Why is it so hard to believe that Trump supporters really do support Trump? The New York Times is always checking in with folksy rural conservatives in search of cracks in the wall. Remember the article just a few weeks ago with the white evangelical woman who put a Beto O’Rourke sticker on her car and drove it to church—and there, in the parking lot, was another car with a sticker for Beto?
For almost three years now, reporters have been begging tired farmers and miners eating their pancakes at Josie’s Diner in Smallville, Nebraska, to say they’ve seen the light. They never do. White evangelical women sneaking away from the Republican Party make for a good story—but they didn’t stop Ted Cruz from getting 81 percent of the white evangelical vote in Texas.
After Trump took the White House, and even after political scientists and pollsters figured out that many Trump supporters were not out-of-work Rust Belters but just your basic well-off Republicans, there was an orgy of self-criticism among Democrats and progressives. Somehow, those voters were our fault; we had neglected them, disrespected them, not felt their pain. The important sociologist Arlie Hochschild wrote a whole book about right-wingers in the Louisiana bayous who rejected curbs on the oil and gas industry that was destroying their way of life and instead blamed their problems on others (people of color, immigrants, women) “cutting in line.” In Strangers in Their Own Land, Hochschild called on us to climb the “empathy wall.” The unstated implication was that liberal condescension—not Trumpers’ racism, say—is the problem.
Another version of this idea is to call on progressive white women to convert other white women who support Trump. Nobody calls on white men to convert white men, because everyone assumes that’s impossible, but for some reason, white women who hate abortion and taxes and Obamacare, who want to “build the wall” and “lock her up,” are supposed to be pliable—and it’s the duty of liberal white women to expiate their own racism by bringing them around. It reminds me of the time years ago when a group of Nation interns came back after spending a weekend at a conference of Evangelical women. They beat themselves up about how those women weren’t feminists; again, it was all our fault.
The assumption is that we have the right ideas; we just haven’t been conveying them persuasively enough to win the other side over. But let me ask a question: When was the last time someone persuaded you to change your worldview? I have written this column for over 20 years, and I doubt I’ve brought more than a handful of people to my way of thinking. So far as I know, the converts were mostly young people who hadn’t given the matter much thought or were leaning that way already. Mostly, what changes people’s minds about important convictions is experience: something new and unusual that shakes their settled views. One of the evangelical Beto fans profiled by the Times was moved by her time meeting with a family separated at the border; it could just as easily have been new friends, a religious experience, falling in love, a charismatic teacher, or being surrounded by people with different beliefs.
Of course, people do change their minds, but probably not after being proselytized by someone they barely know (or, in the case of family, know all too well). You won’t get far inviting your Trumpie co-worker out for coffee so you can politely suggest she’s a racist, or giving your Trumpie cousin a hard time about her Facebook posts at a baby shower.
So why is it so hard to believe that white women who voted for Trump are mostly as fixed in their views as you are? They voted for him for dozens of reasons: to fit in with their family and community, to preserve or gain status, to piss off the libtards, to ally with their menfolk, to keep MS-13 from killing their children, to bring back jobs stolen by Mexico and China, to keep taxes low and black children out of their schools, or because it’s what Jesus wants. You may think their beliefs are bigoted and ill-informed and illogical—which they are. You may marvel that women who think the polite and scandal-free Barack Obama is the Antichrist can believe that foul-mouthed, abusive Donald Trump is God’s instrument, like King David. What you are not going to do is make them see it differently by reminding them that at least 15 women have accused Trump of a range of sexual offenses.
Calling them out as racist, xenophobic foot soldiers of the patriarchy isn’t going to make a dent. Just as you don’t want to be the obedient wife of some porn-addicted Christian bully, they don’t want to be a slutty baby-killer like you. I’m not saying that, given enough time and a pleasing, patient personality—you’ve got one of those, don’t you?—you couldn’t eventually bring one or two around. But is this a good use of your energies? Richard Ojeda thought he could win as a Democrat in his West Virginia district by stressing his white working-class roots. He even acknowledged that he had voted for Trump himself. He lost.
You are unlikely to be more successful with your Aunt Vi, who thinks Melania and Ivanka are the epitome of female elegance and grace. Rather than devoting yourself to chipping away at Trump’s base, it makes more sense to forget about them and outvote them. Stacey Abrams and her New Georgia Project registered hundreds of thousands of new voters and brought them to the polls. True, Brian Kemp was able to steal the election through disenfranchisement, voter suppression, and dirty tricks, but the people that Abrams brought in and energized may have made the difference for Lucy McBath, the newly elected progressive black congresswoman from GA-6, the district that Democratic white-moderate golden boy Jon Ossoff famously failed to win.
The great electoral opportunity of 2020 is not in the marginal number of repentant Trump voters you might be able to convert. It’s in the nearly 40 percent of eligible voters—many of them younger voters, rural residents, and people of color—who in 2016 did not vote at all.