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What Do We Do About All These Trump Supporters?

The Trump presidency has divided families and destroyed friendships—and there may be no repairing the damage.

Mark Peterson/Redux For the New Republic
A Trump campaign rally at Reading Regional Airport in the battleground state of Pennsylvania​ on October 31, 2020

Hockey icon Bobby Orr broke the hearts of millions last week when he declared his support for Donald Trump in a campaign ad in New Hampshire. Not because he exercised his free-speech rights. Not because athletes or icons should “stick to sports” or because there is reason to think the dubious endorsement—“that’s the kind of teammate I want,” Orr stupidly wrote—will change the outcome of the election. But because in choosing to take his stand, in embracing this candidate, Orr inflamed one of the most grievous if underappreciated wounds of the Trump era: the sad discovery for so many of us over the past four years that so many of our friends, neighbors, business partners, and heroes are not who we thought they were.

Like the Civil War, which pitted brother against brother, and the Vietnam War, which pitted father against son, the Trump presidency has cleaved relationships from sea to sea. It has forced people to take sides. It’s caused psychic wounds that figure to grow worse, not heal, in the days and weeks to come. Trump’s angry, divisive tenure has accomplished the destruction Stan Van Gundy, to use another example from the world of sports, surely meant when he tweeted, on September 30: “For me the saddest thing about this whole Trump presidency has been finding out that people I knew, liked and respected, including some guys I coached support this racist, misogynistic, narcissistic person. Painfully disappointing revelations.”   

Painfully disappointing, indeed. I’ll get over the fact that my boyhood idol Orr let me down.  After all, isn’t that what boyhood heroes are destined to do? But I’ll have a harder time getting over the tottering relationships I have in my own life with friends and colleagues who don’t just support Trump and all he stands for, but whose social media timelines suggest they have swallowed whole all of the rest of his dark worldview. The ones who send you phony stories from Facebook bolstering conspiracy theories or other lies. The ones who share racist memes. The ones who tell you that Covid-19 is just like the flu, or that Joe Biden is a foreign agent, or that Donald Trump is God’s gift to humankind. 

I admire but cannot emulate all the earnest people who have made it their mission this election season to try to convince these people of the errors of their ways. The patient folks who undertake granular debates with those Trumpists who scorn science and who believe fiction over fact. The ones telling me to narrow the great divide by respecting the perspectives of the Trumpists in my life. I admire a little less those who see the problem in bipartisan terms, as if the two sides are equally to blame for the cognitive dissonance we face. And, ultimately, no one really has a good solution about how to strongly and honorably respond to the Trump supporter in our lives. Do we forgive and forget? Turn the other cheek after it’s been slapped?  

I have good friends, rock-ribbed Republicans, who, until the Trump presidency, I considered the salt of the earth. Religious people. Smart. Hard workers. Honorable in business. Good parents. Good citizens. Good-natured. The type of folks with whom you could genuinely smile, when talk would come to politics, and say, “We’ll just agree to disagree.” People I admired and respected and whose political differences enriched my own life by pressing me to reconsider my political views. Now? These once-honorable people defend a man with whom they seem to have nothing in common. Worse, they defend him in the style in which he has asked to be defended: by deriding the rest of us. To them, I’m the idiot who dares to dissent.

How do you cope with this? How do you respond to the friend in your life, or to the colleague or business associate, who tries to normalize this president, and this presidency, by citing some phony news story or some hoary myth or by regurgitating junk news to you? How do you fairly and accurately respond without saying something that will end the relationship? Something like: “Stop being a racist idiot!” What good would come of that? Nicholas Kristof touched on this a bit in a column that could be a coda for the tense weekend that just passed. Kristof politely tried to explain to his conservative friends why he doesn’t just oppose Trump as a normal politician but as a threat to the nation and democracy itself.

Very noble of him. And he’s not wrong to argue that those who support Trump support an existential threat to the republic without an evident shred of self-doubt or concern. But I have less ambitious goals than Kristof. I don’t even try anymore to talk sense into my friends when they start babbling about how unfairly Trump has been treated or how it’s all still Hlllary Clinton’s fault. I don’t respond when they send me links to disinformation or outrageous takes on the Supreme Court or immigration or the pandemic. I just give up. It’s more than disappointing when your friends let you down. It’s just plain sad. And futile. You can argue all day with a jackass, but in the end, it will still be a jackass and you’ll have wasted a day.  

My pacifist approach to the Trumpists in my life has frustrated me, especially lately. It is not in my nature to let bullshit go unanswered. But evidently my muted fury and frustration comes with a deeper layer of meaning. Rachel Kleinfeld, the author and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has written a lot lately about political violence. She spoke last week to Joshua Keating at Slate about what we might expect over the next few days, as Trump supporters threaten to “monitor” polling stations, clog up interstate traffic, and endanger motorists. But it was this earlier Kleinfeld quote that caught my eye: “We need to think of those followers on the other side more as believers than as regular political citizens and not try to fight with rational arguments, not try to convince with data and so on.” 

“True believers,” Kleinfeld argues, “are not susceptible to rational argument, cognitively. But that doesn’t mean that they’re irrational people. It means that that’s how our psychology works. And to break through that divide, we need to do a couple of things. First, we need to humanize everybody. The level of misunderstanding is vast in America, when you poll people on what they think the other side thinks or who they think the other side is.” Sounds good to me. I am all about humanizing those with whom I disagree. But this formula suggests too heavy a dose of false equivalence while ignoring the asymmetrical nature of the problem. And how exactly does one go about “humanizing” the person who supports an administration whose elemental policy feature is the dehumanization of migrants and so many others? 

Back to Kristof. In his piece, he quotes one of his conservative friends, who told him: “The condescension from very loud and aggressive Trump critics has contributed big time toward conservatives feeling sympathy for him.” But what is condescending about saying to a friend who has just shared a racist post on behalf of Trump that the post is racist? What is condescending about saying to a friend who jokes about wearing a mask that the act of defiance makes him a jerk, not a patriot? And what about the ways in which Trump has stolen from taxpayers, for example, makes folks feel “sympathy” for him? At what point don’t all the good-faith explanations offered to defend Trump supporters—Low taxes for billionaires! Trade wars! Judges!—dissolve away until only the bad-faith explanations abide?

In my best moments, when I am feeling charitable and listening to John Lewis in my head, I want to say to my friends showing a cultish devotion to the president: I am sorry that you have chosen to worship a false prophet who is leading you in all the wrong directions. I am sorry that you haven’t figured out that the news you are getting about the events of the day is propaganda to deceive you. I am sorry that you aren’t able to believe what you see of Trump with your own eyes. I am here for you when you emerge from the mist. In my other moments, I want to shake my friends and say: “Wake up, before it’s too late.” Condescending, I suppose, but don’t you have to talk down to people laid low by the success of the con?

In our own way now we all have to figure out how we’ll deal with those people in our lives who inhabit the other side of the divide. Right now, I see family members avoiding one another on the phone. I see friends yelling at each other over politics on Facebook. And those are the more civil examples of the yawning divide that Trump both exposed and enlarged. We are in the middle of an uncivil war; it has been going on for years now, and it will linger no matter who prevails in the presidential election this week. I miss respecting and admiring my friends. I miss trusting their judgment even when I disagreed with their views. And I fear I will never see them the same way again. On top of everything else, Trump’s stolen that, too.