Despite all the things I’ve heard and read, I can’t help wondering why good, intelligent family and friends feel so differently from me over politics, whether we can ever bridge that divide and if so, how.
We have a very large and diverse country, with many polarizing differences: economic, educational, ethnical, informational, geographic, philosophical, political, racial, religious, tribal and more. They often seem to loom large, especially as presented daily by cable news and social media. Yet when we have a national loss or tragedy, we historically have come together to help those in need or mourn our fallen, and all these differences seem far less important than what we have in common. I think that, deep down, we are still that way. We need to find a way to build on that, understand and value one another more than we seem to today. A good way to start healing our divisions is to listen to and understand how others feel and think.
Why do Trump supporters feel the way they do, for example. Much of it must be based on what they have experienced, how it shaped them and, especially these days, where they get their information. If we’re all honest, we must admit that, at the extremes, some of it may indeed come down to bigotry and racism, a much harder, if not impossible, nut to crack. That attitude most often comes from a lack of understanding others and often leads to fear. People naturally fear what they don’t understand and may come to hate what makes them afraid. It may even lead to violence. Dishonest politicians know very well that creating fear and then promising to remove that pain is a very effective way to gain support.
But in the broader spectrum, most Trump support may be simply admiration for a perceived strongman who, like them, has a peripheral understanding of history and democracy, an irreverence for educated elites, and a misguided patriotism. Once people, even incorrectly, project their innermost thoughts and desires onto a blunt, politically-incorrect but forceful person like Donald Trump, perhaps they cannot see otherwise without invalidating and rejecting part of themselves.
People are rightfully angry, mad because they have lost their jobs to people overseas or are just barely getting by, feeling like they are falling further behind, are not respected, are looked down upon, cannot provide for their family or afford the things they want, see the country and the way of life they love going away, etc. They see themselves as victims being taken advantage of (perhaps none more so than unborn babies), and someone must be to blame. That someone is often other people, people they don’t understand and don’t trust: the college-educated white-collar workers or uneducated blue-collar workers, rural or urban or suburban or inner-city dwellers, liberals or conservatives,
Democrats or Republicans, blacks or whites or brown-skinned, illegal immigrants, people who feel entitled and want something for nothing, people who take what others then lose – or lightning-rod politicians like Nancy Pelosi or Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, with or without factual evidence to justify those views. To be fair, in some cases there is almost daily evidence to justify those claims. Regardless, these are all natural, tribal views that give us comfort in the company of people who act, look and think like us, ready to believe unsubstantiated information that reinforces our own prejudices.
Unfortunately, a constant barrage of sympathetic information, especially if one-sided or misinformed, leads to hardening of positions that eventually are not open to other points of view and destroys our willingness to question all these influences.
Our fellow citizens, regardless of their politics, are not to blame for our anger and disappointments. We all have ourselves to blame for being asleep at the wheel and complacent about an insidious takeover by the rich and powerful that is behind most of the problems for which we blame one another, but that is a subject for another day.
What we must do after this election and its immediate aftermath, is find ways to come together, spend more time listening to instead of talking at one another, reestablish civility and trust and be ready to confront the existential problems facing our country with bold and maybe painful solutions. That’s how we make America great again.
David Estey lives in Belfast