After reading the scores of heartfelt Facebook statuses, calling my parents, venting to my housemates, and seeing my Facebook friends who have supported President-Elect Donald J. Trump—or suddenly revealed that they voted for him despite concealing their support publicly—I am compelled to plead for something that will be deeply unpopular on Wesleyan’s campus: Please talk to Trump supporters, especially before the President-Elect is inaugurated.
This is far easier and more accessible for some among us, mainly the proverbial cis-gendered heterosexual white male. Because of safety concerns alone given the violence provoked and perpetuated at many Trump rallies, talking to Trump supporters is far more difficult for people whose identities have been openly attacked by their candidate, notably—but by no means limited to—the Latino, Middle Eastern and South Asian diasporas, as well as black and Jewish Americans who have seen a precipitous rise in overt racism and anti-Semitism brought out by many Trump supporters, especially members of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis.
Nonetheless, those among us who are able, but potentially not yet willing, must step up and speak to some of the 50 million or so Americans who voted for a historically defined fascist, or at least someone who pretended to be to initially promote his brand and later win the presidency.
I worked on a book about Donald Trump for Mark Singer of The New Yorker. In the final product, “Trump and Me,” Singer holds two lenses to the rise of the real estate mogul turned fascist demagogue: his experience writing a profile of The Donald in 1996 that took several months, and the research we could come up with together on just about everything the man had said in public life relating to political positions, insofar as he has positions. Though I have nowhere near the amount of expertise on Trump as someone like my boss or Trump’s ghostwriter would have, I gained a healthy dose of perspective on Trump’s ability to alter what he says based on the audience in front of him. For many people reading this, that audience has never been us.
One of the shocking things I’ve come to realize in the last few days—and, as Trump would say, ‘believe me, folks,’ there have been plenty—is the fact that, much like the so-called Beltway Elite that got the election wrong, many of my friends and colleagues at Wesleyan do not know any Trump supporters personally. I do. Some are former teammates, others closer friends, and some are family members. This proximity to dissent is becoming increasingly lost on our generation as we perpetually self-select and enclose ourselves in social media and our institutions of choice.
Perhaps the most influential Trump supporter I’ve known is my late Uncle Woods, my mother’s youngest brother who died suddenly over the summer. We constantly argued about politics, sometimes with pleasure, others with anger and disdain. Whatever our feelings were, however uncomfortable we felt, we never shut each other out (unless my mom told us to take a break for the sake of the rest of the extended family at dinner). The important thing about debating with my proverbial conservative uncle wasn’t that it humanized a Trump supporter, it’s that we were better off engaging and disagreeing than talking past each other and letting animosity fester.
Many Trump supporters were once on our side. There are over 200 counties in this country that elected Barack Obama twice, yet voted for Trump on Tuesday. This is hard to square with the fact that much of the momentum behind Trump’s rise stems from the backlash to the election of the nation’s first black president. Despite all of the progress made during the Obama administration, over 900 democratic state legislators were defeated over the course of his two terms. I don’t know how to explain all of this coherently and convincingly. I’ll leave that to the tireless journalists and academics who sacrifice sleep and their cherished relationships just to figure these things out. All I have is a hope that engagement with our political opponents can fight off the toxicity and danger of an intramural scrimmage turning into a war between alternate realities.
Though I may not have known how important these debates were until my uncle was gone, I believe more than ever that just about everyone would benefit from having someone in their inner circle to vigorously disagree with. I’m fully aware that it’s far easier for someone like me to make this argument than it is for the people I’ve mentioned above, but there has to be a limit to our safe spaces and social justice jargon when people’s lives are at stake.
Places like Wesleyan can become breeding grounds for fascism despite our best intentions. We have bred Trump supporters here, one of whom wrote at length about his conversion in today’s New York Times. No matter how invigorating it may be to live on the frontier of the political left, our rhetoric and sheer lack of empathy—mostly those of us who are not under attack by Trump’s rhetoric—for those who don’t share our verbose jargon make us no different than those on the alt-right and in the Tea Party who spurred Trump’s rise in the first place, minus a dictionary worth of terms 98 percent of the population doesn’t understand.
Talking to Trump supporters and checking our jargon at the door doesn’t mean that we have to absolve them for political views that invalidate human lives, nor does it make us complicit in the dialectic of the neoliberal patriarchy and the post-truth rise of fascism, or whatever else we’ll call it from our classrooms high above in the ivory tower. What talking to Trump supporters does do, however, is make them realize that the PC liberal elite they hate, the abject Other they hate, and whoever else they want to take their country back from, are complex human beings just like them. Engaging with those we vehemently disagree with also reveals something about our character. It shows that not only can we reciprocate the humanization we lend them, but that we can take Michelle Obama’s high road and resist matching their hatred and ignorance with our own. Most importantly, this is what a civic society is all about, and we cannot preserve or improve it on our own.
When I think back to how I felt by my uncle’s side, I don’t fear the loss of the republic or the horrors of fascism. Instead, a ball begins to grow in my throat as I long for one more shot to be in that position to change his mind, and to question my own assumptions. While I can’t confidently argue that a justifiable amount of good will come out of this national catastrophe, I have to believe that there’s still something we can do to make a difference. It all starts with a face-to-face conversation, a raise of the eyebrows, a huff of frustration, and a handshake—or even a hug—at the end, followed by an “until next time,” where you’ll vigorously disagree and be better off for it all over again.
Lahut is a member of the class of 2017. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @JakeLahut.