Are Donald Trump Supporters Racist?

Everyone knows that you’re supposed to avoid the political talk during Thanksgiving. It’s that awkward holiday when the young people come back home from big, cosmopolitan cities to middle America, and as the stereotype goes, inevitably end up in loud arguments with the highly conservative uncle who still works a blue-collar job back home. It’s a helpful stereotype only for the reason that it helps us look at the way our country is divided between blue and red states, between urban and rural areas, and between wealthier and poorer communities. The unfortunate way that America relies on only two major political parties generally ends up splitting our country into two factions, even though everyone knows there is plenty of room for a much wider spectrum of political thought. Very few of us are 100% Democrat or 100% Republican. Obama, recognizing this in 2008, promised to be the president of change; the president who could bridge the gap between these two worlds, and find common ground for all Americans.

Unfortunately, Obama did not become the president of all Americans. Very much a product of the wealthy, elite blue-state mentality, he easily fell into the traditional center-left political thinking that is pretty much Bill Clinton’s legacy. Admittedly, he also had the additional problem that the Republicans in Washington vowed to say an emphatic “no” to everything that he proposed. Campaign promises that Obama made, such as a healthcare package with no obligatory mandate quickly turned into Hilary Clinton’s healthcare proposal, one with an obligatory mandate, an argument that had been of great contention between them in the primaries; although Obama did much to save the economy in the wake of the economic crash he inherited, the trade agreements put in place by the Clintons, like the 1994 NAFTA agreement, agreements which left many American communities behind, were left unchallenged by an Obama administration. On foreign policy, drone bombings and NSA wiretapping did little to make Obama seem more than anything other than another establishment president, one whose calls for change had been nothing more than a campaign swindle.

So much has been made about how many of Trump’s supporters were responding to these conditions when they cast their votes earlier this month. But there is still the racist rhetoric of Donald Trump’s campaign; there is the history of racism in Donald Trump’s behavior, from denying housing to African Americans to the racist birther attacks of 2008; there was the refusal to denounce David Duke during the campaign; there is the predictable spike in hate crimes since his election; there is his cabinet, which looks something like a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan. So can we say unequivocally that everyone who voted for Trump, given all this much documented information, is racist? Even though many of these people voted for Obama in 2008? Even though many of these people have friends who are minorities, and some of them are even minorities themselves? How do we understand this paradox?

I think the question has to be restructured. The essential thing is how much someone is willing to tolerate, even in the promotion of what they consider to be (erroneously, in this case) their own best interest. And a lot of Americans said at the polls, that they would be able to tolerate this kind of blatant racism from the White House, if there was hope that conditions in their lives might improve. It is not so much that they themselves are necessarily white nationalists (although we’ve seen that, predictably, a lot of white nationalists did vote for Trump), but that they simply are willing to accept a certain amount of racism from their government. Which is to say that racism is not an either/or phenomenon. One isn’t either racist or not racist, rather there are gradations of how much negativity against another group one will accept, and many of Trump’s supporters fall somewhere on the scale where they are perfectly willing to accept the racist rhetoric and racist actions of a Donald Trump. This makes them “indifferent honest.” We have seen this argument already from Hannah Arendt, when she argues for the banality of evil. As Arendt tells us, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” They simply react to what they believe to be in their best interest at the time, no matter how much evil their reaction creates.

This is a problem which I think liberals and progressives will have to address when mobilizing for the future, something we desperately need to do, and indeed have been doing, after the election of Donald Trump. Yes, Trump’s supporters supported racism with their votes, even if they many of them didn’t intend the act to be a racist act in itself; they never actually made up their minds about how they feel about the evils of racism; they haven’t investigated their own feelings about minorities deeply enough to know their own true feelings about racism. So, while they may give lip service that, in principle, they are against racism, they allow themselves to be asleep to its reality. And that makes them complicit in racism by default.


-Whit Frazier, November 25, 2016

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