I’m told I should cut Trump supporters out of my life. If I did, I’d be forced to disown half my family.
A map of the United States hangs on the wall in my brother’s apartment. It’s divided into counties, each of which is shaded either red or blue, dark or light. Our home state of Kansas is blanketed in just about every shade of red, from deep maroon in the west to a mix of blood red and pink across the rest of the state. There’s only one lonely splotch of blue near the eastern border (Douglas County, where you’ll find the city of Lawrence and the University of Kansas, our alma mater).
The map displays the results of the 2016 presidential election. But it might as well be a huge identification card that announces one of my brother’s most important political and cultural affiliation: Trump supporter. Shocking as it is for some, there are still millions of those out there: Around 40 percent of Americans continue to back the president — a proportion that oscillates frequently, but never collapses.
Taken as a single subject—albeit one that encompasses everything from trade to health care to state of our civic discourse—I’ve probably written more about Trump than anything else. And my attitude is about as far from my brother’s as it is possible to get. Like so many Americans, I’m always astonished by Trump’s singular ability to shatter democratic norms, get away with the most blatant and self-serving lies, and perhaps most distressingly, generate hatred among our fellow citizens. But that last point has made me reconsider the way I talk about him — and more importantly, the people who support him.
After watching the sordid spectacle of the Kavanaugh confirmation saga, “hatred” is the word that kept coming to mind. We have to reckon with the fact that our country is being ripped apart — split into mindless political tribes that value in-group loyalty over anything resembling a sense of national solidarity and responsibility. And this isn’t just the strong impression you get when you look at the president’s Twitter feed or flip from MSNBC to Fox News. It’s borne out by a mountain of evidence — from surging polarization in Congress (along with the attendant gridlock) to years of polling data.
Trump is one of the most divisive presidents in U.S. history, but Americans were digging themselves into deeper ideological trenches long before he took office. The Pew Research Center tracks partisanship in the U.S. across a wide range of metrics, and its survey data suggest that there has been a stark and relentless divergence between Democrats and Republicans over the past couple of decades. For example, according to a Pew report released a few years ago, 64 percent of Republicans were to the right of the median Democrat in 1994 — a number that spiked to 92 percent by 2014. The same thing happened with Democrats: 70 percent were to the left of the median Republican in 1994, but this number climbed to 94 percent by 2014.
What may be even more striking than the simultaneous entrenchment on each end of the political spectrum is the animosity that has accompanied it. Pew tracks this measure of polarization as well: In 1994, 74 percent of Republicans held an unfavorable view of Democrats, while 21 percent said their attitude was very unfavorable. By 2016, these proportions shifted to 91 percent and 58 percent, respectively. Again, this escalating hostility has been mutual: While 59 percent of Democrats viewed Republicans unfavorably and 17 percent viewed them very unfavorably in 1994, these numbers shot up to 86 percent and 55 percent by 2016. And after a couple years of Trump, the situation has only gotten worse.
How long can this possibly go on before our politics becomes so disfigured by rancor and mistrust that it no longer functions? While the U.S. has recovered from periods of seemingly intractable social and political division before, this is no reason to be complacent about what we’re witnessing today.
For one thing, we have a president who’s determined to inflame conservative grievances and infuriate liberals at every available opportunity. For another, as cultural movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo seek the reallocation of power, they often become engines of political disintegration. Though these movements offer the promise of a fairer and more inclusive society, they have also exposed (and sometimes deepened) massive fissures within that society. And it doesn’t help that our sources of information about all of these subjects have never been more Balkanized or corrupted by peddlers of partisan propaganda and conspiratorial nonsense.
While these are huge obstacles for a civil society that’s becoming more fractured and unstable every day, there are ways to navigate around them. For example, next time Trump says something obnoxious and offensive, suppress your outrage reflex and consider the strategic context. Is he attacking that NFL player because he’s morally opposed to kneeling during the national anthem? Or is he making a cynical appeal to his base and trying to present his opponents as unpatriotic, disrespectful, and anti-military?
If you recognize that Trump is trying to make one group of Americans despise another, shouldn’t that have some bearing on the way you react? Shouldn’t you avoid giving him exactly what he wants? For instance, perhaps it’s unwise to declare that the “Star-Spangled Banner” is a “neo-Confederate” symbol with “militaristic and racist overtones,” as Jefferson Morley did last year in an article for AlterNet (which was later reprinted in Salon). This sort of language does all Trump’s work for him — it perpetuates his narrative about smug liberals trashing our national symbols and cancels any hope of a productive conversation with most Americans.
Here’s another way to reliably alienate millions of people and exacerbate the seething tensions in our society: tell them they’re too white — or too Christian or male or wealthy or cis or straight or “privileged” in some other way — to have an opinion on a major political or social issue. Your identity has nothing to do with your ability to make a sound argument about public policy, and it should never be used as a measure of your worth as an individual or citizen. As both major parties embrace increasingly strident forms of identity politics, Americans should reject any politician or ideology that tells them to privilege their own race, gender, or religion over their shared interests as members of the same civil society.
Trump has exploited the anxiety many Americans feel about changing demographics in their country with constant appeals to their worst nativist impulses — from his immigration ban to his comments about creating a registry of American Muslims to his insistence that many immigrants are violent usurpers here to steal jobs, evade taxes, and commit crimes.
