A friend of mine -- we'll call him Jarvis -- recently found that he had seen, heard, or read one too many overbearing liberal attacks on all Trump supporters, in toto, as racists or bigots. He angrily called out such statements as indicative of the systematic ignoring of white working-class voters, and as callous to the motives that might lead such people, as he put it, to throw a grenade into the machine. At his most fevered pitch, he hurled at liberals the accusation that "You are the problem now!"
As a paradigmatic representative of the "coastal elite," I admit that my knee-jerk reaction to this statement by Jarvis (who is Hispanic) was defensive: "Well. When you get called a 'wetback' and told to go back to Mexico in the name of Donald J. Trump, let me know and I'll apologize, since clearly I'm the problem."
But this posture quickly faded, and I was left with two realizations: Jarvis has a point; and Jarvis is so frustrated that he has expressed it unfairly. Am I capable, I wondered, of reading past his frustration and offering a candid, sober response?
I don't know; but this is my attempt.
Jarvis, you are so right that we are all complicit in the layers of evil in our society, which are not new but rather merely newly exposed. We have a lot of work to do, and much of it is self-reflection and transformation.
However, to declare broadly that "you are the problem now" is to fail to do this reflecting. We all are responsible, and name-calling, even when directed at the most vitriolic attackers of Trump supporters, is simply a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
In its ideal conception, the liberal resistance to Trump isn't really about Trump; it's about exclusion, division, Othering. Regrettably, we are humans, and far from ideal; and some of us find ourselves heading down the path of Othering the Otherers, which simply replaces one problem with another. You are right to call this out; but don't mistake it for the true heart of the anti-Trumpist movement.
As for the Trump supporters themselves, I do think that even the most earnest Trump voter must (just as we liberals must) consider what is at stake, on a bigger level than policy. This is an unprecedented reality in this election. I think it's reasonable to highlight a tacit attitude that goes something like this, in the words of the Daily Show: "We don't hate you. We just don't care about you."
White working-class voters have every reason to feel disenfranchised with the political system. But it's also important to recognize that across this demographic in particular, economic hardship has been conflated dangerously with social issues like race. Often, the truth is apprehended in reverse: bad social relationships worsen because they are blamed for economic hardship, rather than that hardship being recognized as producing a bitter, xenophobic worldview.
Indeed we must respond to their plight with sincere generosity. But there also has to be an educational piece. This cuts both ways, certainly -- even as we educate, we have to be willing to learn -- but in my view it is impossible to make meaningful progress by addressing the economic challenges alone, without working to shift the underlying social bedrock; for if we fail to do the latter, we leave them poised to slip right back into longstanding patterns of bitterness and scapegoating when the money dries up again, or when -- as is entirely possible -- we fail them once more by conveniently overlooking their suffering.
White working-class Americans are not now, and never have been, the only demographic who is suffering in our country. We must exercise a nuanced, compassionate understanding of their situation; but we must also stand firm on the principles that their suffering never, ever justifies or excuses bigotry, and that their hardship will never be a disproportionately higher priority than that of other marginalized groups.
There is a legitimate argument to be made that Trump's economic promises, however grandiose, cannot reasonably be taken to outweigh the collateral social damage his candidacy and election have produced. According to Dr. Courtney Fitzsimmons, Assistant Professor of Religion at Whitman College and a specialist in ethics and moral theory, the election of Trump is "a moral failing because it perpetuates and normalizes structural evil."
On the other hand, however, we progressives are now faced with the devastating truth that our country has never ascended to the moral high ground we pretended it had found; and if we hope to take the reins of the American moral compass, we must first acknowledge our own significant warts. Do we dare to turn Jarvis's accusatory finger on ourselves? Or are we too enamored with what we have wrought to cut out the rot that weakens it?