Empathy for Trump Voters?

There’s a lot of talk about how elites aren’t fair to Trump voters. That what we see as an attraction to his racism, xenophobia, and, well, stupidity, is in fact a much more reasonable anger at elites who have promised prosperity while working class Americans have seen their prospects decline. Or anger at a culture war that has moved too quickly, its victors too dismissive of its losers. Or anger that it’s not politically correct to say negative things about blacks, or women, or gays, but that it’s perfectly fine — applauded, even — to crack wise about middle America.

I appreciate that line of thought, and, as I’ve written elsewhere, think elites suffer from a genuine lack of empathy for the working class and the struggles it faces in a modernizing economy.

But here’s the problem with it: No matter how deep and real the problems Trump supporters are angry about, their response — embracing Trump — remains contemptible. Set aside the fact that Trump’s proposed policies, such as we can make sense of them, would not actually make things better for working class Americans. Most Americans, across ideologies, lack much understanding of the outcomes of public policy. No, by embracing Trump, I mean embracing the stuff that’s ugly and vicious, no matter one’s perspective on economic cause and effect. I’m talking about his calls to murder the innocent families of terror suspects. I’m talking about his insane plan to deport poor immigrants and prevent entry into the country. I’m talking about his threats to use the office of the president to attack anyone who’s spoken out against him, and to “open up” libel laws because he’s a coward who can’t take criticism.

Cheering Trump as a result of legitimate grievances is like deciding that, because your boss fired you unfairly, you’re going to murder his children. We can say that, yes, you’re right to be mad, and we should empathize with the unjust hardship, but that empathy doesn’t — shouldn’t, can’t, if we believe in basic morality — extend to your reaction to it. America’s elites are often arrogant and ignorant and treat the working class poorly and need to stop. But that in no way excuses the embrace of a man rotten to his core.

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