On Doubling Down

Trump voters need to be engaged, not shamed.

While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. He began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day.

-Acts 17:16–17

In the Bible, the Apostle Paul is considered the chief leader responsible for spreading the message of what became Christianity throughout the known world. In the passage above, Paul is in Athens and he is waiting for some compatriots to catch up to him. While he is there, he is distrurbed by the number of idols. If you aren’t familiar with the text,you might think that after that Paul would start going around tearing down statues Carry Nation-style. But Paul went to Mars Hill, a popular spot in town where people debated the issues of the day and started to persuade the populace. He never talked down to the Athenians or made fun of their faith. Instead he sought to persuade the cityfolk by latching onto something of that culture and then bring them to know about Jesus Christ.

The older I get, the more I think persuasion is an art as well as a virtue. It means learning what we can about another culture or group and picking up what might link you and the group. Then you have to be able to share your own message with humilty in order to make a case for your way of thinking.

Persuading, compromising; these were the things, are the things that can make democracy possible. Not bending, not reaching out to the uncoverted is a sign that a democracy is fragile. That’s where I think America is at this moment in history. I think it is this time when America either weathers the current crisis or allows democracy to decay.

In the two years since the election of Donald Trump, I’ve been surprised at how much those of us who voted against him seem ready to do what Trump is so good at doing himself; jettison a good chunk of the population because they are not on the right side. Politics used to be about finding ways to presuade those that didn’t vote for you in one election to vote in the upcoming election. From #resistance liberals to #NeverTrump conservatives, the message is increasingly to write off Trump voters as racist idiots who are to blame for their own problems.

No, Trumpers aren’t all innocent, but not all Trumpers are die hard loyalists. If anti-Tumpers write them off we might inadvertently be empowering, not weakening Trump.

In the days following President Trump’s inauguration, a Venezualan economist wrote about how the opposition to President Chavez back backfired and his advice for Americans against Trump. Andrés Miguel Rondón saw the the opposition made a number of mistakes and he wanted to pass on some advice. His advice comes from his own experiences a decade ago that kept Hugo Chavez in power. First, he calls for resisters to know who the enemy is and that it is and that enemy is you, the elite. “Never forget that you’re that enemy. Trump needs you to be the enemy, just like all religions need a demon.” Trump, like Chavez feeds on polarization.

Second, anti-Trumpers have to stop showing contempt for his voters. Again, Trump feeds on division, so having a bunch of people dressing someone down, People will remember that. Stop telling them they are idiots to them.This is what happened among the opposition under Chavez; they ridiculed the man and the voters and that made it difficult for them to defeat Chavez. “The worst you can do is bundle moderates and extremists together and think that America is divided between racists and liberals. That’s the textbook definition of polarization. We thought our country was split between treacherous oligarchs and Chávez’s uneducated, gullible base. The only one who benefited was Chávez,” Rondon said.

But Rondon’s most important advice is the final one. He said that the opposition needed to stop talking about separation of powers or corruption and spend time in the neighborhoods of the poor and simply engaging with them. It took the opposition a decade to realize they needed to get to know the people in the slums. In the meantime, they created polarization and there was a loss of shared culture in Venezuela.

Listening to Trump voters, going to where they live and hearing them, we might get to learn why they voted for someone like Trump. We also might get to learn about what we did wrong. We need more Chris Arnades, a bond trader that left his job and went around the country meeting what he calls the back row kids. Read his articles on Medium and the Guardian. Arnade, who is a liberal, wrote in the Guardian in the immediate days before the election, why white people would vote for Trump. Here’s Arnade’s take on how the media looked at the Trump phenomenon back in 2016:

Most journalists ensconced in their New York or Washington offices refused to accept that someone as louche and crass as Trump could appeal to voters. Trump supporters, in many of their minds, were simply dumb or racist, overshadowing any notion that these voters might also have some valid concerns.

As Trump started winning primaries, the outrage and disbelieve increased. I continued my drives around the US and saw a feedback develop: the loud distaste voiced against Trump by who they saw as “the establishment” only added to his appeal.

Florence Johnson, 69, was like that. She was shopping in the Goodwill in Natchitoches, Louisiana, buying a vacuum cleaner and an electrical stuffed parrot (“I have always like birds”). She wasn’t shy about her situation. “I am poor,” she said. She also wasn’t shy about her support for Trump, or why. “Hell yes I am voting for Trump. Tired of politicians. He is putting on a great show, pissing them other bastards off. They deserve it!”

While he agreed that Trump was exploiting racial divisions, he also saw how he exposed the divided among whites that were well-educated and those that weren’t:

As months went by, Trump wasn’t just exploiting and expanding white racism; he was also exposing a divide between those with good education, and those without. A version of the school room front row kids versus back row kid.

It became simple: if I wanted to talk to a community overwhelmingly supporting Trump, I would go to a white town or neighborhood nearest the rusting factory surrounded by razor fence.

If I wanted to find Clinton, or Jeb Bush, or even Rubio voters, I would go near a university, or go to the wealthier neighborhoods near tech companies, or near headquarters of global corporations.

The reason many white working class voters decided to vote for a serial adulterer, deadbeat and bigot is not simply that they are racists that can’t deal with a changing America. It’s also that they felt that they were losers and the Clintons and Bushes of the world were winners that didn’t understand them. We make fun of them or ignore them at the peril of the republic. If we can’t reach out to them, if we can’t tell them we are listening and want to help, if we continue to make fun of them and denounce them as racists, they will listen to the only pol that seems to take them seriously: Trump.

The President is a very present threat to American society. Talk about how he is weakening our democratic norms is real. But if we want to stop Trump from damaging more of our nation, we need to learn to see Trump voters as part of America. If we don’t, we will see Trump take the oath again in January of 2021.

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Dennis Sanders

Dennis Sanders

Middle-aged Midwesterner. I write about religion, politics and culture. Podcast: churchandmain.org newsletter: https://churchandmain.substack.com/