I am a conservative. I am a Republican. I am mixed race. I am educated. I am not a Trump voter, nor a Trump supporter. If you talked to me or saw my social media in the wake of President Trump’s nomination, you would know that this is in fact a rather significant understatement. If you saw me engage in political battle with Trump voters in my own local caucus (proudly in the only state to nominate Rubio), you would probably wonder what I could possibly have to say in support of them or their candidate.
Quite a lot, it turns out. One year later, after The Unthinkable actually happened, the fact that I have to start every political conversation with some sort of semi-apologetic preamble such as the above to even be listened to (or perhaps not), has rubbed me the wrong way enough times to start thinking of ways to explain to people not just who I am as a non-Trump-supporting Republican, but to explain also those who support him, or supported him, or may support him in the future.
Because one thing I do have in relation to Trump supporters that many of his critics on both the right and left do not, is empathy. Empathy for them as fellow Americans who carefully weighed the decision of who to vote for in a presidential election and came to a different conclusion than I. Empathy for them as people with good intentions who simply have a different vision of the world than me, or a different vision of who the lesser of two evils was in one particular case. Or just plain old empathy for them as human beings.
Perhaps this has something to do with the people close to me who voted for Trump. The first person I know who supported President Trump, even before the Republican convention, was an Indian immigrant relative who is the embodiment of the American Dream: educated, successful, and self-made. Over dinner, he explained not only why Hillary Clinton was awful beyond words, but why Donald Trump had qualities he admired that made him think he would be well-suited for the position of president.
At the time I assumed he was just an anomaly, like every other step Donald Trump took towards first the nomination, then the presidency. But a few months later, I met another self-made immigrant who was also a Trump supporter. And not the “holding your nose while you push a button” Trump voter, but a genuine Trump supporter. Through him, I became aware of a whole network of successful, educated immigrants from all over the world who both supported and admired candidate Trump for his business success, his frame control, and yes, his sheer “winning,” and who understood or even heartily supported his stances and comments on immigration.
I think the stone that finally shattered my glass house of incomprehension and incredulity was thrown by my friend from Harvard Law School, originally from Mexico City, who told me the night of the election that he had texted all of his relatives in Florida and told them to vote for Trump. Like I had with every step of this process, I laughed it off like the hilarious joke it was, and the even better joke it was going to be in the morning.
And then the morning came.
And the joke was over.
And suddenly I had to actually figure out what had happened.
In the year since, there has been a lot of discussion of disenchanted white working class voters, about subsets of such voters who voted for both Obama and Trump, about opioids, systemic cultural depression and economic despair, about what the Republican and Democrat establishment got wrong and didn’t understand about rural or red (and sometimes blue) America. There has also been a substantial phenomenon of far too easily attributing it all to the common bromides of racism, ignorance, backlash against a black president, etc.
But I think we need to take a hard look as well at the number of educated, minority, and even immigrant voters who not only didn’t shy away from Trump, but supported him exuberantly, at least compared to the alternative. There may be something going on here besides a lingering sadness stemming from the death knell of Norman Rockwell America, because that alone does not explain Trump voters or the actuality of this presidency. And if we don’t figure out what it is, and don’t think and act with empathy to understand why, we could very well be having this same conversation three years from now, wondering how it happened twice.