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The guilt that comes with having no sympathy

A shot from "The Sound of Music" where Mary spins in a mountain prairie, overlaid by the words, "Look at all the fucks I give"

A lot of attention has been paid to the mystery of why, God, why, and how, and why again, any marginally intelligent person could support Donald Trump. How has a man who is completely unsuited, in character, temperament, knowledge base, intellect, and home training, to be the president of the United States make it as far as he’s made it? The obvious answer is that there are a lot more bigoted, closed-minded, hateful, ignorant people in the electorate than we’d originally thought possible. (Or witchcraft.) But we, as a society, don’t generally like to think of people that way — for all the whining about “PC culture,” we give a lot of passes to be people who absolutely don’t deserve them — and so we’ve sought out other options.

That’s where we’ve gotten so many articles profiling the “realTrump base — salt-of-the-earth, working-class white voters who are stumbling into a new world of multiculturalism, who are suffering from economic woes, and who just want some support for their very real problems. They’re not hateful bigots, we’re told. They’re just misunderstood and misguided, they’ve been lied to and taken advantage of, and if we could show them compassion and help them understand, they’d see the light.

We meet midwesterners who have lost jobs and are struggling to make ends meet, and who have been praying for help from the government while Wall Street gets bailed out. They’re losing jobs and hope as Walmart and migrant workers move in and the factories — good, working-class factories — move to Mexico. Life expectancy is going down, drug epidemics are going up, and if a populist businessman who claims to feel their pain and have solutions to their problems has become their beacon of hope, don’t they really, more than anything else, just need a new beacon?

And yet, for all of that, I haven’t been able to escape the feeling that they need to cry themselves a river and canoe on home.

Misplaced guilt and The Feels

It’s a tough feeling for someone as guilt-oriented as I am. I was raised Catholic. Guilt is in my bone marrow, as is a responsibility to care about social justice and stuff and whatever. (I will make clear that the social justice part comes directly from my awesome mom, and not from the actual teachings and example of the church, because seriously, oh my God.) So you can imagine that this automatic mental deployment of the world’s tiniest violin has bugged me. Why can’t I summon the indignation and compassion that I feel for other people who encounter struggles in life? Do they not deserve the same level of concern? Do I need to examine where my prejudices lie, such that my response is so dismissive?

Through an amount of soul searching, I found my answer: It’s because they’re such assholes about it.

First of all, it must — must — be made clear that this image of Trump’s base as a bunch of poor, disenfranchised but generally well-meaning white folks coming to terms with a society that no longer cares about their troubles is bullshit. Trump supporters are, on median, wealthier than Clinton or Sanders supporters. They’re less likely to be affected by economic changes like the loss of manufacturing jobs or an influx of immigrants or competition from China. They’re no more likely to be unemployed or to have dropped out of the labor force. These aren’t people who are struggling in life — at least not more than non-Trump supporters who haven’t responded to their plight with overt, virulent racism, sexism, and sometimes violence. America is already great for them, and their belief that we need to roll back the clock to some unspecified time when it was supposedly even greater shows a complete lack of self-awareness, other-awareness, and historical awareness, and not a small degree of selfishness.

But let’s look beyond the self-proclaimed “Deplorables for Trump” who just don’t want to serve gay people in their restaurants, whose kids tell their Muslim classmates they’re going to be deported, who sincerely believe that Mexico is going to pay for The Wall, hand-wave sexually abusive “locker-room talk,” and refer to his opponent as “Killery Rotten Clinton” like it’s new and super clever. Let’s look at the people who actually are struggling with new social, cultural, and economic realities, who we have to assume do exist, unless we’re accusing all of those news outlets of the biggest Stephen Glassian scam in the world. Shouldn’t we sympathize with their problems and work, gently, to show them that Trump doesn’t have their best interests at heart?

