ON NOV. 8, 2016, 62 million Americans cast a presidential ballot for a demagogue who regularly uses racist, xenophobic, dishonest, and misogynistic rhetoric — Donald Trump.
Nearly four months later, there remains an ongoing debate in political and journalistic circles about how we should talk about this.
Last week, in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof took a stab and suggested that liberals are being too tough on Trump supporters. Sure, Trump “vilifies and scapegoats refugees, Muslims, undocumented immigrants [and] racial minorities” and appears to be “a danger to our national security,” says Kristof, “but let’s be careful about blanket judgments.”
Many people voted for Trump, Kristof says, not because they are “bigoted unthinking lizard brains,” but “they didn’t know where to turn and Trump spoke to their fears.”
This is not an unreasonable argument. It’s true that not every Trump supporter is outwardly racist or a misogynist. I’ve spoken to many of them. A few said awful things to me, but most don’t fall easily into the caricature that has developed around them. Most didn’t support all of Trump’s policies (to the extent they knew what those policies were) and some had legitimate grievances. Many were partisan Republicans who couldn’t imagine not voting for a Republican presidential candidate. But one thing they all had in common was an extraordinary ability to compartmentalize Trump’s worst excesses.
Whatever the reason Americans voted for Trump, we know that every one of them chose to support a candidate who made repeated bigoted, xenophobic, and misogynistic statements. They supported a candidate who mocked a disabled reporter, demonized an entire religion, made veiled anti-Semitic comments, scapegoated undocumented immigrants, and bragged about sexually assaulting women. Even if one puts all that aside (though I’m not sure how that’s done), they voted for a candidate who lied on a daily basis and who regularly showed he was demonstratively unqualified to be president.
Many continue to support him, even though Trump’s presidency so far has been defined by more lies, rank incompetence, and nasty policies that target the most vulnerable people in our society.
Take the experience of Carlos Hernandez, which was recounted in the New York Times on Monday. Hernandez, who is of Mexican descent and is undocumented, lives in the town of West Frankfort in Franklin County, Ill., which overwhelmingly backed Trump. Local residents there are aghast that Hernandez is caught up in the president’s immigration crackdown.
One woman said that while she thinks “people need to do things the right way, follow the rules, and obey the laws . . . in the case of Carlos, I think he may have done more for the people here than this place has ever given him.” Another man who says he’d still vote for Trump has been leading the charge to stop Mr. Hernandez’s deportation. “It’s hard to be black and white on this because there may be people like Carlos,” he says.
Yeah, no kidding. The sad fact is that for many Trump supporters, the potential impact of his proposals on people like Hernandez didn’t register. Bad immigrants were faceless, nameless people who lived elsewhere. It’s one of the problems with compartmentalization. It only works so well until reality smacks you in the face.
All of this matters, because it tells us some rather unpleasant truths about Trump supporters. It tells us that fear of others — Muslims, brown-skinned immigrants, and shady foreigners who Trump claimed were allegedly ripping us off — remains a powerful force in our nation’s politics, particularly among Republicans. It also tells us that for partisan, parochial reasons, plenty of Americans are willing to put racism, xenophobia, and misogyny to one side - or simply excuse it away. Since the election, there have been calls for national reporters to leave their coastal elite bubbles and talk to “real Americans” (i.e. white working class Americans). Stories like the ones from West Frankfort remind us that not all bubbles exist on the nation’s coasts.
From the perspective of national Democrats, one can certainly understand why demonizing Trump’s voters could be counter-productive. And in general, they shouldn’t be caricatured.
But we should be honest about what they’ve done. They can and should be held to account for not being bothered enough by Trump’s intolerance and cruelty. Kristof is absolutely right that “we’re all complicated, and stereotypes are not helpful.” But what’s even less helpful is failing to be fully honest about what Trump’s election tells us about the 62 million people who voted for him.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.