Donald Trump ran a campaign of racist demagoguery against Muslim Americans, Hispanic immigrants, and black protesters. He indulged the worst instincts of the American psyche and winked to the stream of white nationalists and anti-Semites who backed his bid for the White House. Millions of Americans voted for this campaign, thus elevating white nationalism and white reaction to the Oval Office.
Understandably, critics of Trump have used this to condemn Trump voters, tying them to the likely consequences of their vote, blaming them for foisting Donald Trump on the country and the world. To this, there’s been a pushback. “[P]lease understand what is happening here,” writes Michael Lerner in the New York Times in a column titled “Stop Shaming Trump Supporters.” “Many Trump supporters very legitimately feel that it is they who have been facing an unfair reality.” He continues: “The left needs to stop ignoring people’s inner pain and fear. The racism, sexism and xenophobia used by Mr. Trump to advance his candidacy does not reveal an inherent malice in the majority of Americans.”
Millions of Americans are justifiably afraid of what they’ll face under a Trump administration. If any group demands our support and sympathy, it’s these people, not the Americans who backed Trump and his threat of state-sanctioned violence against Hispanic immigrants and Muslim Americans. All the solicitude, outrage, and moral telepathy being deployed in defense of Trump supporters—who voted for a racist who promised racist outcomes—is perverse, bordering on abhorrent.
It’s worth repeating what Trump said throughout the election. His campaign indulged in hateful rhetoric against Hispanics and condemned Muslim Americans with the collective guilt of anyone who would commit terror. It treated black America as a lawless dystopia and spoke of black Americans as dupes and fools. And to his supporters, Trump promised mass deportations, a ban on Muslim entry to the United States, and strict “law and order” as applied to those black communities. Trump is now president-elect. Judging from his choices for the transition—figures like immigration hardliner Kris Kobach and white nationalist Stephen Bannon—it’s clear he plans to deliver on those promises.
Whether Trump’s election reveals an “inherent malice” in his voters is irrelevant. What is relevant are the practical outcomes of a Trump presidency. Trump campaigned on state repression of disfavored minorities. He gives every sign that he plans to deliver that repression. This will mean disadvantage, immiseration, and violence for real people, people whose “inner pain and fear” were not reckoned worthy of many-thousand-word magazine feature stories. If you voted for Trump, you voted for this, regardless of what you believe about the groups in question. That you have black friends or Latino colleagues, that you think yourself to be tolerant and decent, doesn’t change the fact that you voted for racist policy that may affect, change, or harm their lives. And on that score, your frustration at being labeled a racist doesn’t justify or mitigate the moral weight of your political choice.
In the same way that the election-year demand for empathy toward Trump supporters obscured the consequences of Trump’s support for his targets, this demand for empathy does the same. It’s worse, in fact. In the wake of Trump’s win, the United States was hit with a wave of racist threats, agitation, harassment, and violence, following a year in which hate crimes against Muslim Americans and others reached historic highs. With Trump in office, millions of Americans face the prospect of a federal government that is hostile to their presence in this country, and which views them as an intrusion, even if they are citizens. Even if they’ve lived their entire lives as Americans.
To face those facts and then demand empathy for the people who made them a reality—who backed racist demagoguery, whatever their reasons—is to declare Trump’s victims less worthy of attention than his enablers. To insist Trump’s backers are good people is to treat their inner lives with more weight than the actual lives on the line under a Trump administration. At best, it’s myopic and solipsistic. At worst, it’s morally grotesque.