America needs empathy, not division

Credit: Anna Boyle/ Credit: Anna Boyle/
Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

With Donald Trump’s election to the office of President of the United States, the divide among the American people has widened: there are the bleeding-heart liberals who champion the fundamental rights of all humans and think every small slight is a cause for immediate outrage and offense, and the selfish conservatives who are either too concerned with their own interests to worry about the people suddenly vulnerable in Trump’s America, or who are secretly racist, sexist, xenophobic and homophobic themselves, and therefore vindicated in their prejudices by the outcome. At least these are the reductive and harmful generalizations we’ve been left with in the midst of the current political turmoil.

Things really aren’t looking great for anybody at the moment. Those who had ample reason to vote against Trump — those who aren’t straight, white, male, or Christian, for example — could be in imminent danger of losing rights that they’ve fought so hard to gain, in a country where equality is unfortunately far more selective than we tend to feel comfortable admitting. At the same time, the white working class and others who supported Trump have been crying out about failing economic systems and an unsustainable way of life for many elections now, only to be repeatedly ignored by career politicians who couldn’t care less about their situation — and Trump’s campaign promises about the economy just don’t add up. But while both sides have very legitimate concerns, they have also become increasingly hostile due to a cycle of vicious insults supplemented with little actual dialogue. The fact that we remain unwilling to listen to others means that our country may be harder to heal than anyone wants to imagine, and both conservatives and liberals alike will have to become more open minded in order to bridge the gap between their vastly different viewpoints.

A good first step in trying to change this ideological stalemate would be for those who supported Trump — or even those who didn’t, but don’t see his looming presidency as any particular cause for alarm — to stop looking down on those who are protesting and petitioning to protect their rights from an almost inevitable attack. This isn’t liberals being sore losers and harboring resentment. This is people standing up for their fellow human beings, making sure the incoming administration knows that their well-documented hatred will not be accepted willingly by the people.

Sure, maybe Trump’s position on the LGBTQ community has fluctuated even in the short time since the election, and he might not seek to reverse marriage equality. Maybe Trump didn’t actually want the endorsement of the KKK — in fact, his campaign did denounce the group’s support just days before the election. But that doesn’t change the fact that hateful, intolerant people evidently feel that their vision for our country will be easier to attain in Trump’s America, and this is both a serious problem for our society and a very real reason for people to feel afraid.

The truth is, if we don’t see someone’s fears as valid during this time, it probably reflects more on us and our privilege than on their tendency to overreact.

The next time you feel the urge to convince someone our country has survived bad presidents before, take a moment to consider the 4,000 Cherokee people who died during Andrew Jackson’s presidency, or the thousands of Americans who succumbed to AIDS before Ronald Reagan ever addressed the disease as a concern. Think about the Japanese internment camps that held approximately 120,000 people — many of whom were American citizens — prisoner during World War II. Sure, this nation has weathered bad presidential decisions before, but certain individual groups have not been so lucky.

We can’t even honestly claim that American society today is drastically different and therefore undeniably safer than it was in the past. Just last year, Vice President-elect Mike Pence ignored an HIV epidemic in Indiana for more than two months, even as people were infected at a rate of more than 20 per day. Trump’s Cabinet is already set to contain an anti-semitic white supremacist, and Trump has pledged to sign the First Amendment Defense Act, a bill that would forbid the government from “discriminating” against any person who denies a service or product — even hospital visitation rights, contraception, or treatment for STDs — to gay couples, unmarried couples, or women on the basis of their religious beliefs.

Instead, rather than dismissing people’s overwhelming lists of concerns immediately, our efforts may be better served by trying to address the many problems that gave them cause for concern in the first place. Everyone needs to come together to ensure that vulnerable groups aren’t abandoned to a history that repeats itself in devastating ways.

At the same time, the rhetoric dismissing all Trump supporters — and Republicans in general — as nothing more than racist, uneducated people incapable of voting in even their own best interest is equally unhelpful, and also needs to change in order to improve the country for everyone.

First of all, these assessments are reductive and, in many instances, simply not true. Nate Cohn, who covers elections, polling, and demographics for The New York Times, observed that “Clinton suffered her biggest losses in the places where Obama was strongest among white voters.” Obviously some hateful racists and bigots were able to celebrate their own terrible views by becoming avid Trump supporters, but a lot of people who ended up voting Republican were swayed by a variety of other factors. It’s heartbreaking that people decided to compromise on treating minorities as equals, but that’s not the way everyone was able to rationalize the choice.

Furthermore, there are actually a number of studies that suggest that, as a whole, Republicans are both more open-minded and knowledgeable than Democrats are today. Liberals are also more likely to
block someone with differing opinions on social media sites, rather than entering a conversation and trying to educate them about their views.

But secondly, refusing to acknowledge the concerns of a huge portion of our country on the grounds that they just aren’t decent enough to deserve it is dangerous, and might be a large contributing factor to Trump’s victory in the first place. “No party these past decades has effectively represented the interests of these dispossessed,” Emmett Rensin stated in a Vox article titled The Smug Style in American Liberalism. “Only one has made a point of openly disdaining them too.”

Is it really a surprise that these disenchanted voters, with self esteem that repeatedly suffers hits from an unsympathetic public and who are faced with increasingly bleak prospects, turned away from the candidate who called them “deplorables” and has long been seen as a Wall Street insider? Are college-educated liberals with a good chance of landing a successful career and being able to support their families in a position to judge them for that choice?

Ultimately, there is no excuse for any of the bigoted opinions that have gained both spotlight and legitimacy now that the man preaching them has been not punished, but elected our leader. At the same time, there is also no excuse for writing off a huge percentage of the population as uneducated, uninformed, and morally inferior, simultaneously shutting down any chance for them to bring their own struggles to light. In an election with candidates as flawed and contested as this one has been, both sides had to set aside some of their misgivings and do what they felt best ensured their success and happiness.

If we want to stop this from happening ever again, all of these misgivings — from both sides — need to be addressed with empathy and respect in the future.