Again, I would, if they weren’t such assholes about it. Because here’s the thing about Trump: He is not in any way secretive about his plans for a Once Again Greater America. Supporters, salted and unsalted alike, praise him for speaking plainly and meaning what he says (except for the times when he says something inexcusable and they have to claim he was joking). Trump, they say, just says what the “silent majority” has been afraid to say. They have justifications for every piece of racist, sexist, ignorant, reactive crap that comes out of his mouth.

So they can’t say that his policies and politics — racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, violent, reactive, and uninformed — have been played close to the vest. They can’t say that they didn’t know that the policies he promotes and the attitudes he perpetuates won’t destroy lives and tear apart the fabric of our country. All they can say is that if it solves their personal problems, they’re okay with the rest. They don’t care whose life gets ruined, as long as they get theirs. How, precisely, am I expected to sympathize with that?

Brief digression: Real problems and straight-up misogynistic solutions

It’s the same stuff that’s so frustrating about MRA arguments. I am, in fact, sympathetic to the legitimate woes that men, even privileged men, even outstandingly privileged men, suffer. The suicide rate (fewer attempts than women, but more successful attempts, due largely to the methods they use). The inability to get some level of child custody when they want it and don’t have some specific reason to be denied it. Being pressured into dangerous, “manly” jobs. Unreported sexual assault, particularly in prisons.

Here’s the thing, though: That stuff isn’t women’s fault. It’s the result of a patriarchal system established for the benefit of men — even less-privileged men, even outstandingly underprivileged men. Women are more likely to receive child custody because we’re automatically assigned sweet, soft, nurturing, child-raising qualities and responsibilities. We aren’t given access to dangerous jobs because throughout history, we’ve been cast as the weak, delicate figures that must be protected at all times (to the point that we’ve had to fight like hell to be allowed into military combat, in part because men would ostensibly be so distracted with protecting us that they’d fail to perform their own duties). Men are discouraged from reporting rape because it’s not “manly,” which is, once again, a gender role they’ve pressed on themselves.

This stuff is because of the patriarchy. The obvious solution, which benefits both men and women, is to disassemble that time-honored institution and establish something more equitable, something that allows women to share the duties of childcare and share the risk of combat service and gives men the freedom to acknowledge their feelings, advocate for themselves, and get the help they need without fear of seeming weak or “girly” or “beta.” (Jesus, that word.) Concrete changes can be made, and we can all win.

But to these men, any solution that doesn’t benefit men by screwing over women is out of the question. They have to oppose the VAWA, the ERA, reproductive rights, and any efforts (such as domestic abuse shelters only open to women and children, for their safety, or women’s lobbying organizations, or women’s healthcare initiatives) that benefit women without immediately providing an equivalent establishment for men. Instead of organizing and lobbying to gain those things, their approach to equality is to take things away from others — so even if the world sucks, at least it sucks for women, too.

And that’s where my sympathy goes away. If your solution to inequality is to screw me, then my only real response is, “Screw you, too.”

Back on topic: Real-ish problems and unequivocally bigoted, ignorant, well-nigh-inconceivable, unconscionable solutions

I have no sympathy for someone who won’t consider any solution to their problems that doesn’t hurt others in the process. For all of the suggestions and possibilities in the world (and I’m not talking about any particular candidate, just anything that’s not what Trump is suggesting), they’re insistent on this horrendous, verging-on-inhuman garbage fire of a candidate. To them, the only cure for our nation’s ills is a man who (despite the fact that apparently no one respects women more than he does) calls women fat pigs, who has decried pregnancy as an inconvenience to employers, who brags about committing sexual assault without consequence, and who believes that women should be punished for having abortions. A man who (despite apparently being the least racist person in the world) labels Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, who wants to bring back stop-and-frisk, who demonizes Muslims, and whose policies have been praised by the KKK for advancing the cause of white nationalism. A man whose opposition to policies that protect LGBT people could damage (even endanger) lives and tear families apart.

