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Empathy isn’t a favor I owe white Trump voters. It has to go both ways.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

I'm hurting, and I’m tired, and I’m not surprised.

And I'm one of the people who will be relatively okay in this new old America. All my papers are in order. I'm a heterosexual man. I'm black, yes, but I'm also privileged. I have a fancy degree and fancy friends and global access to what's passing for a new economy and a long-held skepticism about America’s greatness, all of which gives me a certain amount of protection. Of course I am on the record, repeatedly, excoriating the new commander of our armed forces, who has, on the record, repeatedly shown a penchant for seeking revenge. But all in all, I'm probably one of the lucky ones even if my name is on Omarosa's enemies list.

Many others are very unlucky. They are the ones I was voting for.

Many of my fellow Muslim, undocumented, black, female, disabled Americans will suffer. The candidate who won did so by promising a hell for these people and more. We are already seeing some of the “silent majority” emboldened to heckle, harass, spit on, and assault those they don’t consider “real” Americans.

The bullying may be the worst part of these election results. How can you tell your child that bullying doesn't work, when it's exactly what the new president did to get his job, not in some distant youthfully indiscreet past but as a fundamental 2016 campaign strategy? The tweets are still there. I do not envy the parents of this young generation trying to explain why bragging about the size of your penis, encouraging sexual violence, and smearing entire ethnicities, religions, and nationalities is not the absolute best way to get ahead in this world.

But I also know this: The pain liberals are feeling today is similar to the pain Mitt Romney's voters felt four years ago. I remember people crying over Romney's loss, and I remember laughing at their tears. Now I'm the one crying just thinking what I wouldn't give for a binder filled with qualified women or a car elevator or a corny-ass Ned Flanders sound-alike who served someone other than himself.

Would it have been better if Romney won in 2012? I love my organic-farming first lady and my silky-voiced black president. I would be sad to have had four fewer years of them. But what if that meant Donald Trump’s power would be limited to Fox & Friends call-ins and 3 am tweets? Will the suffering and greenlighting of assault and deportations and sexism of the Trump years have been worth it? It’s too soon to know. Only history will tell.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney at the second debate of the 2012 presidential election, when Romney talked about “whole binders full of women.”
Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

Meanwhile, I hear these calls for empathy with the "white working class" that lashed out (notice it is never the black or brown working class we are urged to hear). It is a compassionate and noble request, and it is one I am sympathetic to. I know I was often too busy, occupied with my own pain and those of the people I see, to think too hard about what happens to white identity in the face of rapid demographic, cultural, technological, and economic change.

I know the political parties have failed, and the economic system has failed, and the media has failed, and not just failed "my" people but the great middle of we the people. Writer Anand Giridharadas has written and spoken perhaps most eloquently on the subjects of empathy and reconciliation in this age of more winning winners and more losing losers. I highly recommend his TED talk (of course it's a TED talk) and New Yorker article (of course it's a New Yorker article).

So I know I could have and can do more to listen, to be compassionate, to operate from a place of love. But more than what I could have done is what white people themselves could do. For this election is in part about white people's relationship to whiteness and each other.

The degree to which white, liberal, urban America relied on polling reports and FiveThirtyEight and the Upshot to tell them everything was going to be all right is incredible. I derived confidence from those predictions as well. We all stuck to those websites like a driver sticks to incorrect Waze GPS directions. Instead of driving, we acted like passengers, trusting in the machine instead of our own eyes. Meanwhile, outside the vehicle, in the real world, the GOP nominee was making sweet xenophobic and job-promising love to the other white America.

There's a group of white people who left the suburbs and the Midwest for those much-maligned coastal elite cities to experience community and create new economy jobs and invent absurd artisanal mayonnaise, and while they were busy swiping on their phones through the faces of people just at the other end of the bar, they could and should have been talking to their cousins and uncles back home. White Americans, does the world have to pay for your broken family ties? Does Fiji have to drown and California burn because you got bored in Iowa? Don't you have Facebook? Didn’t you invent it?


So, yes, more empathy for the people who lashed out. That's never a bad thing. “The biggest problem in this world? Too much empathy,” said no one, ever.

But I also have another more pointed reaction to the people I’m supposed to be showing empathy for: Suck it up.