But the obsession with identity is even more ingrained on the left. Left-wing activists, writers, and politicians routinely smear their political opponents with charges of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and an ever-expanding array of other forms of bigotry. Many of the most active and visible political movements on the left are entirely preoccupied with characteristics such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. Universities have become incubators of identitarian enmity, often thanks to the shoddy scholarship and activism of professors in fields that are heavily skewed toward the left. And entire academic disciplines have been constructed around the overwhelming moral, political, and cultural salience of identity — disciplines that often substitute blind ideology for basic academic rigor.
Just take a look at the remarkable Sokal-style hoax that Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian recently pulled off at the expense of peer-reviewed journals like Hypatia and Sexuality & Culture. As the authors explain in a summary in Areo Magazine, their intent was to expose fields they describe collectively as “grievance studies” because they share a “common goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail in order to attempt diagnoses of power imbalances and oppression rooted in identity.” To give you some idea of the extent of the hoax, the accepted material includes papers on the “rape culture” at dog parks, the “homohysteria” of men who refuse to “anally self-penetrate using sex toys,” and “part of Chapter 12 of Volume 1 of Mein Kampf with fashionable buzzwords switched in.”
You can blame this total abandonment of academic integrity and common sense on many things: journals with low standards and incompetent reviewers, a general tolerance for vapid academic language, laziness, stupidity, etc. But one culprit stands out: tribalism.
Reviewers at the journals in question were willing to accept preposterous arguments with zero intellectual merit because they were consistent with a certain ideology — a phenomenon that isn’t limited to the strange world of “grievance studies.” Myopic partisan outlets like Daily Kos and Occupy Democrats have flourished in the Trump era, along with open sewers of conspiratorial garbage like Alex Jones’s InfoWars. Meanwhile, even Americans who get their information from mainstream sources inhabit different political universes. Just think of the vast difference between how the typical Washington Post reader and Fox News viewer interprets the Mueller investigation — it’s either an urgent inquiry into the extent of a hostile foreign power’s attempt to subvert our democracy or a partisan witch hunt.
A recognition that our media outlets, academic journals, and social media feeds are all padlocked echo chambers that are rarely (if ever) breached from the outside is the beginning of wisdom in the effort to reduce polarization. This doesn’t require us to surrender to some kind of post-truth fantasy in which everyone’s facts and opinions are equally valid. Nor does it demand that we discard our political convictions in search of a bland and superficial consensus. As Christopher Hitchens often pointed out, “politics is division by definition” and history is replete with examples of the horrors wrought by unthinking consensus. Trump poses a unique threat to our democratic institutions, and his opponents have a responsibility to be as vigorous as ever in their criticism of his administration.
But we also have a responsibility to be honest about what motivates our political opponents (hint: white supremacy and fascism are generally low on the list). We should drop the toxic idea that different races, genders, and religions are locked in a zero-sum power struggle and instead emphasize our common citizenship. We shouldn’t allow Trump to distract and divide us by turning every provocation — no matter how petty or transparently cynical — into another bloody stalemate in the endless culture war that has engulfed the country. We need to have a sober sense of historical proportion about the Trump presidency (which would preclude breathless invocations of words like “fascist”). And we should extend more charity to our fellow Americans.
It isn’t naïve to engage with the strongest versions of your opponents’ arguments, nor is it a breach of principle to refrain from calling them irredeemable bigots, fascists, misogynists, and liars. On the contrary, these are necessary preconditions for the civic restoration our country so desperately needs.
In early 2017, the New York Times published an article about tenants and renters who have been inserting “no-Trump clauses” in ads for roommates. As one “open-minded and liberal” couple put it, “If you’re racist, sexist, homophobic, or a Trump supporter please don’t respond. We won’t get along.” As I read about all these open-minded liberals who seem to think living with a Trump supporter is like living with a pile of asbestos sitting on the couch, I immediately wondered what they would say about a roommate who watches Fox News and has a big, red reminder of Trump’s victory hanging on his wall. A roommate like my brother.
Unlike the liberals who want everyone around them to pass a battery of ideological purity tests, I can’t cut the Trump supporters out of my life. If I did, I’d be forced to disown half my family.
As harmful as I believe Trump is, people I know and trust voted for him — a constant reminder that the words “Trump supporter” aren’t, in fact, synonymous with racist, sexist, and homophobic. This isn’t an attempt to exculpate Trump for the grotesque sexism he’s displayed over and over again, the comments he made after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville (“…very fine people on both sides…”), or his xenophobic comments about Muslims and immigrants. But it’s an acknowledgement that many of the Americans who continue to support him do so in spite of these things, not because of them. They didn’t listen to the “Access Hollywood” tape and say, “That’s my guy!”
In his 1941 essay “England Your England,” George Orwell describes his country as a “family with the wrong members in control.” While the sheer size and diversity of the United States limit the usefulness of this analogy, the truth it contains can help inoculate us against the spreading partisan hatred that’s infecting our civic life. We can’t choose our fellow citizens any more than we can choose our family members. No matter what happens with Trump over the next few years, we’ll still have to figure out a way to live together under the same national roof: one set of laws, one civil society, and one flag. Politics will always be division by definition, but division doesn’t have to mean dissolution.