Tag Archives: racism

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.

soza_jesse

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.

3 Comments

Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Business, Race and Religion

Perspective Should Trump Sensationalism

Prominent Democratic media figures and politicians have long argued that Donald Trump is a uniquely terrifying threat to America’s future.  Back in February, for example, Ezra Klein called Trump “the most dangerous presidential candidate in memory.”  In March, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz claimed that Trump is “the most extreme and vile, misogynistic candidate in modern times.”  And more recently, right before the Indiana primary, President Barack Obama said that Trump “is not somebody who, even within the Republican Party, can be considered as equipped to deal with the problems of this office.”

These claims, however, are missing vital context.  Trump would probably make a really bad president, but far from being a unique disaster, his nomination may have actually been the best-case outcome of this year’s Republican primary.

Many of the things Trump is known for – his overtly racist comments, for example – certainly are, as Jenée Desmond-Harris recently noted in The New York Times, “infuriating and frightening.”  But they’re not anomalies.  Both Republican and Democratic politicians have long played more subtly on racist stereotypes.  Trump’s blatant racism, as Desmond-Harris explains, makes it harder for people to pretend racism doesn’t exist or not to “understand what it represents about the country.”

There is, of course, a very legitimate concern about the costs of such unconcealed racism from a prominent public figure.  Trump “has given people permission to openly trumpet views they may once have kept to themselves — and gives them a place to gather together.”  Violence is a predictable result of these gatherings – especially considering the fact that Trump has at times encouraged it – and we’ve already seen it happening at Trump rallies all over the country.

At the same time, it’s not like the pre-Trump era was free from violent White supremacy, and when racism and other forms of discrimination are easily identifiable, they’re much easier to confront.  Consider, for example, Trump’s despicable proposal to ban Muslims from the country.  Given that American society has persecuted Muslims intensely for the past 15 years and that the mainstream media and numerous politicians – again, in both major parties – have facilitated this persecution, it’s hard to believe we’d be seeing the same outrage about the ban (let alone legislation intended to thwart it) if it had been proposed in more coded language by someone perceived to be more mainstream.  In fact, survey evidence highlights this point; Democratic support for a Muslim ban grows from 25 percent to 45 percent when voters don’t know the ban is Trump’s idea (Republican support is above 70 percent whether voters know it’s Trump’s idea or not).

Marco Rubio’s comment that Trump “says what people wish they could say [but] can’t [because of] consequences, here and around the world” is telling.  The consequences are in the form of popular backlash, and it’s the fear of that backlash, in part, that’s driving Right-wing opposition to the Republican nominee.  Radio and television personality Glenn Beck, for instance, worries “that the GOP is going to be completely racist – whether it’s true or not – because of Donald Trump. You will never have another Republican president ever again.”  Beck is likely wrong about his electoral prediction, unfortunately, but he may be right about Trump exposing the racist, sexist, and xenophobic elements of America that are particularly prevalent in the Republican party.  It’s perfectly rational to fear having those prejudices out in the open, but that exposure could also be what’s necessary to begin to dismantle them.

The other reason a lot of prominent Republicans don’t like Trump is that, as Nate Silver put it back in September of 2015: “There’s an alternate reality in which he decided to run as a Democrat instead — he wouldn’t have to change his policy positions all that much.”  That was certainly the argument of Ted Cruz, who complained in a Super Tuesday speech about, among other things, Trump’s support for “socialized medicine,” Planned Parenthood, “compromise…on Supreme Court nominees,” and neutrality when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians.

The man Trump calls “Lyin’ Ted” described most of Trump’s positions incorrectly, but there was also an element of truth in what Cruz told his supporters.  Despite Trump’s promise to repeal Obamacare during the primary, he’s also said, to the chagrin of his Republican foes, that he wants to replace it with more universal coverage; he’s even been a supporter of single-payer health care in the past.  Though Trump has argued for defunding Planned Parenthood, he’s also maintained, unlike other Republican candidates, that he has “a lot of respect for some of the things they do.”  It’s hard to know what Trump would do with the Supreme Court – as one legal scholar mused in March, he’s a real “wild card” – but unlike most Republican candidates (John Kasich is another exception), he has floated less insane justices in the past.  On Israel and Palestine, Cruz actually got Trump’s prior statements right, and while Trump recently spoke much more hawkishly about the conflict, that may be in response to Hillary Clinton’s “attempt to cast herself to Trump’s right” on the issue.

