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Why doesn’t liberal empathy extend to Trump supporters?

We should try and understand what motivates The Donald's fans.

By james O'Malley

The rise of Donald Trump is enough to give any liberal-lefty type sleepless nights. Even if a racist demagogue whose entire campaign is predicated on demonising the other fails to win the Oval Office, his success so far signals something ugly: that many social justice battles liberals thought had been won are apparently still contentious in 21st century America.

Every few days we see another shaky phone video of a scuffle at a rally, or some news footage of someone in a ‘MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN’ cap saying something outrageous. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the antipathy of liberals towards Trump doesn’t just end at the candidate: often, liberal ire is directed at the people who are backing him.

To give two examples, Shaun King, a prominent writer and activist wrote in the New York Daily News that “Donald Trump is a full-fledged bigot. If you support him, you are too”. Similarly, the social justice writer Arthur Chu has ruled out empathy with Trump supporters.

A few months ago the liberal website Addicting Info trumpeted a poll that revealed the unpleasant views of Trump supporters, saying that it showed they “Really ARE Racist, Uneducated, Hateful Buffoons”.

I find this attitude troubling. Surely liberals should argue in favour of helping the marginalised and disadvantaged. And on a number of metrics, it is clear that Trump supporters are rather marginalised and disadvantaged in life.

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According to one study by the New York Times, the demographic characteristics of counties that correlate most closely with Trump support include those with high proportions of people who are white and have no high school diploma – so have no qualifications – people with ‘old economy’ jobs like manufacturing which are in long term decline, and people who live in mobile homes. In fact, apparently a good indicator of support for Trump is whether a person is working or not. That isn’t to say ‘people who are counted as unemployed’, as that implies they are looking for work, but people who simply are not working because they have either given up or are unable to do so.

The New York Times goes on to argue that though Trump has also had support from some more affluent voters, it is in these blue collar and rural counties that he has found the most success.

In other words, a disproportionate number of Trump supporters are poor, uneducated and clearly have quite a hard life.

Surely the only conclusion for a liberal looking at this data is that many Trump supporters are victims of circumstances beyond their control, just like other groups who we do empathise with. These circumstances are not the fault of Trump supporters themselves, but the result of much larger structural pressures on the economy and so on.

So rather than simply write them off, it is a liberal’s duty to try and understand why Trump supporters are frustrated and, yes, racist.

This isn’t to say that Trump’s racist solutions are credible answers by any stretch of the imagination, but what liberals bewildered by Trump should do is look beneath the surface to identify the real cause of their grievances.

One hypothesis I find fairly compelling (and one that was proposed by Martin Robbins) is that Trump supporters have been ‘Left Behind’. This is the phrase coined by Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford to describe supporters of UKIP in Britain. Like Trump supporters they are broadly working class, poorly educated, and lacking in the skills to succeed in a post-globalisation world.

The analogy extends further too. Like Trump, UKIP has managed to exercise a disproportionate influence on its country’s politics because it has managed to find a significant minority of people who are not served by the existing political establishment. In other words, the rise of UKIP can be directly attributed to the lack of attention from the establishment elites. And now we’re seeing something similar happen in America, with even more racially-charged rhetoric. This long-term view could also explain why Trump supporters, according to the same study, have a large correlation with people who have historically voted for segregationist candidates.

So yes, Trump voters are racist. But the reasons why they are racist make, I think, a compelling case that Trump supporters deserve not our scorn, but our empathy. Ultimately, the only way Trumpism is going to go away is if its proponents’ grievances are taken seriously. Being able to empathise and understand the lives of people who are experiencing these problems is important, even if these problems manifest on the surface as something ugly.