The United States of Empathy
On Tuesday, nearly 130 million Americans voted. As of Veteran’s Day the popular vote from the 2016 election shows a difference of only 337,636. That is how closely divided our country is after one of the most personal, divisive elections of all time. This was not an election about policy differences or different visions for the future of the United States, but about the very character of our country.
In Donald Trump, some saw salvation from years of economic hardship and cultural pressures. Others saw “whitelash”, a campaign fueled by resentment against changing demographics. To them, their assured victory over Trump would be a victory over racism, misogyny, and xenophobia itself. But now they wake up in “Trump’s America, behind enemy lines.”
Thousands have taken to the streets to protest the election results, as is their right, and they are scared, really scared. Their fears are valid.
Many progressives are absolutely shell-shocked because they were not adequately prepared for this outcome.
Think about it: this election was about “what kind of country we will be.” To many voters, it was often framed this way: are we still a country that is empowered through diversity, welcoming of immigrants and minorities and making space for them to live out their lives as they wish? Even Marco Rubio and John Kasich tried to keep the Republican Party committed to this vision of America before it was subjected to a hostile takeover by Trump and his red hat. Progressives, along with a great many Republicans and independents, weren’t prepared for the majority of voters to answer the way they did.
This could be because we have all become ensconced in our own bubbles, consuming only news from like-minded reporters, pundits, and personalities. That could have made progressives too complacent, having had their positions repeatedly validated by politics, popular culture, and the media, especially the news media. They mean well, but repeated instances of partisan posturing, “ends justifies the means” reasoning, and insulating themselves from alternative viewpoints bred justified resentment that helped the Republican nominee capture more voters.
It’s no surprise politics have grown increasingly insular. Just look at how convinced people were that Hillary Clinton had the election in the bag - including me, definitely including me. We weren’t prepared for the possibility that she didn’t. I blame the media and the pollsters; I can only work with the numbers they give me! Many Trump supporters were just as shocked as election returns pointed to a clear victory in the electoral college. Media figures were just shaken to their very core. Their conclusion: talk to voters next time.
All of this points to an immense challenge: there is an enormous empathy gap in America and our political system reflects it.
Democrats weren’t adequately prepared to get upended on Tuesday because they were convinced that Trump voters were a dying breed of older white males that couldn’t possibly swing an election. They assumed women, including white women, would break for Clinton, the first female nominee of a major party, and especially because her opponent was caught bragging about sexual assault on a hot mic. 53% of white women voted for Trump anyway, bringing his total share of the white vote to 58%. Combined with increasing his share of the nonwhite vote over Mitt Romney, either due to a more encompassing message or the Clinton campaign’s failure to turn out the minority voters that had turned out twice for Barack Obama, Trump put together the winning coalition in 2016.
Many Democratic voters fed off news stories that painted all Trump supporters as the very “deplorables” Clinton claimed they were. Filmmaker Michael Moore was one of a very few that took the trip to “Trumpland” and came back with some disturbing news: the average Trump supporter looks a lot like the average American and he could win.
Sure enough, 59,937,338 people wound up voting for Donald Trump. “Trump Country” is not just “red America,” but it encompasses red, blue, and purple states. You could drive cross-country from Trenton, New Jersey to San Francisco, California and the only two counties that voted for Clinton along the way would be Trenton and San Francisco. You would also drive through the hollowed-out remains of what was once America’s industrial heartland. I highly encourage everyone to read J.D. Vance’s extraordinary nonfiction Hillbilly Elegy. He paints a disturbingly real portrait of life in what was once the backbone of America’s industrial might. These people are hurting. They voted for Donald Trump in spite of his bigotry, not because of his bigotry.
Instead of empathizing with Trump voters and explaining why the braggadocious billionaire is not the savior they need, they chose to scorn and mock them. #NeverTrump was accused of moral preening too, to which David French masterfully responded at the time: “not preening, mourning.” These people at their breaking point with politics and secular culture were being conned into throwing their support behind a faithless charlatan bottling up their tears for his own personal gain. Still, the liberals only laughed, assuming Clinton, and the continued triumph of progressive politics, were inevitable.
Now progressivism is stopped dead in its tracks and those that never saw history turning against them are petrified about what comes next. They’re asking just how much progress is going to be reversed.
The terrifying answer is I don’t know.
