The morning after the election, a friend sat down next to me at my favorite coffee shop to lament that the incumbent Republican president had won so much support from the country when it seemed to her his tenure had clearly been a disaster.
"Explain to me," she demanded, "how anybody could vote for that man?"
The year was 2004. George W. Bush had just won re-election, even though his decision to invade Iraq had already gone sour. And my left-of-center friends were utterly bewildered at what had just happened.
So when dawn broke on Wednesday morning this week, and thousands of Democratic voices were crying out in anger that President Trump had not been more thoroughly repudiated by voters in the 2020 election, it felt a bit familiar. "This is the country we live in," was the shocked refrain of the day.
And hey, I get it. It's easy to look at Trump's disastrous presidency — his indifference to the coronavirus pandemic, his abject racism, his disrespect for democracy and ostentatious flouting of the law — and see a disaster. It is frustrating that so many millions of Americans don't see it the same way.
On the other hand, it's really tiresome to see a lot of smart people appear shocked over and over by the same damn thing. It was one thing to be caught off-guard by Trump's victory in 2016. It's another thing entirely to be surprised again if he scores a near-miss four years later. There is a substantial, though not invincible, constituency for conservatism in this country. There was four years ago. There will be four years from now. This really is the country we live in.
This doesn't mean left-of-center folks should accept the status quo. They should keep fighting to improve this country and make it better for all people. But it does mean they should be smarter about understanding the playing field.
Four years ago, after Trump won, there was a lot of talk in the press about "getting outside of our information bubbles." Liberals hear one set of media voices, the thinking went, while conservatives hear another entirely. The smart thing to do was to make an effort to listen to voices you didn't really want to hear.
I'm not sure many liberals actually did that. The New York Times' occasional "Trump voters in this Ohio diner are still supporting Trump" stories may have become self-parodic through repetition, but they also represented a modest attempt to bring new perspectives to the paper's readers. Those stories were routinely greeted with widespread derision and threats to cancel subscriptions from readers who, it seemed, believed they already understood the right-wing point-of-view well enough, thank you very much. An attempt by The New Yorker to do a live interview of Steve Bannon — yes, an odious figure — produced a near-revolt.
If more liberals had poked their heads outside the their bubble, they might have gained a more nuanced understanding of what Trump voters want. The simplest explanation has been that racism is driving the Trump vote — and that viewpoint has a lot of explanatory power, but it isn't complete. Yes, Trump is racist. And yes, more than a few of his most vocal fans are racist, too. And Trump voters who weren't motivated by the president's racism didn't consider it a dealbreaker. That is troubling.
But some Trump voters simply couldn't vote for a pro-choice candidate. Others really did believed that the president was responsible for the success of the pre-pandemic economy. And a few worried about where a left-leaning president would take the country. On Wednesday, the actress Natalie Morales — no Trump fan — noted that some Latino voters had fled repressive socialist or communist regimes in places like Cuba and Venezuela.
You might not agree with Trump voters on any of the above issues. You don't have to. But there is wisdom in understanding what such folks care about, why, and how they see themselves. Progressives who want to make genuine, positive change can probably be most effective by doing the hard and uncomfortable work of truly understanding the perspectives of people with differing views, rather than waving them off with stereotypes. We might even listen once in a while, instead of always trying to win the argument at Thanksgiving.
Otherwise, the shocks will probably keep coming every four years, no matter the election results. "This is the country we live in" shouldn't be a statement of angry resignation — but the beginning of realistic discussion about how to make America better for everybody.
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