Opinion

Opinion | Diane Hessan

Trump voters in the aftermath of Charlottesville

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff/AP

For many Democrats, this has been the worst two weeks of the Trump presidency. In the aftermath of frightening brinkmanship between President Trump and Kim Jong Un of North Korea, attention turned to Charlottesville, and to a president who is unwilling to clearly and directly call out neo-Nazis and white supremacists for their actions. Clinton voters tell me they saw the two things they were most worried about when their candidate lost: a careless and impetuous president creating unstable international relations — and a president who failed to respect the dignity of all Americans.

“The events in Charlottesville have really shaken me, and almost everyone I know,” Jennifer, 31, from Connecticut told me. “This can’t possibly last another three years, because there is just no one who can defend his behavior at this point.” Republicans like Senator Marco Rubio and congressman Charlie Dent agreed. So did corporate CEOs.

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Emotions are high in the United States of America. Just look at social media, or just be old fashioned and turn on the TV.

Meanwhile, the Trump base is in disbelief — not about the president, but about the hysteria. Although they are horrified by the events in Charlottesville, and the murderous nutjob who drove his car through a crowd and killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer, they are incredulous that, once again, the “media and elites” have decided to spend 24/7 trashing Trump over a few words and the order he said them in.

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“Concentrating on whether Donald Trump said things the way you would say them is a precious waste of time to me,” argued Mitch, 41, from Nebraska. “Every minute that we spend giving a voice to those awful white nationalists is a minute that we don’t spend working on increasing good jobs, securing our borders, defeating ISIS, and helping to put food on people’s tables.”

Charlie, 56, of Georgia, agrees. “We were on the brink of war with a crazy man in North Korea, we have a new issue with Iran, we have big challenges with health care and infrastructure, the opioid crisis is worsening, and we have decided to spend most of our time parsing the president’s words. I think it’s insane.”

Trump voters take offense at the narrative that links them to the white supremacist movement. It goes like this: Neo-Nazis are disgusting, and they wouldn’t be so bold if Trump were not president, therefore people who support Trump are racists and bigots, so anyone wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap is to blame for all the hatred. Most Trump voters I speak with believe that white supremacist Chris Cantwell is a repugnant, sickening subhuman, and that to imply that he and his clan represent Trump voters is just plain ignorant and insulting. If liberals are not to blame for James Hodgkinson, the deranged radical who shot Republican members of Congress practicing for a baseball game, then why, they say, would you blame Trump voters for a reactionary running people over with a car?

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Instead, they see a president delivering on his campaign promises despite the resistance. They send me article after article, video after video, of Trump denouncing the KKK and neo-Nazis, they count the number of Jewish and black people on the White House staff, and they conclude that calling Trump a racist is a lie intended to distract us from what Trump is doing to help the country.

Says Russell, 77, from California, “The stock market is way up, the economy is starting to really crank, we have 1 million new jobs, housing sales have doubled, companies are getting the message that they will be celebrated if they build in the US, unemployment is at a new low, the borders are significantly more secure, we have a brilliant new Supreme Court justice and a freeze on government hiring. Say that this is not all Trump’s doing, fine — but we have so much good news, and also so many huge challenges in our country and world. Why are we giving all of our air time to the lunatics and skinheads who marched in beautiful Charlottesville — and why do we insist on blaming our president for James Alex Fields [the man charged with driving the car into the crowd in Charlottesville] and for those disgusting Nazis?”

Trump voters are not ignoring his words, but the overwhelming majority are not racist demons. They hate the KKK as much as the rest of America. They were desperate for change, and thought Hillary Clinton was, at best, a continuation of the greed and bureaucracy they see in Washington.

They also believe that Trump is not political enough to read a script and walk away. They believe that actions speak louder than words, and they like his actions. Conversely, many of them liked the words of Obama, but felt that his actions left them on the sidelines. As a result, their standards for the role of president are just different. Rather than looking to their leader for moral leadership, they look to him for leadership on growing the economy and on protecting our citizens. They are more likely to shake their heads, state that he is a flawed man, and go elsewhere for moral leadership: their local leaders, their churches, their families.

We can ignore the perspective of these Trump voters, but realistically, we must understand that they exist, there are plenty of them, and they are our fellow Americans. It might feel good to read the recent New York Times article by a Trump voter who finally changed his mind, but this is not a signal about a trend — at least from my data. Of the 200 Trump voters I speak with weekly, only 4 say they would have voted differently.

Outrage, justified as it may be, accomplishes little. Anger and hatred is an addictive cocktail and many of us are drinking it, surrounded by our Facebook friends with similar viewpoints. It’s human to feel the anger, and therapeutic to express it with friends, but it would be ideal to do more. A few of the Clinton voters in my research are talking about impeachment. Most agree, however, that although several Republican senators and representatives have complained bitterly about Trump, that doesn’t mean they’ll vote to get rid of him. While they are waiting around for Robert Mueller to produce a smoking gun, they believe that the country and the government will go on.

Finally, if you’re concerned about racial hatred and white supremacy, do something nonviolent to take it on. Donate to the Southern Poverty Law Center (which has identified 917 hate groups in the United States) or the ACLU or the Anti-Defamation League. Go to social media to thank leaders who believe what you do, independent of party. Take Josh Bernoff’s pro-bono pledge to dedicate your time and expertise to groups that fight intolerance. It’s time to all work together to stop the madness.

Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 200 Clinton voters and 200 Trump voters weekly since last December.
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