clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why the country is having a big debate about empathy after Donald Trump’s election

It’s about how to reach out to Trump voters.

Donald Trump campaigns in Iowa. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s shocking victory on Election Day has left many people, particularly minority Americans, reeling: How could so much of the country hate us — or at least not care enough for us — to vote for a man who ran a campaign that repeatedly insulted minority Americans, even going as far as proposing policies that explicitly target them?

In this aftermath, the focus for many Trump detractors has shifted from how so many could have voted for him to how to unify the country, with two sides facing off in a debate about whether to approach Trump voters with understanding and empathy.

On one hand, you have some liberals arguing that the right move now should be to reach out to Trump’s supporters, even the racist ones — not just to help unify the country, but to help alleviate their racial anxieties and, in effect, make them less racist. On the other hand, many Americans find the racist Trump voters irredeemable — and people of color especially feel that it shouldn’t be on them to try to change their minds.

As everyday people struggle with Trump’s win, the question of how to find a path forward — and who should be responsible for forging that path — in a country so divided along racial and geographical lines remains as unclear as ever.

Many Trump voters were driven by racial resentment. Should that be disqualifying for outreach efforts?

Trump campaigned on a bevy of racist proposals. He began his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” who are “bringing crime” and “bringing drugs” to the US — to justify building a wall at the US–Mexico border and cracking down on legal and illegal immigration. He proposed banning Muslims, an entire religious group, from entering the US. He argued that a federal judge overseeing the Trump University lawsuit should be disqualified because of his Mexican heritage. He called Elizabeth Warren, a sitting US senator, “Pocahontas.” He proposed nationwide implementation of stop and frisk, a policing tactic that was deemed unconstitutional in New York City because it targeted minority residents.

Those ideas attracted exactly the crowd you would think. Surveys found that Trump voters tended to show higher levels of racial resentment and prejudiced views against practically every minority group. And studies found that some of the best predictors of support for Trump were racist attitudes.

Support for Trump increased with racial resentment. Javier Zarracina

One telling study, conducted by researchers at UC Santa Barbara and Stanford shortly before the election, found that if people who strongly identified as white were told that nonwhite groups will outnumber white people in 2042, they became more likely to support Trump.

Given these facts, a lot of people on the left — especially those of color — argue that many Trump voters don’t deserve and shouldn’t get anyone’s empathy.

Slate writer Jamelle Bouie, in a piece titled, “There’s No Such Thing as a Good Trump Voter,” wrote that it doesn’t matter if Trump voters were driven by “inherent malice” or not, because in the end Trump’s policies will lead to “disadvantage, immiseration, and violence” for many people of color.

“If you voted for Trump, you voted for this, regardless of what you believe about the groups in question,” Bouie wrote. “That you have black friends or Latino colleagues, that you think yourself to be tolerant and decent, doesn’t change the fact that you voted for racist policy that may affect, change, or harm their lives. And on that score, your frustration at being labeled a racist doesn’t justify or mitigate the moral weight of your political choice.”

Bouie added that “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.”

And social psychologist Dave Nussbaum argued on Twitter that too much empathy for people who hold racist views can send the exact wrong message. Signaling that racism will not be in any way tolerated — by, for example, clearly denouncing racist acts and messages from Trump and his supporters — helps reinforce US norms against racism. On the flip side, trying to appease racist Trump voters could signal that racism isn’t all that bad — and perhaps weaken norms against racism.

“The perceived norms drive beliefs and behavior," Nussbaum wrote. “So absolutely be thoughtful and don’t call everyone racist the first chance you get, but making your values heard clearly makes a big difference even if it’s uncomfortable for everyone and may not be without cost.”

There are political and philosophical arguments for reaching out to Trump voters, even those seen as racist

Donald Trump in Alabama. Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

Still, there have been several calls since the election arguing that it’s time to reach out to — and show empathy for — Trump’s voters, many of whom feel left behind by social progress.

In an attempt to pull the country together, Hillary Clinton said in her concession speech that Americans owe Trump “an open mind and the chance to lead.” President Barack Obama said, “We are now all rooting for [Trump’s] success in uniting and leading the country.”

And several articles and editorials — such as one titled “Stop Shaming Trump Supporters” in the New York Times — have called on Democrats and liberals in particular to be empathetic to Trump voters’ plight and stop characterizing them all as overtly racist.

“We need to reach out to Trump voters in a spirit of empathy and contrition,” Rabbi Michael Lerner wrote in the Times. “Only then can we help working people understand that they do not live in a meritocracy, that their intuition that the system is rigged is correct (but it is not by those whom they had been taught to blame) and that their pain and rage is legitimate.”