It’s hard to know for sure what Trump believes – “his hair has been more permanent than his political positions,” as AEI’s Thomas Miller said last July – but there are actually a few domains in which Trump might have better policy positions than Clinton.  Trump and Clinton both say they oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, but while Trump’s opposition isn’t quite for the right reasons, it’s fairly credible; Clinton’s, on the other hand, isn’t.  While Clinton and her supporters make arguments more extreme than Antonin Scalia’s in defense of her big money donors and speeches at Goldman Sachs, Trump is telling the truth about the influence of money in politics (which he openly admits that he has benefited from as a donor and, like Clinton, pledges to reform).  Trump says he wants a much bigger investment in infrastructure than does Clinton, and there’s a legitimate case to be made that, in general, Clinton has a bigger “appetite for military engagement abroad” than Trump does.

In other areas, Trump’s positions may be less extreme than his primary posturing suggests.  For example, he now says he is open to raising the minimum wage, he initially frowned upon North Carolina’s anti-transgender bathroom law, and there are indications that he may walk back his plans to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and deport millions of immigrants.  To be clear, he hasn’t given a number on the minimum wage, he decided North Carolina’s law was a state decision in response to pressure from Republicans, and he has not yet pulled support for a border wall or deportations.  His positions here are completely unacceptable, as are his tax plan and his statements on guns, torture, and much else.  Furthermore, as mentioned above, it’s hard to know whether he would adhere to anything he’s said, and it would be a serious understatement to say that his advisers inspire little confidence.  But it’s also important to remember that it’s hard to know what Clinton truly believes, that there is cause for concern about who her staff would be, and that she was absent from the fight for a higher minimum wage, opposed to marriage equality, and supportive of border barriers and deportations until relatively recently, when the right positions (pro-large minimum wage increase, pro-marriage equality, anti-border barrier, and anti-deportations) became politically advantageous for a Democratic Party politician.

None of that is to say that anyone who believes in social justice should consider voting for Trump; please don’t.  I strongly disagree with the notion that he’d be the lesser-of-evils candidate if Clinton is the Democratic nominee.  (If that happens, I encourage Bernie Sanders supporters to vote for a third-party candidate.)

I would, however, urge everyone, both here and around the world, to treat Trump less like a heretofore unseen danger.  It’s not a bad thing that Trump “is reinforcing long-held suspicions that America is a racist, imperialist nation” – there are very good reasons for those suspicions, and we can’t fix our problems if we don’t acknowledge them.  And it’s also not a bad thing that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan – who Dylan Matthews recently called a “doctrinaire, down-the-line supply-sider who wants massive cuts to safety net and social insurance programs and equally massive tax cuts for the wealthy” – has wondered whether his “conservative principles will be championed” by the Republican nominee for president.  As even pro-Clinton journalist Jonathan Chait has pointed out, “a Trump presidency would probably wind up doing less harm to the country than a Marco Rubio or a Cruz presidency.”

That certainly doesn’t mean fears of Trump are unfounded.  But let’s also make sure we give his candidacy the appropriate context.

2 Comments

Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Race and Religion

What’s the Best Way to Deal with the Ku Klux Klan?

On the recommendation of my friend and colleague Mike Mitchell, I recently listened to a fascinating podcast about Daryl Davis, an award-winning musician who is best known for his role in bringing down the Maryland chapter of the Ku Klux Klan – through his friendship with Klan members.  In the podcast, Davis describes how, while playing country music in a bar in 1983, a White man approached him and expressed that he had never heard a Black man “play as well as Jerry Lee Lewis.”  The two men struck up a conversation, during which Davis discovered that his counterpart was a card-carrying member of the KKK.

