What To Do With Trump Voters?

I posted a short twitter essay on this yesterday, and it got some interesting reactions, so I thought I’d post a (slightly) more fleshed out version here.

Here’s the problem: many Trump voters are racist, and in a variety of ways. There are the more subtle forms, the subconscious racism alongside benefitting from/maintaining/seeking to exacerbate institutional forms of racial dominance. And then there’s the explicit stuff, in terms of actively discriminating, maintaining and using stereotypes, and advocating policy rooted in stereotypes of other groups.

That’s all terrible. And there’s a temptation (I think a compelling one in many ways) to just write these people off. And in terms of the morality of it, there are compelling arguments in both directions: on one hand, such racists are real people who deserve respect and engagement; on the other hand, if someone is saying or doing something you find morally heinous (particularly regarding you and your identity), I take the point you’re no longer obligated to engage them.

For now, let’s bracket the moral question of distinguishing between how we engage Trump—who only deserves scorn—and how we engage racist Trump voters. Those voters, again, might well also deserve only scorn, but I at least am personally convinced, as a fellow white dude, that I’m obligated to engage them. However, I think that is very specific to my positionality, and I’m super uncomfortable making any broader moral claims about how anyone else is so obligated, except to say that other white straight non-Muslim goyim men like me are probably similarly obligated.

Yet besides the moral question is the practical question. That’s a big damn part of our electorate, and getting rid of that much racism would solve some serious social problems. Of course the personal racism is both empirically and theoretically distinct from the subconscious and institutional forms of racism, but they’re also not completely distinct. But here’s the issue: very few people are going to have the kinds of conversion experiences necessary to recognize the many forms of and real moral and political problems of racism. Don’t get me wrong: I think that should be the major goal, mostly because it’s better both politically and morally. But putting all our chips on Trump voters suddenly finding compelling all the experimental data on racism within job hiring (or any other argument of that sort) seems a pretty unsure bet.

But cultural sociology is to the rescue! (Well not rescue, really, but at least some help in thinking this through.) Racism is a lot of things, of course, but one of the thing it is is a form of culture, a script that people can use in particular contexts, and that makes more sense in particular setting that others. Racism, in this sense, can’t be “cured” or “converted away from” because, well, it’s a script that white people are all basically going to keep forever, in the same way that Evangelical converts to Catholicism never really shake certain Evangelical ways of viewing the world. (Bourdieu obviously also talks about something like this in terms of how the habitus has trouble shifting between fields or when the field changes dramatically). Yet the insight from studies of culture and cognition is that we all have much more culture than we ever use at any one time, and that there are certain settings or contexts that activate particular elements of culture rather than others. So a more modest goal for Trump voters might be not so much to convince them they’re racists and that’s wrong (though that’s certainly a goal too!) but to make their racism less practical, feel less useful, not seem appropriate in whatever given context.

That obviously doesn’t solve even close to everything. There are straightforward questions about segregated housing and schooling, discordant prison sentencing, a host of other things. But even asking Trump voters to think about those things right now flips on certain scripts, certain lenses through which “race” is engaged. While the long term goal is convincing them they’re wrong to be so racist, a good short term goal might be making other scripts more salient at those moments, say, economic stability or what have you.



Written by jeffguhin

July 31, 2016 at 10:50 am

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  1. Politically, Trump and his “constituency” are the result of the Republican Party’s strategies of gerrymandering ALL state voting districts to minimize the ‘white male’ Democrats’ vote. Also, the Republican Party has engaged in legalistic voter suppression which minimizes the Democrats’ vote among all minorities. Thus, most state districts voting results can be easily predicted and has led to a predominance of Republican legislators in state assemblies and in the Federal Congress. These Republican majorities now operate as veto groups against legislation that addresses social inequalities.

    The racism complaint is part of two “impossible” practices: the color line regarding sexual reproduction where interracial matings, or marriages, are discouraged by all cultures, AND the practices of scapegoating and discrimination which all groups engage in from families to organizations to race groups to race relations where an inferior-superior dialectic emerges.

