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Relating to the One-Third of Our Countrymen Who Support the Atrocity that is President Trump

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On a piece posted earlier today, I asked how so many “decent people” can approve of Trump (and in particular can approve of Trump’s “insistence on conflict”).

One response to that particular phrase (“decent people”) declared that the answer was simple: these people are not “decent.” That judgment was then substantiated by a portrait of what makes Trump such an atrocity, followed by the conclusion that, “You may indeed be more forgiving than I, or more optimistic, or you may feel that you need to express things this way for the audience for your article, but it’s way outside my view of reality.”

I think it would be useful to step back and ask, what is it that is at stake in this difference of views.

What is NOT at stake is how awful we think Trump is. Nor is it how terrible it is that we have so many countrymen who either cannot see Trump’s awfulness, or who don’t mind his being so awful in so many ways relevant to any “decent” set of values. And if we agree on all that, I don’t think it’s even about words like “decent.”

The issue, rather, should be seen as ultimately about how America might be made more whole.

The Immediate and Long-Term Crises

The immediate crisis we face is how to deal with Trump’s dangerous presidency. We need, first of all, to survive the coming months/years. And we need to minimize the damage he does to the nation. But, barring a catastrophic war, there will be a post-Trump America.

But though we can rid ourselves of Trump, we will still be left with this other frightening reality: roughly 1/3 of Americans could look at this abomination and approve of what they see. That, in my view, is the scarier reality of America today.

(It was one thing to have a fringe of John Birchers and such in the 50s and 60s, it is another to have a proportion of people supporting the crazy, comparable to the proportion who elected Hitler in 1933.)

The frame of consciousness in which these Trump-supporting people now exist — most of them having bought a ton of lies, most of them having had their worst sides fed and manipulated by effective right-wing propagandists — has for a generation represented an increasing danger to the health of America. And this warped mind-set finally has borne the rotten fruit of the election of a man to the presidency who — I would assert– would have been unthinkable in any other era of American history.

And I would assert further that America cannot ever be healthy (as healthy as we have known it) so long as so many of our countrymen remain caught up in that mix of thought and feelings so flush with lies and toxic passions.

If that is true, it seems to me to follow that we — who hate all that Trump represents in America in this moment — as much thought and care as we give to the question of how to rid ourselves of Trump should also be devoted to the question “How can we best deal with the Trump supporters, with the goal of bringing them back (over time) to greater contact with reality, and to what Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature?'”

(Indeed, the goal of changing their state of consciousness is also one of the most important parts of a smart strategy for getting rid of Trump: the Republicans in Congress look at Trump’s support among the voters they themselves need for their re-election, and on that basis judge how politically risky it would be for them to oppose Trump. Little would do more to bring Trump into an impeachment process than reducing his support.)

Of course, we see no such balance in the devotion of thought and effort from liberals. The drama is all about Trump, the Mueller investigation, etc. (Which I follow assiduously as well.) The question of how can we best relate to Trump’s supporters to move them gets hardly any attention.

(That’s somewhat understandable. What has taken more than a generation to degrade — since the likes of Limbaugh and Gingrich began their propagandistic missions — will also take many years to transform back into anything healthy. Moreover, it is hardly clear what approach to such a salvage operation can be effective.)

This will be a very difficult Swamp to Drain!

But another important reason for the lack of effort, I would maintain, is visible in the exchange about whether these people can in any reasonable way be considered “decent.” If one dismisses as bad people because of their their lending their support to a political party I have written has become an instrument of an evil force, and then to a political abomination like Donald Trump, one will envision no possibility of their having any “better angels of their nature” to which they might be returned.

I have been writing for more than a dozen years about Evil. (I believe that the crisis we are in does indeed involve a kind of “battle between good and evil.”) But I do not believe “evil” is best understood in terms of a division of humankind between the good people and the evil people. Rather, as I write in a piece called “Understanding Evil,” that battle should be understood in terms of two sets of forces that operate in coherent ways in the human world through the nexus of cause and effect.

We are all enmeshed in a world that both nourishes us and damages us. Depending upon the time and place in which we are placed, we develop with different ways (and different extents) in which we are whole and in which we are broken. And depending on circumstances, we may play a constructive or destructive role in the world.

A study of history suggests that in the right (or perhaps I should say, wrong) circumstances, a great many (most?) people can be led to act as instruments of evil. Consider how the Hutus murdered their Tutsi neighbors in Rwanda. Or how the Serbs committed their hideous atrocities against the Bosnians. Or the Germans with the Jews.

(And that’s just considering some of what happened in the 20th century. How about the way almost all Southern whites over most of American history supported the racial oppression and terror against blacks. And the Crusaders who butchered whole villages of Jews as they made their way to fight for Christ in the Holy Land.)

We can dismiss all these people as bad people. We can deny there’s any way any of them might reasonably be called “decent.” We can write them off.

We might feel disgust for them, as we contemplate what parts of themselves they expressed. (Indeed, one of the biggest burdens I myself carry from all these years at staring at the darkness that has risen in America is that my sense of my species — my gut feeling about humankind — has become darkened by a sense of disgust I did not have before.)

But I believe that feelings of that sort are not what the healing of the world requires. (Or at least, not only those feelings.) Rather, we are called upon at the intellectual level to recognize the mixture of good and evil — some of it more visible, some less, at any given time — in almost all of us.

And we are called upon at the heart level to feel compassion even for those who have been pulled into the darkness. “Hate the sin but love the sinner” (as Augustine said).

Not just because it is more kind. And not just because it is more true to the reality of the human condition.