Amazingly, Davis befriended the man.  Nearly a decade later, he decided that he wanted to meet more KKK members.  When experiencing overt forms of personal racism throughout his life, Davis had always wondered how people could harbor animosity towards him – without knowing him – just because of the color of his skin, and he believed that talking to members of the KKK could help him understand this phenomenon.

Davis had his secretary set up an interview with Roger Kelly, the head of the Maryland KKK at the time, and, after a tense initial encounter, Davis became friends with Kelly as well.  In the years thereafter, he developed relationships with several other high-ranking KKK members.  During each of his encounters with them, Davis listened closely to what they had to say.  He would challenge the Klansmen – when Kelly referenced the Bible during his initial interview, for example, Davis would pull out a copy of the Bible and ask Kelly to show him the relevant passages that ostensibly supported racism – but he remained polite and friendly while doing so.  Over time, as the Klansmen got to know Davis, many of their prejudiced (and factually incorrect) beliefs about Black people began to erode.  Eventually, some of the highest-ranking members in Maryland left the Klan and the organization itself dissolved.

I have deep respect and awe for what Davis did and how much he accomplished.

I would characterize Davis’s approach – politely disagreeing with Klansmen in order to break down stereotypes over time – as the “long game.”  It’s about changing people’s minds and attitudes in the long run, and, if successful, pays huge dividends.

At the same time, the long game is remarkably time-intensive.  It’s also very risky – there’s no guarantee of eventual success, and in the short run, the Klan has relatively free reign to terrify and oppress a whole lot of people.

An alternative approach – the “short game” – prioritizes protecting the oppressed over changing the mindsets of oppressors.  The short game is about checking people in power.  That often means stating, in very clear terms, that certain viewpoints are unacceptable, and that there will be consequences for people who espouse them in public.

There’s obviously some tension here between the short game and the long game, between laying down speech and policy that protect the oppressed right now and keeping the oppressors listening so they might in fact eventually change.  I generally play the short game with a few elements of the long game incorporated – I love to engage with those with racist opinions, and I am happy to listen to what they have to say, but I differ from Davis in that I won’t say “we disagree” when I’m talking about a Klan member; instead, I’ll say that the Klan member is ethically and factually wrong, and that he shouldn’t be allowed to hold his intimidation rallies (I’ve long made a similar case when it comes to LGBT issues, too).

I like to think that there is an appropriate balance to be struck between both tactics, but I struggle a lot with it.  I want Klansmen to know (and society to acknowledge) that we don’t have mere differences of opinion – the Klan is definitively wrong about race and their incorrect and unethical viewpoint harms large numbers of people.  At the same time, telling people their views are wrong and bigoted and preventing them from expressing them publicly is likely to cause them to tune out and feel more resentment, no matter how much I insist (genuinely) that I am interested in talking to them and hearing what they have to say.

There’s definitely a difference between calling a viewpoint bigoted and calling a person bigoted, but part of me thinks there’s a lot of value in tying viewpoints to identity, especially in terms of the social pressure that can bring for people to curtail open forms of oppression.  And I’m generally willing to accept some tuning out from oppressors, if it means that society will stop giving them a microphone and label racism and bigotry what it is.  I tend to think that helping a few people change is less important than making sure they don’t harm anyone, and that, absent an amplifier for oppressors’ views, reason and compassion will become much more prevalent in the next generation.

All of that said, I recognize that my White privilege allows me to advocate for this approach with little fear of repercussion, whereas Davis would very likely be labeled an Angry Black person if he were to adopt my strategy today (and if he tried it with Roger Kelly, he almost certainly would have ended up dead).  I question whether my preferred tactic for confronting racism is most appropriate in large part because it’s available to me only as part of a menu of relatively consequence-free options that may be unavailable to my Black friends.

In short, I would be very interested in hearing Davis’ and others’ thoughts on my tendencies in this space, and on whether or not there’s a better way to reconcile the tension between the pursuit of short-run protection for the oppressed and long-run change in the oppressors.

2 Comments

Filed under Philosophy, Race and Religion