Some of these same angry white Trump voters tell the descendants of slaves who experience substandard health care and housing and jobs and justice, "I didn't own slaves. Get over it!" Some of these same angry white Trump voters tell women who've been sexually harassed, “You shouldn’t have been wearing such slutty clothes!” Some of these same angry white Trump voters tell anyone with a liberal critique of America, "If you don't like this country then leave it!"

But they aren't taking their own advice. They aren't leaving. No, they have dug in and lashed out, as has been their prerogative from the very beginning of this nation. Because they always could, and in this election they reasserted their claim on this land. We have faced these backward-moving backlashes before: after the Civil War with unopposed domestic racist terrorism, after the legislative victories of the civil rights movement with the installation of a racialized police and prison state.

I’m not saying that everybody who voted for the former online steak salesman is a racist or a sexist or an Islamophobe. That argument isn’t even required to explain things. All we need to acknowledge is that by their votes they showed us they were okay with racism and sexism and Islamophobia. They valued their attachment to a bygone economic era over their attachment to the stated ideals of this nation when it comes to inclusion and equal protection under the law.

I know compassion and empathy are hallmarks of the higher road. I also know it's the harder road to travel because those who lashed out barely acknowledge that road exists. They often don’t need to take the high road because the low road gets them where they need to go. Remember the white men with guns who got angry about their taxes and held the Malheur Federal Wildlife Refuge hostage for weeks? They took federal property, held it with arms, and in the end got zero punishment for it. Philando Castile would have appreciated that type of American justice, but that wasn’t the deal on the table for him and so many others.

Lavoy Finicum is seen at the occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on the sixth day of the occupation of the federal building in Burns, Oregon, on January 7, 2016.
Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Meanwhile, many of those we are asked to empathize with are celebrating the retreat of political correctness, so they can finally say what they feel! But do you imagine, angry white American, that you are the only one who hasn’t been able to say how you feel? You think women in misogynistic workplaces have felt free to express themselves? You think black Americans have felt free to tell police how we really feel? I mean, if we’re going to take off the rhetorical gloves, then be prepared for everyone to take them off. I’m pretty sure there are things you haven’t yet heard because for us to utter them would be to shatter your world.

So I am both empathetic and angry. I get to be both. We all should be able to be both, but as we discuss the need for empathy, let us remember it needs to go both ways. It is not a cross solely to be borne by the oppressed in order not to hurt the oppressor's feelings. It is not just for liberals and Democrats to practice toward conservatives and Republicans. As Patrick Thornton wrote, it is not just for the cities to offer to the rural. It is for all of us to embrace and struggle through and gain from. That’s really the whole point of this democratic experiment.


In part, this election happened because we are nowhere near being one nation. It used to be fashionable to write about and campaign on the concept of "two Americas." (Wow, John Edwards flashback!) In fact, the New York Times is still doing it. We should be so lucky to have only two. Instead we have thousands of Americas, isolated islands of self-referential media and lonely, disconnected lifestyles.

We have gerrymandered our political districts into incumbency protection rackets. We have contorted our constitutionally prescribed media into profit-maximizing engines of mutually exclusive assuaging memes and inciting provocations. We have burdened an unacknowledged one-half of 1 percent with the task of fighting all our wars for us.

And we have ported increasing amounts of our lives onto the networked infrastructure of the internet, which serves us what best serves the admakers to keep us online, clicking, and isolated. Civil society be damned. Jobs be damned. Spirituality be damned. Public good be damned. So long as the money is flowing, we have embraced all this. It is, as we say in the technology world, a feature, not a bug. The system is working as designed.

And then we act surprised when a master appears on the scene and shows us how to put all these pieces together in a brilliant coalition. The man who got into a Twitter fight with a former Miss Universe read the public better than any data analytics team. He hacked the media business model's addiction to sensation without real need of Russian cyberterrorists. He innovated in what passes for political communication pointing out the undeniable failures of our system. He gave voice to a rising chorus of rage. He played off our fears and our weaknesses and became an overwhelming denial of service attack against our entire society. We were practically inviting him in with open ports.

And the hard truth is that he was not entirely wrong.

Of course, he was wrong about the size of his net worth and his penis and his hands and just about every half-baked "policy" proposal he uttered. But the system is rigged.