Obviously there are political motivations for Democrats to find a better way to talk to white working-class voters, given that these voters were the big group that appeared to seal Trump’s victory. And further alienating a group of people simmering with racial anxiety and resentment does not seem like a healthy path forward for the country.

The research also shows it’s possible to reach out to Trump voters — even those who are racist today — in an empathetic way without condoning their bigotries. The evidence suggests, in fact, that the best way to weaken people’s racial biases is through frank, empathetic dialogue. Given that, the best approach to really combating racism, on top of uniting the country, may be empathy.

One study, for example, found that canvassing people’s homes and having a 10-minute, nonconfrontational conversation about transgender rights — in which people’s lived experiences were relayed so they could understand how prejudice feels personally — managed to reduce voters’ anti-transgender attitudes for at least three months. Perhaps a similar model could be adapted to reach out to people with racist, sexist, or other deplorable views, although this possibility needs more study.

But one thing that almost certainly won’t work to change Trump voters’ views is dismissing all of them and labeling them as racists. “Telling people they’re racist, sexist, and xenophobic is going to get you exactly nowhere,” Alana Conner, executive director of Stanford University’s Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions Center, told me. “It’s such a threatening message. One of the things we know from social psychology is when people feel threatened, they can’t change, they can’t listen.”

This doesn’t mean that people should let racism or other forms of bigotry slide. The goal in empathetic outreach is not to enable racism, but to show people that their racism is hurtful and unacceptable without denouncing them or their humanity.

People of color don’t want the burden of unification to fall on them

Anti-Trump protesters march in Philadelphia. Mark Makela/Getty Images

If we accept the premise of empathetic outreach, who should be doing the work?

There’s a lot of resistance to the idea that minority Americans should have the burden of reaching out. As a Latino immigrant who regularly receives bigoted messages online, I sympathize with this: The idea that I have to engage with people who are hateful toward me sounds backwards. Why am I expected to respond politely to someone calling me “beaner” or “spic” and telling me that I’m “going to be deported”? Why isn’t the expectation on these people to stop being bigoted?

Khaled Beydoun, who serves as affiliated faculty at the UC-Berkeley Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project, told me that these backward expectations seem to be a consistent trend whenever a minority community is accosted. “The burden is always on them to make the reconciliation happen,” he said. “They essentially have to empathize, sympathize, unify with white Americans even though they’ve been victimized by the Trump campaign. It presumes that [minority communities] are the ones in the wrong.”

Beydoun added, “If a tenable reconciliation campaign is to be had, I think it’s illogical to expect that of people of color at this moment — where not only are the wounds really fresh, but hate crimes are occurring. … The better strategy, then, is to perhaps build from within and rely on white allies as interlocutors.”

Consider the voting demographics: Based on the exit polls, Trump won nearly every white demographic, particularly 63 percent of 45- to 64-year-olds and 58 percent of those 65 and older. But Clinton still won 51 percent of white college-educated women and 43 percent of white millennials. Those younger white Americans — and the more educated women in particular — are going to have a lot of opportunities to talk to their parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, and so on about what happened on Election Day. And those will be opportunities for outreach.

Indeed, some conversations have already begun. There’s a whole genre of online essays out there dedicated to white people talking to their parents to understand why they voted the way they did. Those who take on these dialogues tend to describe them in revelatory ways, as Caitlin McGill wrote for Vox: “I still strongly disagree with my father and Trump voters, but our conversation revealed, among many implicit biases, the danger of these so-called ‘coastal’ and ‘rural’ bubbles and the power and necessity of open dialogue.”

This type of intraracial outreach could work: The research suggests that anti-racist, empathetic outreach can come from people who aren’t in the group that’s been victimized. In the transgender canvassing study, trans and nontrans canvassers alike managed to reduce people’s anti-transgender attitudes. And other studies indicate that white people can help reduce the racial anxiety of other white folks by, for example, talking to them about real friendships with people of color.

And not everyone needs to take on this work. The canvassing study took a few dozen participants in south Florida to change the collective attitudes of 500 voters. A small group of people can make a big difference.

So insofar as a lot of people of color don’t want to take on this work, they might not have to. (But if they want to and do, it could make a difference — the research shows that interactions between people of different races can help ease racial biases as well.)

Of course, this outreach doesn’t have to be one-sided. Trump voters took to calling themselves the “silent majority” on the campaign trail. Yet despite Trump’s Electoral College victory, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. So Trump voters, many of whom absolutely despise Clinton, clearly have something to learn about why many of Trump’s critics are so terrified of him. They too could benefit from reaching out to the kind of people they often deride as “coastal elites.”

Baratunde Thurston, author of How to Be Black, wrote in a recent essay for Vox that the empathy being asked of people like him should also be asked of Trump voters. Empathy “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.”

Watch: Donald Trump and the rise of American authoritarianism