety, or that they were simply misinformed or that this is all Facebook’s fault. Frankly, I do not understand how anyone can make those arguments.
If you truly believe that economic anxiety, misinformation or social media are enough to dupe 62 million voters, so much so that those voters are no longer responsible for their choices, then I find it difficult to understand how you support a democracy in which those voters are required to participate. Democracy is about popular participation, not participation by a specific group. That means everyone gets a voice, but it also means that everyone is treated as a fully-fledged, autonomous person, who is responsible for how they choose to use their voice. Treating Trump voters as easily manipulated sheeple deprives them of personhood and undermines the idea of popular participation in democracy. It’s patronizing and exposes one’s own lack of regard for the average American.
Furthermore, I am not going to cop out of finding empathy for people whose decisions I vehemently oppose by arguing that those people are somehow not responsible for their decisions. I also refuse to let myself feel vindictive and spiteful towards 62 million people.
So what will I do? There must be some way to reconcile blaming someone for America’s present calamity, while feeling sorry that the calamity is causing them pain.
When I asked my friends about this, one quoted something on the internet: You are only required to respect someone else’s opinion if that opinion respects your existence. To that person, supporting Trump means that you support his bigotry and do not respect the existence of women, people of color, non-Christian people, poor people, disabled people or LGBTQ+ people. My friend cannot see how you can have true empathy for people who hate you — or why you should.
My friend may be right, but I don’t want to believe this. Recently, in a class called Rules of War, Reverend Scotty McLennan gave a guest lecture. He was speaking about pacifism, and, in preparation for his lecture, students were asked to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Nonviolence and Racial Justice.” Dr. King argues in this essay that finding and developing an unconditional platonic love for all human beings is vital to one’s own happiness and to progress for society as a whole.
Unconditional respect and care for all humans is an appealing ideal. It allows me to be angry at my fellow citizens while still respecting and empathizing with them. It allows me to care about Trump supporters without excusing their choices or relieving them of responsibility. It’s also really hard. I’ve been trying to find this love, and I will keep trying. I am forcing myself to think about and remember the specific individuals who are hurt by Chinese tariffs or social program cuts, rather than lumping the occupants of Trump country into a faceless and bigoted mass. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail, but at least I am trying.
This solution is, admittedly, imperfect. I’m unavoidably playing into the stereotype of a bleeding-heart liberal and, more importantly, focusing on my internal dialogue doesn’t necessarily translate into becoming a more empathetic person or taking action to help people.
It happens that I was able to put this into practice, or at least attempt to, while applying for summer internships and jobs (every college student’s favorite pastime). I initially refused to consider any positions in areas which voted heavily for Trump, or in organizations which focus on helping populations which tend to support Trump.
However, after realizing how easily I’d let myself dismiss all Trump supporters, I went back to the internships I’d dismissed and started writing cover letters. I didn’t get an offer for any of those positions, and I’m more than willing to admit that I deserved those rejections. But l am doing my best to look for ways to help organizations which help people in rural and right-leaning areas. (Feel free to email me with suggestions!)
As I’ve tried to be more empathetic to Trump supporters, though, I’ve run into another question: Are my efforts a betrayal of all the people Trump has harmed (often far more egregiously than he has harmed his supporters)? Am I betraying immigrants and asylum seekers and trans people? Ultimately, I don’t think so. Empathy is not zero-sum, nor is my energy. I can volunteer for multiple charities and attempt to help multiple groups. I will likely choose an event aimed at benefiting refugees over one aimed at raising money for rural workers hurt by tariffs if the two directly conflict, but that sort of conflict hasn’t come up yet.
Empathizing with people with whom I disagree is sometimes difficult, but achievable. Empathizing with people who voted Donald Trump into office about the ways in which Donald Trump has harmed them is much more difficult. If I give up, though, I will be allowing Trump not only to enact terrible policies and undermine democracy as we know it, but also to damage my own humanity. Dr. King wrote about using love to humanize our opponents and ourselves. Our capacity for empathy is what makes us human and, I believe, what makes democracy work. That’s worth saving.
Contact Sarah Myers at smyers3 ‘at’ stanford.edu