As Joe Biden is declared the winner in the 2020 presidential election, one prominent theme in his statements has been the need to heal political hostilities and end the mutual demonization that has made American public life so toxic in recent years. This is not only a worthy goal but an urgently important one. Yet many Biden supporters are clearly unprepared to heed that plea as they fall back on familiar tropes, branding the 71 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump with the scarlet "R." In the words of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, the close results of the election show that "many of our fellow countrymen and women are either racists or accommodate racists or acquiesce to racists."
Others have been more blunt: A viral tweet by actor/writer Dustin Milligan urged people to tell "Trump-voting friends and family" that "they're racist f-cking sh-tbags who deserve zero respect."
The reality, of course, is far more complicated — and these sweeping accusations of bigotry help perpetuate the vicious cycle of demonization of which Trump has been both a cause and a symptom.
For one, findings from exit polls (which, in this year of the pandemic, included surveys of mail-in voters) scramble the simplistic racial analysis. Yes, white Americans are the only group in which a slight majority (58 percent of men, 55 percent of women) voted for Trump. But a third of Hispanic/Latino voters (36 percent of men, 28 percent of women) also backed him, as did nearly a third of Asian-American voters. Even among Black Americans, a reliably Democratic constituency, Trump got nearly a fifth of the male vote; Black women were the only group in which he received less than 10 percent of the total.
What's more, Trump did better among Black and Hispanic voters this year than he did in 2016; ironically, the one demographic in which he lost ground was white men. In some battleground states, such as Texas and Florida, the Hispanic vote was key to his victory, helping offset losses among white voters.
Blow unironically blames these facts on "the Power of White Patriarchy," which somehow causes oppressed people to align with the oppressor. But that's basically a progressive version of blaming Satan: the specific mechanisms by which the unseen evil influence works remains unclear.
A far more plausible explanation is that most Americans who voted for Trump for a wide range of reasons don't consider him racist or bigoted.
How can that be, given his long record of race-baiting or xenophobic comments? This is, after all, the man who launched his presidential campaign in 2015 with a speech claiming that Mexico is "sending us" drug dealers, criminals, and rapists across the border. This is the man who asked at a White House meeting why we should accept immigrants from "sh-thole countries" such as Haiti. This is the man who has attacked four non-white progressive Democratic congresswomen on Twitter by suggesting that they should "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came." (One of his targets, Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, came to the United States as a child as a refugee from Somalia; the other three were all born in the United States.) Other examples abound.
Yet there are many reasons people may not see these things as disqualifying. Many simply don't know about them. (Hard to believe, but most Americans don't obsessively follow political news!) Some prefer not to know; people of all political persuasions often tune out things they'd rather not hear or remember. Some explain these statements away — claiming, for example, that Trump's comments about Mexican rapists and drug dealers were about criminal illegal aliens, not Mexican migrants as a group. (In reality, Trump not only defended his comment in 2018 but made it clear that he was talking about legal immigrants coming through the visa lottery.)
Others blame "fake news," claiming that Trump is the victim of hostile and dishonest "liberal media." This excuse — and most of the time, of course, it is an excuse — gets a boost from the fact that on some occasions, news media have taken his words out of context. Two years ago, for instance, it was widely reported that Trump had referred to Central American migrants as "animals" during a meeting with sheriffs; in fact, he was talking about violent gangs. (Yes, Trump has used such rhetoric to dehumanize migrants in general — but that's still not a license to misreport.)
Still others dismiss Trump's ugly words as mere "trash talk," the norm in the real estate business from which he hails: If he attacks Rep. Omar by targeting her background, they say, that's just because he'll reach for any available insult when he lashes out. One could argue, of course, that this attitude does amount to tolerating racism. But the people who make such excuses are equally willing to condone other forms of ugliness, including ones that should be profoundly offensive to conservatives.
That was the case with Trump's infamous 2015 comment trashing the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Vietnam-era prisoner of war, as someone undeserving to be called a war hero ("I like people who weren't captured"). Respect for war heroes and prisoners of war is one of the most sacrosanct values of traditional manhood and patriotism — values decidedly in the "conservative" column. Yet Trump voters were obviously, and easily, willing to overlook the insult. One woman I interviewed in early 2017, an attorney and conservative writer, shrugged it off as a joke (even though it was very clearly a hostile jab). Others fell back on the "that's just the way he talks" excuse.
To be clear: None of these things are harmless. Even Trump's nonracial taunts and slanders are profoundly demeaning to our public life. His race-baiting and immigrant-baiting are far worse; they not only make many members of minority groups feel diminished but embolden bigots who do take the hateful message seriously. Those people — the racists, the xenophobes, the misogynists, the anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists — are a part of his "base."
But if those were the only people supporting Trump, Biden would have won by a much larger margin than he did.
There are plenty of others — including people who are not white. A Wall Street Journal report on pro-Trump Latinos in South Texas offers a glimpse at their reasons. Some credit Trump with a good economy. Others see him as someone who speaks up for religion. Still others worry that Biden may hurt the oil industry, where many locals work. Some feel that the Democrats are anti-law enforcement — or even blame them for the past summer's riots linked to anti-racism protests.
We can ask why so many people are willing to give Trump a pass on his 50 shades of awful, or to believe things that seem self-evidently absurd (for instance, that Trump cares about working people). Nevertheless, Trump voters are also expressing concerns that cannot be dismissed. Moral grandstanding may be satisfying — but Biden's message of healing and dialogue is a far better way forward. In fact, I'd say it's the only way forward.
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