What are we going to do about the 74 million of our fellow citizens who voted for Donald Trump? After he won the White House in 2016, Democrats were told we had to understand them. Reporters promptly descended on small-town diners, where old white men were happy to vent their resentment at being looked down on by liberals, professors, and city dwellers. In her much-discussed Strangers in Their Own Land, the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild urged liberals to cross the “empathy wall” and feel the Tea Party’s pain. “Economic anxiety” was the preferred left explanation—no matter how often one pointed out that Trump voters had a higher median income than Clinton voters or wondered out loud how come Black and Latino people’s economic anxieties didn’t make them cast ballots for a reactionary reality-TV clown.
The Trumper was always the small farmer, the miner, the worker whose factory had closed. Except for the occasional piece marveling at women and evangelicals who didn’t care about Trump’s pussy-grabbing, nobody was too interested in interviewing dentists or realtors or supermarket owners—the regular Republicans who were the vast majority of his supporters.
After the shocking invasion of the Capitol on January 6, we know better. Trump’s army does include those miners and factory workers—as well as Proud Boys and Three Percenters and lost souls who live in QAnon’s paranoid fantasyland—but also plenty of solid citizens. As Robert Pape and Keven Ruby point out in a detailed analysis in The Atlantic, “The demographic profile of the suspected Capitol rioters is different from that of past right-wing extremists. The average age of the arrestees we studied is 40. Two-thirds are 35 or older, and 40 percent are business owners or hold white-collar jobs. Unlike the stereotypical extremist, many of the alleged participants in the Capitol riot have a lot to lose. They work as CEOs, shop owners, doctors, lawyers, IT specialists, and accountants. Strikingly, court documents indicate that only 9 percent are unemployed.” A lot of them live in solidly blue counties.
This, not the QAnon Shaman, is today’s GOP. After all, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert needed the votes of a lot of regular Republicans to be sitting in Congress today. Sixty-one Republicans voted to censure Liz Cheney for voting to impeach Trump; only 11 voted to remove Greene from her committee assignments for her batshit antics, including approval for murdering Nancy Pelosi. We warned one another against normalizing Trumpers by presenting hard-core reactionaries as ordinary people. But what if they are normal—the new normal? A person can have a job and a house and a family and also be a racist, a misogynist, and a believer in weird things, such as that Barack Obama is Kenyan, George Soros is behind the Black Lives Matter movement, or Joe Biden stole the election.
What to do? Splitting off from the red states, a perennial liberal fantasy, is too silly even to discuss. And remember when white people were told they were cowards and collaborators if they didn’t give their Trumper relatives and friends a superhard time? Obviously, individual efforts at conversion haven’t worked on the scale needed: Trump increased his vote total between 2016 and 2020, even adding more Black and Latino men. I’m not going to say you will never persuade Cousin Bob that Hillary Clinton isn’t a child killer and that health care is a human right, and you should definitely try, but it is really hard to change someone’s mind. Wouldn’t it make more sense to concentrate on phone banking, registering voters, donating to grassroots organizers, and getting involved in politics with people who already agree with you?
In a recent Atlantic essay, Anne Applebaum suggests that we can give the Capitol invaders and their supporters a path back to society by coming together with them on apolitical projects: volunteering, civic betterment (Christmas decorations?), discussions of common interests. “Ask for ideas. Take notes. Make the problem narrow, specific, even boring, not existential or exciting. ‘Who won the 2020 election?’ is, for these purposes, a bad topic. ‘How do we fix the potholes in our roads?’ is, in contrast, superb,” she writes. According to Applebaum, such “peacebuilding” efforts have worked in Northern Ireland.
The problem is, the pothole discussion already happens across parties—it’s a town council perennial—and yet here we are. Applebaum writes hopefully that cooperation among political antagonists “doesn’t mean they will then get to like one another, just that they are less likely to kill one another on the following day.”
It’s a nice thought: Just get people working on a neutral issue of common concern, and before you know it, they’ll be grabbing a beer together and admitting, “Hey, you’re OK.” Definitely better than murder. But except for the horrible killing of police officer Brian Sicknick at the Capitol, the actual political murders in recent years have mostly been premeditated attacks committed by militia types and anti-abortion fanatics and racist loners like Dylann Roof. It’s safe to say they weren’t too interested in fixing the streets.
I’m not worried that my neighbor, who kept a huge Trump flag flying until the day the election was certified, is going to kill me. My other neighbor says he’s a sweet guy, and he probably is. I don’t want to harangue him, and I don’t want to sit in boring do-good meetings with him. I just want him not to run the country.
Perhaps I am naive, but I try to remember that there are more of us than there are of them. True, thanks to the Constitution, and gerrymandering, and Citizens United, and the six conservatives on the Supreme Court, Republicans have powerful advantages. But if we can lessen sheer desperation—and Biden’s $1.9 trillion aid package is a good start—maybe we can peel off the Trumpers who really are motivated by economic insecurity. Maybe, if we can get enough power, the Trumpers’ numbers will dwindle as they see it’s not so terrible to have health insurance, or to legalize the status of immigrants who’ve been living here forever, or even to wear a mask to prevent a deadly virus from spreading. Or maybe they won’t, and we’ll just have to make sure they lose—like they did in Georgia.