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Bigotry and Disenfranchisement: Making Sense of Trump Supporters’ Motivations

Like many other people, Jesse Soza has spent a lot of time thinking about what might have motivated Donald Trump’s supporters to vote for him. Soza, a former classroom teacher, discusses the complementary nature of bigotry-based and economic explanations in this post.

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Jesse Soza

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” – Dietrich Boenhoeffer

In the past couple of weeks, the American public has been flooded with a variety of attempts at rationalizing Donald Trump’s unlikely victory over Hillary Clinton. What has struck me is that in almost every piece that I have read, explanations tend to fall into one of two categories. On one side, explanations revolve around the extreme racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia that Trump was able to bring out of his supporters. On the other side, various pieces point to Trump’s ability to speak to a large population of Americans who are experiencing high levels of social, political, and/or economic disenfranchisement.

As each side continues to attempt to validate its case as a way to legitimize or delegitimize Trump’s victory, it has become clear that rational discussion between these groups has reached an impasse. Due to the incredible amounts of emotion tied to this issue, it is not a surprise to see each side making its argument with little to no consideration of the middle ground. The fact that each side has dug in behind its respective strawman argument means that the critical dialogue necessary to begin repairs to American society is unlikely to occur. Such dialogue can only begin when each side is willing to believe that there is some validation in the other’s stance.

With that in mind, the following is my attempt to validate both explanations for how America has reached this point, and to explain how they’re connected. Others, typically in the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, have made similar points about the links between bigotry and a political and economic system that has left millions of Americans behind.  But as I believe a failure to call out bigotry is the most glaring problem in this debate, my focus will be on the undeniable role it has played in this election.

A Historical Commonality

Throughout the course of history, racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, etc. and social, economic, and/or political disenfranchisement have been inexorably linked. Over and over again, we see that humans find scapegoats when times get tough, and those scapegoats have often been vulnerable groups within a population. Think about what happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany, the Tutsis in Rwanda, or the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Acts of violence towards these groups provided perpetrators with a sense of regaining control and power where there had previously been none or the belief of losing it. Such acts did not actually improve the situation of the disenfranchised, but given their relative lack of persecution, some may have felt better off. The fact that this cause-effect relationship between social hardship and the targeting of vulnerable groups is so prevalent throughout history necessitates a critical examination of current events in America to see if there are similarities. (Spoiler Alert: There are.)

If social and mainstream media’s statement of economically and politically disenfranchised groups is true (which it undeniably is), we must acknowledge what that means at a deeper level: If conservative America considers themselves disenfranchised, they almost assuredly harbor deep anger, resentment and frustration. Whether this anger stems from economic difficulties, political disenfranchisement, or a more deep-seated resentment of the move away from conservative White values (likely a combination of all three for most Trump supporters), it is now clear that there was a powder keg of emotional turmoil hidden within conservative America.

I will admit, at the beginning of this election, that I, like many others, was woefully unaware of the degree to which people were angry with the system. Did I see frustration? Yes. But did I truly know that so many Americans had such deep feelings of alienation? No. The results of the election have shown that the magnitude of anger and frustration residing within many Americans was significantly higher than many of us predicted. How did so many people miss it?

I think such large numbers of people failed to predict the level of anger residing in conservative America because, until recently, that anger had no guided direction. Without a unified bearing, such feelings were hidden behind a veil of superficial civility and tolerance. Sure, we’d see random acts of violence and injustice from hyper-racist groups or individuals, but never did we believe that America’s problems with race, religion, sexual orientation and gender would become a national crisis. Shame on us. We became numb to the signs, and thus somewhat indifferent, to the potential for something much bigger and far more dangerous as a result of what was seeded within our nation. Because we failed to fully realize how strongly conservative America believed that they were losing their nation economically, politically, and socially, no major attempts were made to address the ticking time bomb of anger and resentment that stayed more or less under the radar as these Americans waited for someone who might empathize with their plight and give them direction.

Enter Donald Trump

One of the most common criticisms of Trump is that he never really explained how he was going to actually do anything he was promising. But I now believe that appealing to logic in terms of political action was never what he intended to do. Where I used to chalk up his lack of logic to incompetence, I now have to believe that it was his game plan. Trump’s talent resided in his ability to elicit emotional responses. Early on, he recognized the anger and frustration that was bubbling in the hearts of many Americans (both Democrats and Republicans) and knew that if he could tap into that, he’d get all the support he needed. The question was how he would do it.