    Behind the “interpretation” of the 2nd amendment where either everyone is permitted gun ownership or gun ownership is limited to the militia which results practically in an extension of the institution of law enforcement, is the more insidious problem of the interpretation of the separation of government and religion, or ‘church and state.’ This ‘establishment clause and free exercise clause’ have been completely undermined by BOTH the Republican Party and the minority groups. There is a strong belief that the US is a Christian nation, not secular and not tolerant of other religions. Even within the Christian groupings, e.g Evangelical Protestants, Catholics, and Baptists, there are deep divisions attending to religious persecution between Christians as members of each group hold the members of other groups to the fire of fundamentalist and Biblical beliefs.

    This religious tendency is the basis for the rise of Hate Groups across the US and for the intensification of hate generally as an expression. The defense of the Constitution has been distorted by sects and factions, but particularly by the Republican Party which now presents Trump, a dictator, as Presidential candidate.

    Liked by 1 person

    Fred Welfare

    July 31, 2016 at 8:10 pm

  2. Um, Fred Welfare’s comment made my head explode. This is exactly the kind of convoluted thinking that is profoundly unhelpful for understanding “the other side.”

    I have a unique perspective on all of this, because I used to be someone who probably would have voted for Trump gleefully. I grew up in a hardcore evangelical, conservative home and hit the kool-aid hard in my early years. It would have been fair to call me racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamaphobic, and most other labels lobbed at Trump and his supporters today. My perspective has shifted rather radically over the years. I believe differently now than I used to, but I still remember why I believed the way I did and how this gradually changed.

    With all that said, of course, I’m a bit of an outlier in nearly every respect (for one, I’m not all white). I don’t expect that most Trump supporters could embark on the same sort of journey I undertook. I don’t pretend to completely understand the motivations of all or even part of the Trump bloc. But having previously been in their shoes, or at least in the vicinity of their shoes, I find the discussion around Trump supporters, and the misunderstandings about them that seem to persist among otherwise very intelligent people, to be terribly confusing.

    This focus on racism alone is arbitrarily narrow. Racism is simply part of a broader worldview. Changing racism is difficult unless you also alter the underlying worldview. I’ve done some environmental activism, and this arbitrarily narrow focus reminds me of how those activists never seem to grasp the broader implications of their work. They could and should be forming ties with organizations focused on racial and economic justice, but instead, they join hands only with other environmental organizations and harp away again and again at the same tired notes in the same tired style. They fail to make as significant of an impact as they otherwise would have if they focused on the broader worldview that gives rise to climate-change denial or support for unsustainable policies.

    Another problem is that these discussions never really treat Trump supporters (or conservatives more generally) like people, like human beings. These discussions treat Trump supporters like mere cogs in the machinery, which plays right into the opposition’s narrative about the left. To adopt the role of armchair psychologist for a second, I think that many on the left and in academia use these kinds of discussions to dehumanize Trump supporters and distance themselves from the threads that connect them with Trump supporters. I doubt this occurs intentionally, but the fact remains that many treat Trump supporters like some kind of hypothetical, unknowable entity, and I think many prefer to keep them at arms’ length.

    The harder task is to humanize these supporters. It is far more difficult to see them as like us than different from us. But this is a necessary step if we really want to understand Trump supporters and their motivations and how to influence their beliefs. The question changes from how do we get these awful people to change their awful beliefs to what would compel human beings to hold certain beliefs and what compels human beings to change those beliefs in a particular way? Focusing on the moral affront that Trump supporters represent blinds our study of them. While it may be more comforting to pretend that these people aren’t also part of humanity, the reality is that they are as much a part of humanity as we are, in the same way that the Civil War is as much a part of human history as is Civil Rights.

    Humanizing Trump supporters offers a number of key insights for influencing them. One insight is that such changes and shifts in beliefs are always personal. These changes mean shifts in the identity of the person doing the changing. Such changes have profound impacts on one’s personal narrative and the way one views one’s position in life and in society. Thus, any efforts to change Trump supporters’ beliefs need to engage them personally and in recognition of the large step that such change signifies. Macro- or meso-level strategies are unlikely to succeed without engagement at a micro level.

