Is Donald Trump President Because Of Economic Desperation Or Because Of Bigotry?

Flickr / Karl-Ludwig Poggemann
Flickr / Karl-Ludwig Poggemann

I’ve spent the last two months trying to convince myself, and others, that Donald Trump’s inauguration as our President wouldn’t bother me.

In a world where the only acceptable emotions for people to express over politics are raw anger, and gleefully in-your-face jubilation, I’ve tried to push back the intense sorrow I feel for our country now. Sorrow that doesn’t require a safe space — though perhaps comes with some liberal tears.

**

Since the 10th of November I’ve made it my goal to talk to as many people as possible about this election. I met with a conservative acquaintance who voted for Donald Trump. She was working her way through law school, and talked about being one of the only people in her cohort who openly supported the ultimate winner. I asked her about Trump’s offensive comments.

“There were 18 Republicans running,” she said, “And he was my 18th choice. But I voted on national security, and I just didn’t believe Hillary Clinton would keep us safe.”

I talked to other people who brought up rising health insurance premiums, how costly it was to start a family, alongside various scandals of Clinton’s various tenures in public service.

And I tried to understand.

**

I also talked to a lot of my liberal friends. I know and interact with a great deal of people who believe that the best way to react to this election is to hate the people who voted for Trump. Hate them for voting, hate them for existing, hate them for being — then hate them some more.

Hate the identity of those who voted for Trump. Hate white, straight men. Disregard their challenges and their strife (they can’t have any, right?). Dismiss people who don’t have jobs as bigots. Dismiss people who are being strangled by opioid addiction as bigots. Dismiss people who can’t feed their families as bigots. Dismiss any issue not related to identity as a “luxury.”

“There’s no excuse for voting for him,” they tell me time and again. Giving me just enough time to appreciate the irony of being lectured by allies of the queer community about what Trump’s election could mean to LGBT people.

“There’s no excuse for voting for him,” liberals say as they close their hearts and minds to almost half the country.

“There’s no excuse for voting for him,” as we share memes and quippy tweets about how “bigotry wasn’t a deal-breaker” for Americans.

“There’s no excuse for voting for him,” even as participation in the labor force is at its lowest levels since the 1970s. Even as the United States has shed 5 million manufacturing jobs — jobs that could feed a family, pay a mortgage — over the last twenty years.

No excuse?

**

I think in many ways, liberals have forgotten how to argue. Over the last eight years we have become complacent and lazy under the watchful advocacy of President Obama.

Instead of explaining history, and context, and power, we rely on intellectual shortcuts. Words like, “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic”, “xenophobic,” pack a more sensational punch and require less difficult argument than an actual dialogue does. We aren’t interested in changing minds, because those who still disagree with us are too irredeemable to ever be persuaded.

Our language was very emblematic of Barack Obama’s political position in his final two years. We’ve wielded these buzzwords like a veto pen, but without much forward progress.

**

And so that’s the story I’ve accepted. That’s the story I tell.

Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote, but those who felt the most pain were also in the swingy-est of states. That it was those who were in unimaginable economic pain, those who were sitting on a white hot grill, those were the people who voted for Donald Trump. And they did so because they were desperate, because they were willing to look anywhere for hope.

It’s the story that retains my faith in America.

But I also have doubts about that story.

**

I didn’t grow up in some liberal hippy-dippy, coastal elite town. I grew up a few football fields away from former House Speaker John Boehner. My hometown lent John Kerry just 16% of the vote in 2004, and even during the Democratic rout of 2008, we had one of only four Obama / Biden signs in our neighborhood.

In this regard, I laugh at conservative trolls who ask if I need a “safe space,” or brand me as some “special snowflake”. Growing up, I was exposed to no shortage of opposing opinions, and I couldn’t just get offended — I had to get informed. So I grew up knowing politics, knowing current events, knowing my state, county, and township.

And so I know that my hometown is not a place of quiet desperation. It is not a collection of people on a white hot stove. It’s a place of $400,000 houses, giving both your kids a used car on their 16th birthdays, paying your kid’s college tuition. A place of in-ground pools, lawyers, mid-level corporate executives, doctors, engineers, and at least one upscale shopping center 15 minutes from any given place.

Data from Butler Country Board of Elections
Data from Butler County Board of Elections

These people are not desperate, yet it seems that they overwhelmingly cast their votes for a candidate with no qualifications apart from being not a woman and rich at the same time.

**

At the end of their professional careers, my parents probably make the least amount of money they ever have in their lives. My father was elbowed out of his grey-collar job back into the service sector because there was a high school graduate willing to do his job for $10 an hour.

My mom joked over the holidays that I make more money than they do, combined.

I don’t think it was a joke.

Yet, after both major parties settled their nominations, and I asked my mother who they were supporting over one of my too-infrequent phone calls, she snorted.

“Hillary, of course,” she said as if I had just asked an absurd question. “Trump is downright evil.”

My dad agreed with Trump on trade, but said he was too vile to be our country’s leader.

How do I explain to my liberal friends that Donald Trump wasn’t a bigot’s candidate when my parents — the desperate white working class his message is said to have appealed to — found the moral fiber to realize that any possible economic improvements weren’t worth his hate?

**

38% of Donald Trump’s supporters in Florida told Public Policy Polling that they thought — regardless of the particular candidates — that our country is better off with a man as President, rather than a woman.

33% of Trump supporters in North Carolina think it would be okay if Trump wanted a private email server.

14% of Trump supporters think Hillary Clinton is connected to a child sex ring run out of the basement of a Washington DC pizzeria that doesn’t have a basement.

10% of Donald Trump’s supporters said that his infamous “grab ’em by the pussy” comments actually made them feel more warmly toward him.

Economic anxiety? Financial pain?

**

Donald Trump won my wealthy hometown of West Chester — but by magnitudes less than George W. Bush did in 2004. Bush won my hometown with 84%. Donald Trump only won it with 64%. There were clearly some people for whom his hate was a deal-breaker.

But maybe it couldn’t be for everyone? Maybe oppression from socioeconomics is just as reasonable of a fear as oppression from identity? Maybe it’s the oppression we should all be focused on.

**

If our country is to continue, I think we all have to get used to holding more than one idea in our head at a given time.

It’s not enough to dismiss people as bigots, but nor is it to pretend that bigotry doesn’t exist.

It’s not enough to pay attention to identity-related issues as the only sources of oppression, but nor can huge swaths of America keep covering their eyes, ears, and hearts when discussing issues of race, sexuality, gender, and faith.

It’s not enough to excuse irrational decisions with passive bleats about a weak economic recovery, but nor can we deny that reckless free trade policies and automation have left a great number of Americans behind.

And people who don’t immediately agree with us cannot be idiots, or bigots, or PC “crybabies”. Maybe they are just imperfect people who make up an imperfect country.

And if that’s true, maybe we can start healing our country by healing each other. TC mark

Jacob Geers

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