Through his speeches, actions and promises, he stoked the emotional fires of those who felt they had been pushed aside by the economy, government and the rest of American society. In doing this, Trump knew that he could win the hearts of his constituency. He provided the age-old answer to “who/what is to blame,” thus giving all their anger and resentment direction and solidifying his status as “the answer.”

That, by itself, wouldn’t have necessarily been a bad thing, as almost all strong leaders find some way to tap into the passion of their people and give that passion direction. However, in a reprehensible move, Trump, like so many despots of the past, chose to use fearmongering as the way to achieve this end. He successfully created and fostered the notion that there were enemies among us, implying that if we were to defeat these enemies, America would be great again. Trump’s 21st-century answer to America’s plight was to dehumanize Mexicans, Muslims, Black people, LGBTQ individuals, Jews, and women, painting immigrants in particular as the source of our woes. Historically speaking, when humans are labeled as impediments to progress, the corresponding social response sets a very dangerous precedent. It is frightening to think about what America is already flirting with, especially considering that Trump and his values have not yet officially taken office.

Trump’s bigotry and lust for power have played a primary role in stoking the anger and resentment that has been brewing in conservative America. Furthermore, he knowingly chose to funnel that anger towards vulnerable people. For that, Trump must be held accountable. We must acknowledge that the surge in overt bigotry America is currently experiencing is a direct effect of how Trump chose to run his campaign. Instead of calling for unity and working together as we overhaul a system that has disenfranchised many Americans (regardless of party affiliation), Trump chose to create and lead a modern day witch hunt. And like so many people in the past, a significant portion of downtrodden, resentful and angry Americans have attached themselves to a charismatic leader who is selling the idea that ultra-nationalistic bigotry will be the answer to their anguish.

Yes, Donald Trump spoke to the groups of people who felt that the economy and government weren’t on their side. Yes, he did unexpectedly well because his message was one of reforming a broken system. But we must remember how he framed his message of change. The change he promised was undeniably tied to racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia, those hateful –isms (and –obias) that have acted as foundations of this country since it was established. He stoked the fires of bigotry and anger without regard for the consequences of his actions simply because he knew that it would draw people to him. For too many Americans, he galvanized the idea that there are people within this country who deserve ire and intolerance. His campaign has not only emboldened individuals to practice injustice towards others, it has legitimized such behavior as a patriotic means of “making America great again.”

Donald Trump is dangerous. While I doubt he’ll be able to do even half of what he promised (though you should take that with a grain of salt, as I had similar doubts about him becoming president), the real danger lies in his capability to foster feelings of hatred and bigotry within a distressed conservative America while disguising such acts as patriotic. As a leader, he will continue to divide the American people and feed into the false notion that acts of injustice and dehumanization will lead to a better, more recognizable home for disenfranchised Americans. Due to his position, charisma and the fact that so many Americans are desperately looking for an answer to their perceived troubles, people will believe him.

Donald Trump has, without question, made it to the White House by painting both our fellow Americans and fellow human beings as what is wrong with America. In doing so, he has effectively made them targets for discrimination, oppression and dehumanization. Furthermore, the nature of his campaign has played a primary role in giving tacit approval for Americans to oppress each other.

Moving Forward

We must acknowledge the reality that Donald Trump has and will continue to encourage acts of injustice. To deny that or mask it with a neutral stance would be ignorance at its worst. Whether we see new discriminatory policies or other citizens who have bought into Trump’s misguided message that bigotry is the right course for America, we must get outraged and intervene. We cannot stand idly by if the rights and humanity of others are in jeopardy.

We also have an obligation to try to understand why so many people voted for Trump. Though the common idea that such a decision was made not because of racism, sexism, or other forms of bigotry but in spite of them may strain credulity for some of us, we must consider that possibility and the possibility that, even in cases in which an –ism was the primary driver of a Trump vote, that -ism is deeply connected to a system that isn’t working. We can continue to straw man our respective arguments by oversimplifying answers or we, as a unified American society, can try to reach out in an attempt to acknowledge and appreciate the deep-seated pain and anguish that are currently feeding American anger and resentment.

The task before us is immense, possibly necessitating one of the largest social movements in American history. It is made more difficult by the fact that we have a charismatic individual coming into office who knows how to harness, incite and utilize social anger to his advantage. Still, acknowledging these things means we may have a fighting chance of pushing back against the tide. We know what the problem is: Anger stemming from pain. The solution: Love, compassion and understanding.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Business, Race and Religion