The system is rigged for investors, owners of capital, inheritors, people like our next, least prepared president. The social compact is broken — we have severed our social safety nets just as we've hurled ourselves out the window. The economy doesn't work for the great middle class, and the man who said women should be punished for having legal abortions wasn't the only one to see it.

Bernie Sanders saw it. Occupy Wall Street saw it. Black Lives Matter saw it. Generations of Native Americans have seen only this dark side of the United States. All these forces tried to get our collective attention, but collective attention is a rare commodity in our overstimulated environment.

It took an angry, self-serving, nasty old white dude from beyond the political establishment to break through the noise he helped create.


So now our attention is focused, for the moment. What do we do with it?

We study history. Those of us who glamorize the great old days without acknowledging on whose backs that greatness was achieved do a disservice to the present and the future. And for those of us fighting for justice, there are several playbooks and source code repositories left behind by abolitionists, trade unionists, feminists, artists, prisoners, and more. History is not a circle, but more probably a spiral, in which we revisit similar but not exact coordinates from the past. We should revisit that past and prepare for the troubling times ahead.

We protect the vulnerable. Life is about to get measurably worse for many who are not prioritized by the incoming administration and others who are seen as outright enemies. We need to build our own networks of support and resilience in the face of the coming storm. In this state of emergency, we should be donating to nonprofits, investing in civil society, helping our undocumented neighbors, and supporting independent media.

We resist. There is more to democracy than elections. There are all the rights and responsibilities enshrined in our Constitution. We have an obligation to that Constitution, more than any president, to defend and embody its ideals in the face of a new leader who has no record of doing so.

President Trump will do some good, perhaps even great things in office. But we cannot forget the abhorrent methods he employed to gain that office, and we have no obligation to make his job easier when that job involves undermining the values that have the potential to make us great. If we need any guidance, look to the Republican Party’s actions during Obama’s presidency. All he did was try to give us health care, and they shut down the entire government.

Richard Trott of the National Park Service puts up a sign announcing the closure of the Lincoln Memorial due to the government shutdown on Tuesday October 1, 2013, in Washington, DC.
Matt McClain/ The Washington Post via Getty Images

We remember that out of suffering, healing is possible. Out of darkness, light shines brighter, and, not to sound all yoga about it, we cannot have one without the other. Had Hillary Clinton won, many of us would have moved on as if all was right with the world, but the world is very wrong, and the impact of that wrongness is on display for all to see. This is an opportunity to dig deeper into our imaginations and collective intelligence for solutions, to make great art, to forge stronger human connections, to plant deeper community roots, to try to listen to each other.

We develop a new story. We have repeated and fed off the American myth for too long after it stopped bearing any resemblance to the truth for too many. All the forces that unleashed this most recent backlash are still at play. The future is only coming at us faster, and it will not wait for us to get our shit together. You think self-driving cars will make this better? You think the Martian colony will save us from the problems of Earth? You think SkyNet will be any easier to defeat, divided and conquerable as we are right now? No, this all gets harder.

That old story we told ourselves — that hard work and a 9-to-5 and a private home and car and grotesque amounts of natural resource consumption and the privatization of public space and the ignoring of history would deliver the American dream — is dead.

We need a new story that starts with who and where we are now and defines where we want to go. A story that includes the immigrant, the incarcerated, the evangelical, and the engineer. A story that redefines what success means for a nation founded imperfectly on near-perfect ideals. A story that encourages us to see sacrifice for each other as gain for us all.

And we must allow ourselves to feel the agony and exhaustion and despondency of this transition. To paraphrase a past president violently taken from us at another low point in our history, we need to do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard. Like that high road, it’s the difficulty that makes them worth doing.

Baratunde Thurston recently served as supervising producer for The Daily Show With Trevor Noah. He co-founded Cultivated Wit and Panoply's About Race podcast and wrote the New York Times bestseller How to Be Black. He is a correspondent with NatGeo’s Explorer series and is featured in the November 21 episode. Baratunde is a highly sought-after public speaker and internet person whose LinkedIn profile history includes: columnist for Fast Company, closing speaker for TED, director’s fellow at the MIT Media Lab, director of digital for the Onion, national board member for BUILD, and gentrifier of Brooklyn, New York. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.


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