The Debate Over Empathizing With Donald Trump Voters

November 16th 2016

Kyle Jaeger

Last week, more than 60 million Americans cast their vote for Donald Trump — a candidate who campaigned on a platform that some, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, view as hostile to the rights of minorities. Is the left obliged to empathize with those voters? Is there even such a thing as a "good" Trump supporter?


There are two diverging opinions on this issue. Writer Jamelle Bouie laid out the argument against excusing Trump supporters in an article for Slate on Tuesday. Because Trump "campaigned on state repression of disfavored minorities" and has given "every sign that he plans to deliver that repression," Bouie argued that his voters are irredeemably aligned with the worst elements of the president-elect's agenda. He wrote:

"To face those facts and then demand empathy for the people who made them a reality — who backed racist demagoguery, whatever their reasons — is to declare Trump’s victims less worthy of attention than his enablers. To insist Trump’s backers are good people is to treat their inner lives with more weight than the actual lives on the line under a Trump administration. At best, it’s myopic and solipsistic. At worst, it’s morally grotesque."

There are several examples of pundits imploring the left to reconcile Trump's millions of supporters with some of the questionable policy proposals he put forward during his campaign — including a temporary ban on Muslim immigration, the construction of a massive wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and a return to the days of "law and order" that could involve a nationwide stop-and-frisk policy. Among those recommending sympathy for Trump voters is writer Chris Arnade, who spent much of the presidential race interviewing Trump supporters around the country.

In a tweet thread posted on Wednesday, Arnade presented a counter-argument to Bouie's article.

On both sides of the debate, there's an implicit recognition that Trump supporters, by and large, voted in their own self-interest. Arnade chalked it up to a vote between a candidate (in this case, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton) who would "devalue you socially & economically" or Trump, who "might devalue [you] economically, but will value you socially."

That is, Clinton failed to convince Trump's base — largely white, working class voters — that her policies would benefit them economically, and also did little to make white voters feel special like Trump did. With Trump, there might be questions about his ability to make good on promises to bring back jobs and alleviate the economic anxieties of the working class, but his campaign seemed to show that Trump understood them.


To the extent that Trump voters actually agreed with some of his more controversial policy stances, exit polls offer some insight. Seventeen percent of his supporters oppose the border wall, 34 percent said illegal immigrants should be "offered legal status," and 22 percent recognize the America's criminal justice system treats black people unfairly, according to CNN. That seems to support the idea that not all Trump voters hold racist, xenophobic views.

But the debate is really about whether this cohort of Trump supporters is deserving of empathy.

Bouie stood firm on this point: no.

"To treat Trump voters as presumptively innocent — even as they hand power to a demagogic movement of ignorance and racism — is to clear them of moral responsibility for whatever happens next, even if it’s violence against communities of color," he wrote. "Even if, despite the patina of law, it is essentially criminal. It is to absolve Trump’s supporters of any blame or any fault. Yes, they put a white nationalist in power. But the consequences? Well, it’s not what they wanted."

On a practical level, there's an argument to be made that — no matter what side of this debate you stand on — it would serve Democratic interests to empathize with (or at least make an effort to understand) Trump voters.


Blaming or shaming Trump voters "is not a good political strategy," rabbi Michael Lerner wrote in a New York Times story, which Bouie referenced in his piece. By reaching out to Trump's base, listening to their concerns, and shaping future policies around those issues, Democrats could win back some of his supporters who voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

"The left needs to stop ignoring people’s inner pain and fear," Lerner wrote. "The racism, sexism and xenophobia used by Mr. Trump to advance his candidacy does not reveal an inherent malice in the majority of Americans. If the left could abandon all this shaming, it could rebuild its political base by helping Americans see that much of people’s suffering is rooted in the hidden injuries of class and in the spiritual crisis that the global competitive marketplace generates."