I've been sitting on this for awhile, trying to process the election. Eventually it became clear that Joe Biden was the winner, but it was close enough that it never felt like a foregone conclusion, which was troubling in many ways.
It really started when a friend of mine made a Facebook post on Wednesday, the day after the election, expressing his frustration that the results being close had harmed his faith in humanity. It's important to note that he's gay, and a vocal advocate for equality for the LGBTQ community. An hour later, another friend (more acquaintance, but "friend" in the context of social media), also gay, made a similar post. On Thursday, an African-American friend expressed similar concern about not being seen, and only feeling slightly less in danger for the color of his skin. When Biden's win was a statistical certainty on Saturday, the emotional response of CNN commentator Van Jones was widely shared, and it got to the core of the problem:
"The 'I can't breathe,' that wasn't just George Floyd. That's a lot of people have felt they couldn't breathe. Every day you're waking up and getting tweets and you're going to the store and people who have been afraid to show their racism are getting nastier and nastier to you and you're worried about your kids and you're worried about your sister, and can she just go to Walmart and get back into her car without somebody saying something to her. "
That's why this didn't feel good. Racism isn't something you just casually disregard when it comes to an elected official, as I've said before. The same goes for homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny and the various -isms that we as a polite and maturing society should find abhorrent. For a Trump supporter, overlooking these traits for the sake of some perceived policy benefit is to overlook the identity, and very essence of being alive, of others. It's really that deep. Think of something that identifies you as a core part of your being, and then imagine that 30% of the people who can vote support a candidate that actively and publicly speaks against that identity. If you're a white person, I implore you to take a moment to consider that, because as a white, employed, hetero guy, I'm aware of the extraordinary privilege I have to not worry about it.
Someone may critically say, "What about your contempt for Trump supporters? Maybe they don't feel heard either." First off, I don't have contempt for anyone, only frustration. That's where it gets really hard to find common ground. I'm not interested in the business of ranking who hurts more (because, R.E.M.), but it's very difficult, if not impossible, to empathize with a person who exercises the kind of cognitive dissonance required to dismiss basic facts, embrace conspiracy theories, reject science and education. It's also not easy to reconcile a person who finds moral equivalence where there is none. In fact, if you defend the immoral acts of one person with "everybody's doing it," with accusations that the opposing actors do the same thing, then how can you claim that the morals matter to you at all? Wouldn't you want "your" candidate to be bound by those morals?
It's also difficult to find that empathy with someone who is not interested in seeing that the very acts that marginalize minorities are not merely a side effect of policy decisions. You can in fact have strong opinions about limiting immigration without arguing (falsely) that immigrants are rapists and drug dealers. You can argue the merits (if there are any) of limiting reproductive rights without (falsely) suggesting that the opposition is out to crush your religion. You can debate the reform of law enforcement without (falsely) suggesting that victims of police brutality deserved it. You can argue against government subsidized health insurance without (falsely) suggesting that it's used by freeloaders and a government that wants to take over your life.
It's difficult to find empathy for a person willing to overlook the immoral acts of a man who represents our worst. It should have been over before it started when Trump spread the racist birther conspiracy. It should have been over when everyone heard that Trump likes to "grab them by the pussy" and "move on them like a bitch." It should have been over when he mocked a disabled person. It should have been over when he suggested he likes veterans who weren't captured (in reference to John McCain, who regardless of policy represents the ultimate record of public service). It really should have been over when he asked a foreign government to dig up dirt on his opponent. It should have been over when he said there were good people on the side of white nationalists. None of these occurrences are a matter of opinion... they all happened in plain view of the world. If my then-6-year-old child associates the angry man on TV with the worst of school bullies, why is it so hard for adults?
Despite all of that, I want to understand. I want to understand what drives white people to believe that they are being oppressed and at risk of losing their lifestyle, and to whom. Like I said, I am a white, hetero guy, with a great job and a 401k, and there is nothing that anyone on the "radical left," to use the parlance of our time, can do to take away my advantage. Immigrants, people of color, non-Christians, gay people, none of them pose a threat. The boogeyman socialists pose no threat. Trust me, if I was worried about my survival, I'd speak up about all of this, and likely express frustration that my alleged survival politics are tied to the horrible 'isms and hateful acts of those fearing brown people.
For now, cautious optimism is all I've got. The world certainly can get better if it doesn't involve an American president saying outright hateful things every single day. I can't think of many people less inspiring than Joe Biden, but maybe a big pile of boring normal is what we need.
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