Hillbillies, Trump, and the fear of weaponized empathy

The night after the election, still unnerved by the outcome, a refrain of “how could this have happened?” echoed through my head. I’d underestimated some aspect of the American political/cultural landscape, but I wasn’t sure what that aspect was or how I could have overlooked something so significant. I felt a need to research, to understand how a man proposing & condoning fundamentally un-American policies could have somehow won the presidency. As much as I’d like to claim that the goal of this research was to inform some future noble political action, it was more urgently selfish than that: for now, I just needed to cut through the cognitive dissonance created by the words “President-elect Trump.” My synapses were misfiring all the over the place and I needed to quiet them.

That is why, on November 9th, I ordered a copy of J.D. Vance’s ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ a recently-published memoir of a 30-something native Kentuckian. It promised to shed some light on the culture and values of rural whites hovering at or below the poverty line. By then I’d seen the exit polls, and while whites across the economic spectrum had voted for Trump in numbers that surprised me, Trump had especially won over rural and non-college educated voters at a rate that exceeded previous Republican candidates. I hoped this book would help me understand more about why these people voted for a billionaire demagogue from Manhattan.

After purchasing, while still awaiting delivery of the book, I came across a tweet containing an image with the following text:

There is an emerging narrative that the losing side in this election, the presumably liberal side, scorned and refused to understand the outraged conservative side. And that what it will take to heal the divided country is the losing side admitting that it got the winners wrong.
People, look: This is a rhetorical judo move. It is using your best impulses — the liberal impulses to understand, to negotiate, to extend compassion and find common ground — against you.
Think back to 8 years ago, when Obama swept the country. How much did you see, then, of the core right wing saying, Gee, we got the country wrong, we should be humble and try to understand the believes of the winner? A few Republicans tried. They wrote a brief about how the platform was alienating voters they might want to attract. Their ideas were shoved aside, and the hard right wing went on a scorched-earth attack instead.
The truth is that the winning side, the people who want what Trump promised, don’t give a fig for your understanding. They don’t need your common ground. They already got what they want.
The assertion that you owe a debt of understanding to the people who embraced Trump is a distraction meant to dissipate your energy. Save your compassion for the people he is going to hurt.

The above quote hit me, hard. I began to notice subsequent tweets and articles on a similar theme. I questioned my own motives and the potentially problematic nature of my book choice. Wasn’t reading it an empathy-building exercise? And if not outright racists and bigots, weren’t these voters explicitly approving of racist and bigoted policies and politicians by voting for them? These voters had unleashed so much potential damage on this country, was it really worth the effort to learn more about them? To risk empathizing with them?

In a follow up to the tweet above, the original poster writes: “the point isn’t to say ‘fuck everyone’ but to guard against letting your goodness be weaponized against you.” Message received: I was determined to not allow my own goodness to be weaponized against me.

My guard up, I began to read.

Having now finished reading the book, I’m still digesting how ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ has informed my understanding of the voting decisions from a part of American society I know little about. What strikes me now is this: the act of trying to understand currently feels controversial, even dangerous. The fear of having one’s own empathy weaponized against themselves (and their country) is a real one, and I have felt it.

I am fighting my impulse to remain ignorant. It is tempting to reduce the problem and write off half the country as white supremacists and irredeemably bigoted. That answer to “how could this have happened?” fits into a tweet, and given the facts it (sadly) seems plausible enough for our brains to easily understand. Why fight it?

But consider what has become a rallying cry from Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go high.” Beautifully spoken, it is simple enough advice to heed when one is tempted to reciprocate an ugly campaign strategy against a dirty political opponent, or a engage in a shouting match with a bigot. “When someone is cruel, or a bully, you don’t stoop to their level,” she urged. And remembering those words, many of us will successfully “go high.”

But can we “go high” when the stakes are more important than avoiding the proverbial mudwrestle with a pig? When it is more intellectually challenging and emotionally exhausting? When you fear that those voters may truly be irredeemable, so what’s the point in trying?

We must. Avoiding attempts at understanding those with differing worldviews, because of the fear that it might expose uncomfortable truths about your own worldview, is exactly the attitude that got Trump elected in the first place. Ignorance of facts, ignorance of cultures, ignorance of systemic challenges faced by certain demographics. Embracing that ignorance is the ultimate choice to “go low”.

Never accept hate, and never make excuses for bigotry. But do not reject attempts to understand the root causes of hate and bigotry. The haters and bigots may or may not be worthy of your empathy, but their hate and bigotry will never be defeated with spiteful ignorance.