July 2017
This issue's contents Current issue Search

A Very Short Essay on the Trump Voter

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

In this time of chaos and chattering, liberal pundits are divided on the question of the Trump voter. There is not even basic agreement on who the Trump voter is. Nevertheless, some say that the Democrats must recover the Trump voter into the party. Others say that the Democrats must commit to a diverse coalition of people of race, millenials, and gay and transgender people, and bypass the Trump voter entirely.

I am thinking about friends, classmates, co-workers and neighbors.

The American definition of friendship is a very confusing and equivocal one. In college, I realized that the definition of friendship seemed to be as loose as people who might go out for a beer with you on a Friday, if they didn't have a better offer. It wasn't any different in the workplace: My sense was that most male friends will sell each other out in a heartbeat for a woman or a promotion. A friend in that world was someone who hasn't planted a knife in you yet. Most of the people you think are friends, aren't. A similar insight is that most of the people you think are decent, similarly aren't. They have simply never been tested. Anyone can be polite to you, or lend you a cup of sugar, or share a laugh over wine. But you never know who anyone is until the hard times.

My definition of friendship, by the way, sets the bar very high. A friend is anyone who, hearing you are in jail in Cleveland, immediately heads for the airport.

Historically, marginal and vulnerable people may think their neighbors are decent in ordinary times. There is either a social sanction on exhibiting prejudice, so people keep it to themselves, or they have no particular incentive in the moment to hurt you. When power or chaos remove the barriers, neighbors easily kill their neighbors. In Germany in 1932, Jews had a sense of utter shock at how easily the people next door who had previously been polite adapted themselves easily to the violence and hatred of a new regime. In Poland after World War II, returning Holocaust survivors were murdered by their townsfolk. "[A] resurgence of antisemitism in Poland, in such incidents as the Kraków pogrom on August 11, 1945, and the Kielce pogrom on July 4, 1946, led to the exodus of a large part of the Jewish population, which no longer felt safe in Poland". https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aftermath_of_the_Holocaust We have seen examples in Yugoslavia, after the withdrawal of the Soviet power, and in many other nations through-out history. Earlier, the CroMagnons killed all their Neanderthal neighbors. The historical default, history's "dial tone", is bodies in piles.

In the early 1980's, I spent some time in Holland, and I will never forget a young man telling me, over a beer, that "The Germans are just like us, but with a piece missing". It got me thinking about how many people in our environment are missing that same piece. Growing up in the 1960's, I dimly understood that a large part of America was batshit crazy and murderous, including the people who blew up the little girls in Birmingham in 1963, and everyone else who might not have done it themselves, but thought the act was basically justifiable, or understandable. Later, I began to see that even at home, many of the familiar people we have known all our lives are missing that same piece. You can't immediately tell, because they smile or joke like anyone else.

On May 8, 1970, I was demonstrating against the Vietnam war in Brooklyn, and in nearby Wall Street, construction workers came down off of high steel and beat people just like me with iron pipes. We now know that Charles Colson, on Richard Nixon's behalf, had asked their union president for the favor. I would never have done such a thing, as a favor for the President, or anybody. Would you? There are two kinds of people in this country, those who would beat someone they don't like with a pipe, and those who never would. Most of the people who would, voted for Donald Trump.

These are transformative times. Trump has that effect, of showing us who people really are. By polluting all environments with his toxic vanity and rage, he places everyone under an obligation of either rejecting him, conciliating him, or embracing him. No one is left untouched. Last night, he had thousands of Boy Scouts hissing his predecessors and adversaries, while a few others booed him. One parent said, "I thought the point of the Boy Scouts was to raise our kids not to be like Donald Trump". Other parents thought his appearance in front of their children was exemplary. Now we know who each of them really is.

I only know a few Trump voters personally. They are all middle class, bought the Fox News hype, and don't care if marginalized and endangered people are beaten up, killed, rendered homeless, or jailed. In some cases, the people they don't care about harming are their own blood. It is a stunning phenomenon. I decided years ago that if you have compassion, it doesn't matter to me what qualities you lack. A smart, intelligent, charming person without compassion is merely a sociopath.

You can see how that answers the question I posed at the outset. I have looked for common cause with the Trump voter, but have failed to find it. The commonalty of the Trump voter appears to be vanity, exceptionalism, and self pity. The Trump voter feels that in a fair world, he should be a king, but is being trampled on instead, by the "other". It is astonishing the way vanity and self pity can coincide. Trump is the monstrous and extreme instantiation of both these qualities. In the end, it is his self pity that his voters find so appealing. Self pity and compassion for others are almost mutually exclusive. And someone who secretly believes himself to be royalty is not committed to equality. Its not that much of a jump from there to violence against the other, when permission is given from above.

I am a little hesitant about generalizing; millions voted for Trump. I really worry about getting sucked into partisanship, rushing towards the conclusion that the other side is treacherous, undemocratic, not fit to be my sibling any more--that I am too easily committing the crime of which I have accused the radical, and rapidly mainstreaming, right for so long. Does the irreparable division of America become a self fulfilling prophecy that we are creating by predicting it? But it seems to me obvious that the President for whom they voted is a self congratulatory, id-driven idiot, without any qualities of intelligence, compassion, loyalty, honesty or even caution, which would allow him to do the job. I submit these defaults were obvious, and that anyone who voted for him anyway largely knew what they were doing. Yes, there may be some really kind and decent people who voted for Trump more or less accidentally, but it seems paradigmatic , in the same way that friends don't let friends drive drunk, that friends don't sacrifice their friends, and neighbors, to Donald Trump.

I don't want to be in a nation with such people any more. One of the big paradoxes of a polity supposedly based on "consent of the governed", is the lack of a mechanism for withdrawing the consent. Nobody has ever satisfactorily explained the philosophical underpinning of the assertion that the South could not leave. I think that our problems today were in fact born, or the flames were fanned, then. We could theoretically have fought a true war to end slavery, then left the South with a vow to return if slavery was reinstituted.

I would happily be a citizen of a progressive republic consisting, for example, of New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont, and maybe New Jersey, with Bernie Sanders as president. Let Texas and Kansas be their own nation; trying to hang in with them is too exhausting, and has failed. In two hundred years, we will see whose republic is less violent, wealthier, more secure, egalitarian and democratic. Personally I have no doubt which one that will be.