    Another insight is that people do not arrive at such beliefs rationally. I don’t pretend to understand the many processes involved in belief formation, but people generally don’t consciously weigh costs and benefits or alternatives when deciding what they believe or what principles they should live by. Those beliefs come from their values and the stories they tell themselves about their own lives and the lives of those who they’re close to. This is a process of identity making and is governed at least in part by emotion.

    All of these elements suggest that presenting statistics, arguing on a rational basis, or nudging people from the top down are unlikely to gain much traction with Trump supporters. Efforts to change racism among Trump supporters must engage them personally and in a concrete, grounded way and must make emotional and narrative appeals. This is exactly why LGBTQ activism has made such tremendous inroads in changing people’s beliefs. Showing the consequences of racist beliefs on real people’s stories (particularly those people with whom one has a personal connection) and doing so in an emotionally compelling way is likely to be far more effective than simply laying out unvarnished facts, though one would wish that just presenting facts were enough to convince people.

    I considered my pre-transformation self to be pretty rational, but one’s personal calculus depends quite a bit on one’s local circumstances and status. Thus, even when one makes rational arguments, the basis for this rationality may be different between different people. Emotion has a way of circumventing people’s defenses, where rationality simply raises those same defenses. I know many people will see my call to eschew rational appeals in favor of emotional ones as cringeworthy. Yes, emotional appeals can have dangerous implications, but so can rational arguments. No, I don’t think we should decide on policies based on how we feel. But when it comes to actually changing a human being’s mind and their beliefs, emotion is essential, because emotion is an essential part of humanity. Only appeals and arguments that treat “the other side” as humans will succeed. Only emotions have the power to upend the entire structure of the way someone thinks, which is entirely necessary in order to undo the racism endemic among Trump supporters.

    In my case, narratives featured in books like Nickel and Dimed and the messages carried in music I listened to at the time ultimately propelled me down a path of reconsidering and exploring my whole set of beliefs. I’ve always felt a strong pull toward values of justice and equality, even when I was a rabid conservative. It’s just that I had different ideas about what justice and equality meant and how they would be best served. To bring the point back full circle, it was the personal stories I encountered and the emotions I felt through artistic media that opened the door to me seeing that the facts of contemporary society don’t match my values. Without the narrative and emotional appeals, I was blinded to the facts I didn’t want to see.

    As I said earlier, my personal story is an outlier, and I don’t hold any illusion that droves of Trump supporters will follow my path. In particular, I think many older folks are beyond the point of no return, whatever that means. I was young and forming my own identity and narrative when I upended myself. I don’t know if younger Trump supporters are more amenable to change than older ones. That relatively few young people support Trump suggests that maybe the changes that will happen have already taken place and that they were chiefly among young people.

    Perhaps I’m a little biased about the potential for sea changes in people’s mindsets, since I flipped the switch myself. I do see remnants of my old self in myself today, but I also don’t think like I used to. It’s more like seeing old photos of myself than it is feeling like there is an undesirable part of me I can’t shake off. I guess I don’t believe in the language of “curing” people, because there’s an implicit morality shoehorned in there, but I also don’t agree that people can’t change dramatically, even on something as fundamental as racism. In fact, going back to my previous point about the arbitrarily narrow focus on racism, perhaps drastic mindset changes are the only way for people embedded in racism to become meaningfully less racist, since their views on racism are themselves embedded within larger, durable worldviews.

    I’m not how effective changing the availability of various scripts would be with Trump supporters. For one thing, their use of racist scripts is intentional, not simply a lack of choice. Even if other scripts were or are available, Trump supporters persistently return to racist scripts and claim that people who believe other scripts are more valid are just trying to distract from the “real” issues. Part of this is a result of, in my speculation, unconscious efforts to justify their own lives to themselves (racist beliefs become ad-hoc narratives that make them feel better about their position in life and in society). Trump supporters vigorously wield racist scripts for their own self-interest as well as in support of their own identities. From this perspective, changing racist beliefs doesn’t happen until you change the underlying worldview that motivates them to stick to racist scripts.

