Stop Making Excuses for Trump Supporters

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Ever since Trump won his surprise electoral college victory in November 2016, everyone from pundits to political scientists to average Americans have tried to figure out what went wrong and what to do about it. The big newspapers wrote an endless series of ethnographic portraits of Trump supporters in small town diners to help their readers understand, but they came off instead as tone deaf. Academics delved deep into the post-election data, making analyses that tried to sound definitive, but often rested on sketchy correlations and questionable assumptions. And, of course, opinion writers and strategists—like yours truly—made unprovable assertions based on their best reasoned arguments, but ultimately mostly preached to their respective choirs.

It all came down to the right proportion of bigotry versus economic anxiety. When Hillary Clinton made her famous “basket of deplorables” remarks, it is often forgotten that she was actually making the economic anxiety argument: she said that half of Trump’s supporters were bigots, but that the other half “feel that the government has let them down … Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.” Pundits on the progressive and economic-populist left have, ironically enough, long agreed with Clinton about this, arguing that while many or most Trump supporters were inarguably motivated by bigotry, a large chunk were simply voting for a disrupter to take on a system that had failed them—and, since they weren’t directly threatened themselves by racist policies, figured there was no potential downside to them. In other words, an electorally significant portion of Trump supporters weren’t voting out of active cruelty. Rather, it was passive indifference to cruelty in the name of thumbing their nose at the system.

But, at a certain point, none of that matters anymore. 2016 is over and done with. Whatever Trump may have represented to a variety of different voters then, and whatever their motivations for casting ballots for him may have been, the person and president Trump is could not be clearer now. The man is an empathy-free racist who has been credibly accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women. He openly obstructed justice and encouraged a foreign government tampering in the U.S. election on his behalf. No matter how you felt about Hillary Clinton or how you felt about the country back then and its relative imbalances of power, none of that matters now.

It’s 2019. The stakes could not be more obvious. On the one hand, there is an openly bigoted, would-be totalitarian president who tells Americans of color to “go back” to countries they were never from, and who otherwise governs like just another corporate fat cat Republican, pushing tax cuts and social benefit cuts. And then, there’s anything else. Literally anything else.

Maybe Joe Biden and the centrist wing of the Democratic Party isn’t to your liking, and you want more of a shock to the system. Maybe you’re wary of progressives like Warren or Sanders because you’re afraid of radical change. Maybe you hate all politicians and think America should be run like a business. Maybe you don’t trust Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg. Maybe you’re an anarchist, an accelerationist, a libertarian. Maybe you just hate people who drink turmeric lattes and eat sushi. Maybe you think Millennials are entitled, and you want to knock them down a peg. Maybe you dislike Trump, but you really like tax cuts, or you’re uncomfortable with abortion, or you’re a Netanyahu fan who wants to bomb Iran, or you just want more conservative judges. The world is complex, people are cross-pressured. Maybe the right Democrat just hasn’t said the right words to make it okay to cast a vote against Trump.

None of it matters. Their time for excuses is over. A lot of voters who cast their ballots for Trump in 2016 soured on him and voted for Democrats in 2018 to keep him in check. Voting for Trump once is forgivable. People make mistakes and errors in judgment.

But if you still back Trump now, in July of 2019, knowing who and what he is, what kind of people you’re aligned with, that’s not on anyone else. That’s on you. You’re responsible for every ugly word out of his mouth, and out of the mouths of all the Republican politicians protecting him. You have to own that. Your motives don’t matter.

Because ultimately, as A.R. Moxon said:

“Historians have a word for Germans who joined the Nazi party, not because they hated Jews, but because out of a hope for restored patriotism, or a sense of economic anxiety, or a hope to preserve their religious values, or dislike of their opponents, or raw political opportunism, or convenience, or ignorance, or greed.

That word is “Nazi.” Nobody cares about their motives anymore.

They joined what they joined. They lent their support and their moral approval. And, in so doing, they bound themselves to everything that came after. Who cares any more what particular knot they used in the binding?”

In this case, there is time to rectify the mistake. But those who don’t should be held fully morally responsible.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.