When Trump Happens To Good People
My aunt is not a bigot. Kind-hearted and welcoming to everyone, (to a fault, my younger self thought when she once invited the UPS guy to a family barbeque) she works as a hospice nurse, collects and distributes winter coats to the homeless, and helps lead an emergency medical care team that deploys annually to the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
My aunt is not disenfranchised. Her community did not suffer total financial destruction as many across America did in the wake of the recession. Her suburban Pennsylvania town, though scenic, is not much like “the middle” at all — still an easy drive to Philadelphia, New York, or the Jersey shore, with anything she might need available at a spread of big box stores a twenty minute-drive away. Spared from foreclosure and unemployment, she and my uncle both have jobs and live in a good house and neighborhood. They exist in an assumed state of safety.
Over the past few months as the media has parsed out how a candidate like Trump could come to be, two main narratives have come to the fore: Trump supporters are either bigoted extremists pushing back against progressivism, poverty-stricken people with limited education angered at being left behind in the economic downturn (especially poor whites in rural areas), or some combination of the two.
And yet, when I went to visit my aunt, I was confronted by the terrifying reality that she and her friends are probably going to vote for Trump. If she does, she represents an alarming third category of Trump supporters — good people, usually politically neutral ones, who have the privileges whiteness affords them and feel comfortable in their daily routines.
Safe inside the consistency of their day-to-day interactions, they’ve lost the ability to conjure up what a life outside the bounds of that comfort might look like; the result is a loss of empathy.
We’ve only really discussed it once outright: I mentioned something about Hillary I can’t remember now, and my aunt responded saying she’d rather have Trump if it meant not meddling with her rights and her business. Standing in the hallway of a home I’d known since childhood I felt an adolescent screech escape me: what about literally everyone else’s rights? and then, the first (admittedly stupid, hyperbolic) thing that popped into my head: how do you feel about voting pro-dead children? This was days after Trump announced a promise to remove gun-free zones around schools and before the Orlando massacre, though of course that didn’t change his platform. I completed my revival performance of angsty teenager by stomping down the hall and slamming the bathroom door. When the adrenaline had subsided, I came out to find my aunt Googling whether Trump had in fact vowed to do away with gun-free zones, which of course he had, a revelation by which she — mother of two children midst the dawn of the modern-day school shooting as ushered in at Columbine — was briefly subdued.
Perhaps because she didn’t want to witness another temper tantrum, or maybe because she, deep down, feels some guilt about it, we’ve been skirting the issues since then. I limit myself to mentioning only the most egregious Trumpisms (take your pick), for which there can be no sane justification. She never tries to justify. On more than one occasion she’s said simply, “he’s not really going to do that.”
She sometimes counters with something “nice” about Trump that she’s heard on the news. “They just did a whole big thing about it,” she said recently. “His maids say he’s a great employer, very nice to them, and gives them big holiday bonuses.”
Never mind that when I Google Donald Trump’s maids all I can find is a bloc of articles about his questionable hiring and documentation practices for the largely immigrant workforce he employs (and then calls rapists), and this 1990 exposé interview with a hotel maid about what a terrible boss Trump was, featuring the rather prescient quote, “I think of all the nice people in this country, and for the Trumps to be a symbol of America is too bad.”
The thing is, I believe my aunt actually did watch a puff piece about the pleasures of being Trump’s maid. I even believe that Trump is nice to his personal maid, someone who works in his private house and caters to his every need, someone who he sees every day and, over the years has revealed herself to be, undeniably, a human being.
This same principle of proximity (or lack thereof) is what allows people like my aunt to support Trump.
American suburbia, or any homogenous community, narrows the viewfinder of what we see and understand on an everyday basis. The marginalized people Trump threatens are generally not individuals with whom my aunt works or goes to the gym with, or even passes in the street. They are an unnamed mass of “other,” the abstract nature of which defies true empathy, making it difficult not only to imagine the future effects of potential Trumpian policy, but also to comprehend the present damage done by the hatred he spews daily.
This detachment from the plight of others, or from plight in general, spans both place and time. My aunt and uncle, like millions of Americans, worked hard with no financial or familial support or education to earn the life they enjoy today, but the toughest of that work was a long time ago now. Now they have a backyard, good health insurance, and an array of easy-access creature comforts that allow them to blank over most forms of physical discomfort. Straight and married, they are not endangered by the act of loving one another, and cannot feel the immediacy of a massacre like Orlando, at least not in a big enough way that it will incite them to activism.
Surrounded by others just like them, their daily environment requires no pressing consideration of privilege or inequity.
In a place so adroit at erasure, with a police blotter comprised of misdemeanors and cute animal control mishaps, I understand, too, why my aunt can say with confidence that Trump won’t really act on the odious things he says — from where she stands, mass deportations, wall-raisings, the rollback of the marriage equality act, and a host of other human rights violations Trump has promised both domestically and abroad, have so little to do with reality she can dismiss them as attention-grabs. Just as UK voters could elect to leave the European Union and immediately thereafter express incredulity and regret that they actually won, a combination of incomplete information and overblown self-assurance that nothing bad could happen to them buoys many American voters’ confidences that everything will be okay, as it always has been. Inside the village walls, Trump on The Apprentice feels realer than the masses he now threatens, his reality-TV persona of successful businessman more familiar than the real-life shambles of Atlantic City a few exits down the turnpike.
We see our future in the UK’s Referendum vote to leave the European Union — for as many UKIP radicals, or bigoted anti-immigration activists who voted to leave, there are just as many, or more, people who even while voting to leave, did not think it could actually happen.
It’s tempting to think of Trump supporters as uniformly terrible people (or at least uneducated ones in dire straits); it makes his rise to power more palatable.
But the truth is much scarier than that — a combination of privilege and eye-averting can bring good people to vote for a vile and dangerous candidate, making Trump’s support base much bigger than we’d care to admit.
Trump is not only a megaphone for the hatred inside others, he is a mirror of a greater ugliness inside all of us — a shortsighted imagination, and with it the decision to withhold compassion for those outside our immediate circles. As Americans buffered by a pair of oceans we are nearly all culprits of this kind of disconnect, desensitized to the value of human life in our many wars — the 400,000+ murdered, 4.5 million made refugees and 6.5 still displaced within the warzone of the Syrian conflict; the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 215 people killed in Iraq last Sunday.
Luckily, while we might not be able to change the opinions of people whose ideology is based in hatred and fear, we may have a chance with those based in misinformation and inexperience. We all must do better to see the humanity in everyone on the sole basis of their humanness, and to continue to hold in mind the dark and shameful historical record of what happens when we don’t.