    The bottom line is that we all have more in common than we’d like to believe. Somewhere inside of all of us is a racist ready to rear its head. Yet somewhere within all of us (except for people with extremely rare pathologies) is the capacity to value justice and equality. How people view the world and the way that they translate their values to their beliefs helps determine where the balance lies. We need to be humble about ourselves and gracious about others, even when we feel indignant and outraged (and I’m not saying we shouldn’t feel those things, just that we should see beyond them). In other words, we should do less moralizing (even implicitly) and do more sociology (if that’s what you do). I still believe in the sociological imagination.

    Liked by 1 person


    August 1, 2016 at 1:48 am

  3. Thanks to both Fred and Jonathan for these wonderful, thoughtful comments. Though I want to think a bit more about Jonathan’s closing thought, that “In other words, we should do less moralizing (even implicitly) and do more sociology (if that’s what you do). I still believe in the sociological imagination.”

    I like so much of what Jonathan wrote here, which is why I’m struck by this last bit: it seems to walk back from so much that’s important about what was said above. The capacity to value justice and equality, the impetus to “humanize” those with whom we have significant differences, the need to be humble about ourselves and gracious about others: all of that is deeply moral, and I’m glad it is! It’s tricky because there seems to be a sociology of morality here, that is a *relatively* objective attempt to understand moral commitments sociologically, and that sociology of morality is in service of more explicitly moral work (in this case, an attempt to decrease racism and humanize people who have been dehumanized). Of course, maybe “moralizing” is the problem here, as opposed to doing what’s moral, which is an interesting semantic distinction, and to the extent “moralizing” means judging others as exclusively morally deficient, I agree that’s a problem.

    But I also think it’s helpful to be honest about our moral judgements, and if that means I’m moralizing, so be it. Racism is wrong, and racists are doing wrong when they practice racism. I see no problem in making that judgement, even if it’s moralizing. But I take your point that how I make and share that judgement can be better or worse handled, which is why I talked above about the need for certain white folks (like me) to do more work in the kind of explicitly relational setting through which such work can happen (nobody responds to a lecture or a a pompous attempt at converting the heathen).

    Thanks again for this!



    August 3, 2016 at 1:22 am

  4. In Jeff’s initial post, the OP, you address the definition of racism to a limited extent. But I cannot get a clear idea of exactly what Jonathan means when he uses the term racism. I said in my first post,

    “The racism complaint is part of two “impossible” practices: the color line regarding sexual reproduction where interracial matings, or marriages, are discouraged by all cultures, AND the practices of scapegoating and discrimination which all groups engage in from families to organizations to race groups to race relations where an inferior-superior dialectic emerges.”

    This made Jonathan’s head explode?? Not sure if that was good or bad, or merely inspirational – led to some 15 paragraphs. But, in Jonathan’s entire statement, I do not think there is any clear definition of racism offered. What does he mean by racism? I think this problem of definition is pertinent to understanding the Trump-supporter mindset. I consider the Trump-supporter mindset to be not simply racist, but anti-democratic, and anti-LGBTQI, and even anti-female! I think this is an authoritarian movement fueled by hate.

    So, for all of Jonathan’s wordiness, there is no clear identity that emerges either of his position or of his understanding of the Trump-supporter.

    I am also surprised that there is no recognition of why there is racism, particularly anti-black racism by whites to begin with. The starting point has to do with cross-cultural matings between whites and black which is very rare in the US because of racism: hate of whites by blacks and hate of blacks by whites! Hate is not necessary. There can be equality of services from the government and equality of justice from the judicial system AND a minimization of interracial matings or offspring is that is what both groups want. So, the problem is how to address the sexual dynamic between people of these two races while at the same time ensuring equal justice and equal services.

    Identity is a result of identifications and of the achievement of new identities, which involve the negation of old identifications (especially of racist significant others like parents and grandparents). Identifying with others on the basis of anti-governmental sentiments, rationalizations, or social imitations is as immoral an identifying with others over their racist emotions, angry hate! So, both the shared beliefs/values (no real difference) and negative emotionality is primitive and barbaric: immoral – it should be understood as immoral, not cowered from because it is immoral!!


    Fred Welfare

    August 3, 2016 at 6:25 am

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