And for that matter, it’s not just the marginalized who would suffer under a Trump administration. It’s the entire country. We’d be led by a man who doesn’t understand foreign or domestic policy, who thinks that business principles are applicable to national government, who’s despised by our foreign allies, who has demonstrated contempt for every facet of the First Amendment (particularly a free press and freedom of religion), who has never conceived of a horrible sentiment he could resist tweeting or a jab that he could resist responding to, who disrespects our military, who supports torture and wants to murder the families of alleged terrorists, whose tax policy would drive our nation deeper into debt, who thinks that nuclear proliferation is awesome, who has encouraged crimes like foreign hacking and “Second Amendment” solutions against his adversaries, who plans to use his presidential powers to jail his opponent and take revenge on everyone who’s offended him, who lies like a rug, and who in every single way serves as a terrible role model for children who should be able to look up to him.

You think all of that is acceptable collateral damage because life’s tough? You’re cool with all of that happening, and I’m expected to be understanding about it?

I will try to get around to it, but I am, like, super busy right now.

Don’t mistake this for a tone argument — the insistence that if a marginalized party wants support from the party in power, they’re obliged to ask for it politely and unemotionally. For one thing, draping well-to-do white guys with the mantle of “marginalized” when they’re functioning under a system that they built for themselves and continue to perpetuate is ridiculous. But more than that, its not about asking politely. It’s about insisting not just that I stop advocating for myself but that I instead advocate directly against my own self-interest in order to advance yours. Hell, that’s not even just asking me to stand back and get screwed over — that’s asking me to actively screw myself.

tl;dr: Cry yourself a river and serenade yourself with a tiny violin solo

So that’s where my sympathy has gone. It’s not that their problems aren’t, at least to some extent, legitimate, and it’s not that they’re supposed to appeal politely for support. It’s that they want to screw me over. Me and everyone else who isn’t them. You want to be treated with sympathy? Show some. You want me to respect your humanity? Demonstrate that you have any. I suppose the Christian thing to do would be to remain sympathetic even to people who want to tear others apart but gosh, I guess I’m just not that good a person.

I’m not going to tell you who to vote for. Obviously, I’m straight-up imploring you not to vote for Trump, because he’s a spinning abyss of evil that’s already sucking in everything that’s good about our country and will only do worse if unleashed on the presidency, but I’m not telling you who to vote for. Mostly, I’m just explaining why it might appear that I’m not terribly sympathetic to your problems: It’s because I’m not. I was, and I still would be, and part of me actually wishes that I still were, but I’m too busy having sympathy for the people whose lives will be forever changed by the inevitable and explicitly outlined disaster that would be a Trump administration. If I find an opening, though, I’ll let you know.

14 thoughts on The guilt that comes with having no sympathy

  1. It seems like 59,535,522 deplorables have come together and elected Donald Trump. When has insulting your opponents’ voters ever been a good idea?

    1. Let me get this straight, tomsims. Trump insulted Mexicans, Muslims, Jews, women, disabled people, you name the group, he insulted it. Hillary calls people who endorse such comments “deplorable,” and that’s unforgivable?

      Or are we not voters?

      1. EG with all due respect, in my long life I have never heard any candidate for any office trash voters. trash their rival yes, but their voters? Anyhow, but calling 59 million plus deplorables has it’s consequences.

      2. Tom, you ignore my point that Trump trashed Mexicans, Muslims, Jews, black people–are you claiming that he didn’t think they were Hillary supporters?

    2. tomsims: “Deplorables” seems a very mild chastisement compared to far harsher and downright abusive words that Trump supporters, and Trump himself, said about Hillary and her supporters.

      Besides, and this cannot be said enough because way too many people are downplaying it, Hillary won the popular vote – not by as much as polls predicted, but if it weren’t for the Electoral College peculiarities she would be President-Elect right now, not Trump. If 300,000 voters hadn’t been disenfranchised in Michigan since the repeal of the Voters Rights Act, she would have won the EC too. And that’s not counting all the other voters disenfranchised by Republican administrations in other states. But yeah, you blame it on the couch-fainting over the word “deplorables”, good for you.

