Fight must be against Trump, not the people who voted for him

By Nicholas Kristof  /  NY Times News Service

Thu, Mar 02, 2017 - Page 9

A few days ago, I blithely tweeted a warning that US Democrats often sound patronizing when speaking of voters who supported US President Donald Trump. That provoked a vehement reaction.

“Sorry, but if someone is supporting a racist ignoramus who wants to round up brown ppl and steal my money, I’m gonna patronize,” one person said on Twitter in reply.

“This is normalization of a hateful ideology and it’s shameful,” another said.

“My tone isn’t patronizing. It’s hostile. Intentionally. I won’t coddle those who refuse to recognize my humanity,” another said.

“What a great idea! Let’s recruit a whole bunch of bigoted unthinking lizard brains because we could possibly ‘WIN!’” yet another said.

And so the comments went, registering legitimate anxieties about Trump — but also the troubling condescension that worried me in the first place. I fear that the (richly deserved) animus toward Trump is spilling over onto all his supporters.

I understand the vehemence. Trump is a demagogue who vilifies and scapegoats refugees, Muslims, unauthorized immigrants, racial minorities, who strikes me as a danger to our national security. By all means stand up to him, and point out his lies and incompetence, but let us be careful about blanket judgements.

My hometown, Yamhill, Oregon, a farming community, is Trump country, and I have many friends who voted for Trump.

I think they are profoundly wrong, but please do not dismiss them as hateful bigots.

The glove factory closed down. The timber business slimmed. Union jobs disappeared. Good folks found themselves struggling and sometimes self-medicated with methamphetamine or heroin. Too many of my schoolmates died early; one, Stacy Lasslett, died of hypothermia while she was homeless.

This is part of a national trend: Mortality rates for white, middle-aged Americans have risen, reflecting working-class “deaths of despair.” Liberals purport to champion these people, but do not always understand them.

In Yamhill, plenty of well-meaning people were frustrated enough that they took a gamble on a silver-tongued provocateur. It was not because they were “bigoted unthinking lizard brains,” but because they did not know where to turn, and Trump spoke to their fears.

Trump tries to “otherize” Muslims, refugees, unauthorized immigrants and other large groups. It sometimes works when people do not actually know a Muslim or a refugee, and liberals likewise seem more willing to otherize Trump voters when they do not know any.

There are three reasons I think it is shortsighted to direct liberal fury at the entire mass of Trump voters, a complicated (and, yes, diverse) group of 63 million people.

First, stereotyping a huge slice of the US as misogynist bigots is unfair and impairs understanding. Hundreds of thousands of those Trump supporters had voted for former US president Barack Obama. Many are themselves black, Latino or Muslim. Are they all bigots?

Second, demonizing Trump voters feeds the dysfunction of the US political system. One can be passionate about one’s cause, and fight for it, without contributing to political paralysis that risks making the country ungovernable.

Tolerance is a liberal value; name-calling is not. This raises knotty questions about tolerating intolerance, but is it really necessary to start with a blanket judgement writing off 46 percent of voters?

When Trump demonizes journalists as “the enemy of the American people,” that is an outrageous overstep. However, suggesting that Trump voters are enemies of the people is also inappropriate.

The third reason is tactical: It is hard to win over voters who you are insulting.

Many liberals argue that US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton won the popular vote and that the focus should be on rallying the base and fighting voter suppression efforts. Yes, but Democrats flopped in US Congress, governor races and state legislatures. Republicans now control 68 percent of partisan legislative chambers in the US.

If Democrats want to battle voter suppression, it is crucial to win local races — including in white working-class districts in Ohio, Wisconsin and elsewhere.

Yes, a majority of Trump voters are probably unattainable for Democrats, but millions might be winnable. So do not blithely give up on 63 million people; instead, make arguments directed at them. Fight for their votes, not with race-baiting, but with economic pitches for the working and middle classes.

Clinton calling half of Trump voters “deplorables” achieved nothing and probably cost her critical votes. Why would Democrats repeat that mistake?

Yes, the Trump camp includes some racists and other bigots, but it is a big camp, and let us not be so quick to affix labels on every member of a vast group.

This column might offend everyone, from Trump enthusiasts to liberals who decry them, but my message is simple: Go ahead and denounce Trump’s lies and bigotry. Stand firm against his disastrous policies. However, please do not practice his trick of “otherizing” people into stick figure caricatures, slurring vast groups as hopeless bigots.

We are all complicated and stereotypes are not helpful — including when they are of Trump supporters.