But also because finding the best way to reach out to those people seems a good deal more likely — than just dismissing them — to get us a nation that realizes those values we hold dear.

  • Jim B

    It pretty disheartening knowing most of your neighbors support Trump and even worse is the support for right wing politicians like Dave Brat. How long before Gillespie starts wearing a hood?

    • woodrowfan

      as soon as he is far enough behind in the polls to panic

  • Andy Schmookler

    Once again, reporting on some developments in the comments on Daily Kos, where two commenters have interpreted my remarks as being some kind of call for appeasement. I would hope that the readers here, unlike those on Daily Kos to whom I am presumably a stranger every time I appear, are sufficiently familiar with my position to know that — far from recommending a wimpy posture — I have been critical of Liberal America for its weakness, and failure to “press the battle..” But in any event, to prevent any such misinterpretation of the present piece, let me paste here what I just said on DK:

    I say nothing about HOW we should engage them. I do not speak of
    compromise, or conciliation, or meeting them half way, or coddling them
    in any way.

    What I do say is: 1) unless or until they change, the United States
    is in serious trouble; and 2) we should spend time and effort to find
    the best ways to effect the change that’s needed.

    My own approach has been to challenge them continually, telling them
    truths they seem not to recognize. I try to do it in a way they might
    hear. Which means that I try to frame my message in terms of values that
    they said, during my radio work, that they care about. I try to do it
    with an appeal to the best in them, as I believe I know it. I do not
    express my challenges with contempt or rage or disgust. I try to convey
    that I believe them capable of living up to the values they have
    declared are important to them.

    Whether that is an effective approach or not, I cannot say. I’ve not
    seen evidence that it is (but I was effective with them before Rove got
    hold of them).

    Truth be told, I’ve not seen ANYTHING tried that has been visibly
    effective, and I’ve been watching since 2005 for some way that would
    work.

    Which would certainly entitle me to give up on them. Except I don’t,
    because I believe that, as I say in the piece and in this comment above,
    I believe that having so large a portion of the American electorate so
    severely poisoned is extremely dangerous. I’ve been warning about that
    since before the rise of Trump. And Trump’s ascendancy has certainly not
    disabused me of that notion.

    When something MUST be accomplished, I believe that it is imperative
    that everything possible be tried to accomplish it, however unclear it
    is that it is possible. We cannot know that it is IMpossible.

    So I say, engage them in whatever ways we think will work best. My
    guess is that it would be a combination of various kinds of engagement.
    But nothing that I am saying should be interpreted as saying we should
    give ground, or that we should not fight the fight that needs to be
    fought.

    I have spent some years writing articles, and a book, that say, PRESS THE BATTLE.
    (That’s the title of a series I wrote in 2014-2015.) So it is
    frustrating to have my words interpreted as some sort of desire to
    appease.

    • Edward N Virginia

      As Bug Bunny said to the Martian: ‘what a Maroon!’

      FUSSING, HARASSING, HARANGUING … aka BULLYING …. is not conversation, discussion, or convincing.

      On the contrary, it REINFORCES resistance.

      The title of your piece talks about ‘relating’.

      ‘Relating’ NEVER involves BULLYING!

      Democrats who act this way DESERVE TO LOSE. ALL BULLIES DESERVE TO LOSE!

      What a MAROON who uses bullying, degrading, demeaning, and dehumanizing others as a tactic to win votes! WHAT A deep bruise blue MAROON!

  • RobertColgan

    It’s scary and disheartening to realize there are so many Americans who cannot see the type of person(s) we have elected into office……one of the mystifying traits of humans (supposedly ‘sapiens’) is their tendency to run back into their stalls as the barn conflagrates around them.
    Re-electing into office people who clearly are malfeasant in their duties simply because of tribal loyalty…. . . just as strange as defending a cousin who robbed a bank “because he is family.”
    Logic would have us simply shaking our heads in befuddlement at the actions of the Trump supporters… . .trying to make sense of their loyalty is akin to understanding how 2+2 can equal 5.
    But it’s not logic that’s the driving force here——-it’s emotions.
    Fear.
    Anger.
    Love.
    Hate.
    Sadness.
    Grief.

    The key to fathoming what drives the bulk of Trump supporters is their underlying sense of impotency—–that they feel they have lost power, or lost self esteem.
    Their resultant anger leads to a heightened insecurity, one potentially ameliorated by external strength. So they elect people who claim to be “strong.”
    (Many, both genders, wouldn’t vote for a woman simply because they feel a woman isn’t as “strong” as a man. Women who get into higher office often have to act “strong” —as we saw in Margaret Thatcher with her little war in the Falklands in order to reassure the electorate.)
    The wealthier Trump supporters have similar fears, but theirs have more to do with losing their high perch on the economic hierarchic ladder, or their more privileged social position. Or they are simply being opportunistic—– sensing that a businessman without ethics will further tilt the playing field their way by deregulating oversight.

    How to reduce their fear? Their anger?
    Difficult.
    A lot of it is old stuff, childhood onset, still active. Years ago I realized that a vast team of social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, doctors, therapists could be empowered to directly confront the epidemic of domestic violence——by removing the induced trauma stigma and the chances of that trauma being applied to the next generation we could have had a profound effect in less than 20 years.
    But there’s money to be made in dealing with social misbehavior——-one of the reasons we have 1.3 million lawyers in the USA and the world’s largest prison system.

    Part of the problem as I see it is that the control of the masses by the empowered has no desire to create a more thoughtful, critical, sane electorate. It doesn’t serve their purpose.
    The god Mammon has pretty much now been entrenched throughout the USA.
    Greed keeps us stuck.