I’m 26, I grew up in California, and went to a liberal college, so people I know and love are part of the petrified populace. I’d love to reassure them that we’re going to go through some tough battles but their rights will be left intact and they will be treated with dignity but I can’t. The concern is that Republicans have also insulated themselves from opposing viewpoints and, with control of nearly 90% of America’s political institutions, will indulge in a self-serving smorgasbord against women, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, and the LGBT community. After all, some took Trump’s rise as license to indulge in sickening, un-American behavior. “Day 1 in Trump’s America” was the “moment” on Twitter the day after- bringing reports of harassment, abuse, and intimidation against minority communities to millions of frightened eyes.
Only 4% of Americans believe this election brought out the best in America. As I said in the aftermath of the results, I’ve heard quite enough about identity politics. We are all Americans.
And we are all human beings.
Empathy is a human value.
We must stop referring to each other as racists, misogynists, xenophobes, homophobes, and bigots. Leave that to the candidates. Again, 60 million people will have voted for Donald Trump. They aren’t all racist chauvinists that don’t deserve to be understood, or heard. Many are the same voters that helped Obama win in 2008 and 2012. Likewise, we may not agree with progressive economics, but that doesn’t mean all progressives are economic illiterates. We hate when that label is applied to adherents of supply-side economics, so why dish it out all the same?
The disgusting Klu Klux Klan has attached themselves to Trump and are literally parading in the street to celebrate his victory. Online saboteurs consider Trump a leader of a white supremacist movement that has helped fuel their organizing toward more insidious pursuits. Unfortunately, they’re only going to be emboldened by Trump’s victory. This makes it all the more imperative that we all correctly identify the racists and not grossly generalize about millions of voters to prop up a false narrative. For the enemy of the false narrative is reality, and President Trump is our new reality. What comes next is anyone’s guess.
America is still a constitutional republic. Most battles of the culture war are fought in the courts. For years, President Obama and the Democratic Senate staffed federal courts with qualified individuals that will either weigh the merits of each individual complaint or exercise their will to thwart any overt discrimination. There’s only one vacant seat on the Supreme Court - Antonin Scalia’s. Obergefell v. Hodges, United States v. Windsor and Planned Parenthood v. Casey were all decided with Scalia on the Bench. These landmark liberal decisions were not impeded by a single conservative jurist, and whoever Trump chooses to nominate to replace Scalia will similarly not change the makeup of the Supreme Court. This is one reason conservatives must be thrilled with Trump’s win; a Clinton or Obama appointee would have changed the balance of the Supreme Court immediately.
Another seat may become vacant soon - Ruth Bader Ginsberg is 83, Anthony Kennedy is 80, and David Souter is 77. But then again, one might not. If it happens, the fight will initiate the same way it has for 240 years. If a Trump nominee were a direct threat to people’s rights, it would be our duty and our obligation to resist them, just as we would a Clinton nominee. We might win, we might not. Elections, as they say, have consequences. We’ll have to cross that bridge if we get there during Trump’s term.
Vigilance is what is required now. It is not a time for optimism - Trump has had more bad days than good ones and is totally unpredictable. Nor is it a time for pessimism - with so much at stake, we must believe in our republic and have hope for our country. It is a time for realism. Assess everything as it happens: day by day, hour by hour, policy by policy, pronouncement by pronouncement. We have elected someone that “likes to be unpredictable” so put away the prognostications and predictions and pray he finds a way to be the leader we need.
When President Abraham Lincoln was felled by an assassin, the suit he wore that night contained a hand-stitched inscription: “One Country, One Destiny.”
We’re all in this together, for better or worse, so it’s time to close the empathy gap, make no move without considering how it affects someone else and apply no labels to strangers we didn’t even attempt to understand. As the majority party, Republicans have the utmost responsibility to serve in the best interest of all Americans. We can’t do that if we’re dismissive of their concerns, willfully ignorant of their opinions. Remember, our party was upended by Trump first because he was speaking to a broader base of voters about “winning” while a field of seventeen candidates cobbled together traditional coalitions to keep from losing. We should be the first to recognize the need to listen more intently to struggling Americans. While we did not earn their votes, they are owed our attention. And they’re marching in the streets now.
Before we embark on this next chapter, let us remember we serve all Americans, and all Americans have equal rights and equal representation. If we don’t, they will remind us that every vote is equal.
You can follow the author on Twitter @CACoreyU