Throughout the 2016 election, people on all points of the political spectrum have been perpetually shocked by xenophobic, misogynistic, and racist language from Donald Trump. That constant exposure was not enough to desensitize us to the greatest shock of all: that the mouthpiece of this unabashedly "Otherizing" rhetoric is now the president-elect of the United States. It would be easy to take from this the idea that the near-half of voters who cast their ballots for Trump are themselves racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic. It would be easy to say that Trump's rise proves that we are largely a nation of hate. With all the shock and heaviness and disappointment in my heart as anyone the day following the election, I want to ask that we challenge that narrative.
I'm asking that we challenge that narrative on the overlapping points of accuracy and productivity. It's hard to talk about productivity right now; the moment is still too raw. But I don't think it will consist of writing off almost half the population. I think it will start, if it does, with seeing one another as human beings with possibly legitimate values, hopes, and fears. It will start with a foundation of respect — regardless of how thick the layer of disagreement on top of that may be.
Since Trump's primary performance began exceeding all expectations, a canon of research and theories developed around the motivations of Trump supporters. The Vox linked article above features a graph depicting a disproportionate level of racial resentment among Trump supporters than among supporters of other candidates (and among white Americans generally). That's a factor that shouldn't be overlooked nor denied. But it's far from the only one. And though a willingness to overlook Trump's hateful rhetoric for those other factors is not acceptable (nor is it excusable), we ought to still take a look at what they are.
For some, it could be their own economic insecurity, which they blame on global trade or immigration (rightly so or not — and here, racial resentment could be a result of Trump's scapegoating rather than a source of support for him). For others, as a Gallup analysis suggested, it may be living in racially isolated areas where health among whites is poor, and where whites in poverty are least likely to get out of it. For many, no doubt, supporting Trump is largely rooted in complete and utter disdain for politics as usual — a desire for security, both physical and economic. A man who promises to come in and fix everything by doing everything differently, because what has been done up to now has not worked.
Those of us who oppose Trump with every fiber of our being are hit so bluntly by his scapegoating rhetoric that we don't see beneath or around it. It's hard to understand how anyone could. But some do. Trump supporters can't be put in a box, no matter how easy it might be for his opponents to do so in our heads.
And if we don't understand that — if we resort to writing off the millions of Americans who backed Trump, whether only to oppose Hillary Clinton or out of genuine support, as bigots beyond our comprehension — then we miss the opportunity to engage people in other answers to their problems, concerns, and fears.
A week ahead of Election Day, a Pew Research survey found that 58 percent of Clinton backers said they find it hard to respect Trump supporters. An almost equal number of Trump supporters said they have no trouble respecting Clinton backers. Importantly, only 29 percent of Trump supporters 18 to 34 years of age had any trouble respecting those who support Clinton. That's a critical demographic that could be open to engaging in dialogue with ideological "opponents," but I fear that won't happen if how they voted on Tuesday sums up their entire being as unrelatable and unworthy of respect to people with whom they disagree.
There is, no doubt, racism, xenophobia, and misogyny in our country. But they are not the only, and possibly not the primary, reasons that Trump was elected president. If we approach people without preconceived notions concerning their motivations, fears, values, and hopes, with the respect that a complex human being merits, maybe that is where productivity will begin.