  2. John Scalzi: Early Morning Thoughts on the Day After

    A lot of my friends are scared of Trump’s America, in other words, and they should be. As Maya Angelou once said, when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. Donald Trump has shown us over and over again who he is; the worst of his supporters — the ones who will now feel like they have free rein to indulge their various bigotries — have shown us who they are, too. And while not every Trump voter is among the worst of people, they share the responsibility of having made anyone who isn’t straight, and white, and male, and well-off, less secure, less safe, and more frightened. That’s what they bought for us when they pulled the lever for Trump.

    And we have to face up to fact that it was white people who brought Trump to us — Trump got the majority of white men and white women who voted. We can parse out why that was (and we can talk about how the minority vote was suppressed), but at the end of the day, the fact remains: Trump will be in power because white people wanted him there.

    If Trump’s administration indulges in the racism, sexism and religious and other bigotries that Trump and his people have already promised to engage in, we can assume it’s because his voters are just fine with that racism, sexism and religious and other bigotries — even if they claim to have voted for him for other reasons entirely. After all, Trump didn’t hide these things about himself, or try to sneak these plans in by a side door. They were in full view this entire time. If you vote for a bigot who has bigoted plans, you need to be aware of what that says about you, and your complicity in those plans.

  3. I totally relate to your anger. I’m pretty bitter right now, too. However, we need to rethink our organizing strategy. The day before the election I was behind a car with a bumper sticker that read “Liberals think you are stupid.” Imagine how effective that was for Trump supporters trying to convince working class people to vote against their own interests. The real challenge for liberals and progressives is how to come together and find an effective way of changing beliefs instead of minds. A person with a belief-based ideology will never listen to the facts. I am not passing judgment; by the way, it just is what it is. Changing or altering beliefs CAN be done. But a key component is respect. Ask any labor organizer. Our job is to figure out how to communicate more effectively.

    1. I’m all for changing beliefs. But it’s tough, because sometimes the only counter to the beliefs is, “Actually, no, LGBTQ people aren’t child molesters,” or, “Actually, no, Latinos aren’t rapists.” How do you counter that? Statistics? Particularly when people aren’t willing to acknowledge the beliefs underlying their actions. When someone says, “Stop calling me racist! I’m not racist! This is about economic anxiety! When I went to sign up for public assistance, the line was full of illegal Mexicans who contribute nothing to the system, so of course I’m concerned that there will be enough resources to get me through this difficult time! Economic anxiety.

      What reply is there to that that doesn’t make them just get defensive and say, “Stop calling me racist. This is why Hillary lost”?

      1. Good question. Would love to see a thread on this. I don’t really have answers, but I suspect tone has a lot to do with it. Saying “Actually, no, LGBTQ people aren’t child molesters,” or, “Actually, no, Latinos aren’t rapists.” is denying their perception and will probably shut them down, making it impossible get them to listen to you. I dunno, maybe we need to reframe our replies a bit. Saying things like, “That’s not really my experience” or “Wow! I know a lot of LGBTQ people and haven’t met a child molester yet. Have you?” Seriously, I don’t know. But I think there must be a way? The “Stop calling me racist. This is why Hillary lost” statement sure seems like a clue or an appeal of some sort. This stuff is so important.

      2. This was my go.

        But what we really need to do is insist harder on it being called “identity politics” when white people vote to screw over POC, or straight people vote to screw over LGBT, or their champions run on blatantly hateful programs. Because if “I want the rights and chances you have” is identity politics, “I don’t want you to have the rights and chances I have” must be too.

    2. I think you’re right, but I don’t know what that overarching narrative is. Traditionally, the left argues for a narrative of class solidarity that it hopes will, you’ll pardon my language, trump racism. But I think we can close the book on that one: it doesn’t work. Class solidarity does not overcome white people’s racism. What should our narrative be at this point? It’s clear that “everybody deserves basic human rights” is not a winning narrative either for these voters.

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