I imagine I’m not the only one who felt the world turn upside down on November 9th. I feel like Malcom Reynolds watching the Alliance decimate Serenity valley. Nothing is the same. And I, for one, am scared. Not just for myself, but also my friends, loved ones, and clients.
I’m not alone. And I also know that there are folks out there who have so much more on the line than I do, who are fighting many a good fight.
In the midst of this collective pain, other narratives are seeping through the cracks as an attempt to understand how so many people got this election so terribly wrong. The common consensus among a select group of commentators believe that the fault lies with those ivory tower liberals. The argument goes something like this: if liberals tried to listen to and empathize with the trump supporters they demonized, maybe they’d understand. Maybe, the nation can finally heal and go back to some semblance of the status quo. Even the New York Times published a think piece about bifurcated families trying to navigate thanksgiving.
Here is an excerpt from that article:
Democrats have dug in their heels, and in some cases are refusing to sit across the table from relatives who voted for President-elect Donald J. Trump, a man they say stands for things they abhor. Many who voted for Mr. Trump say it is the liberals who are to blame for discord, unfairly tarring them with the odious label of “racist” just because they voted for someone else.
“Its all one big giant contradiction in my eyes,” said Laura Smith, 30, a small-business owner in Massachusetts who was attacked on Facebook by a relative for voting for Mr. Trump. “Shes saying to spread the love,” Ms. Smith said. “But then youre throwing this feeling of hate toward me, your own family member.”
This argument really sticks in my craw. The lack of empathy followed by demand for empathy feels all kinds of inappropriate.
Jamelle Bouie wrote an excellent article in Slate, where he articulates some of what I was trying to express.
Whether Trumps election reveals an “inherent malice” in his voters is irrelevant. What is relevant are the practical outcomes of a Trump presidency. Trump campaigned on state repression of disfavored minorities. He gives every sign that he plans to deliver that repression. This will mean disadvantage, immiseration, and violence for real people, people whose “inner pain and fear” were not reckoned worthy of many-thousand-word magazine feature stories. If you voted for Trump, you voted for this, regardless of what you believe about the groups in question. That you have black friends or Latino colleagues, that you think yourself to be tolerant and decent, doesnt change the fact that you voted for racist policy that may affect, change, or harm their lives. And on that score, your frustration at being labeled a racist doesnt justify or mitigate the moral weight of your political choice.
Those of you who know me may be surprised that I support someone who eschews empathy. On the surface, I see how that could seem hypocritical. If this were an ordinary election and Trump were an ordinary candidate, I’d almost be inclined to agree.
But Trump poses clear and present danger to the people I care about.
Holding someone accountable for the consequences of their behavior is not the same thing as demonizing or name calling. Accountability, as a rule, feels uncomfortable. It’s a hard thing to sugarcoat. People are likely to get defensive during the process. The tone may not be calm or civil. Thing is, behavior can be changed.
To ask someone who is black, or Muslim, Jewish, Female, Trans, Hispanic, Latinx queer, etc.. to hold empathy for Trump supporters is the equivalent of asking a domestic violence survivor to have empathy for their abuser. Empathy is being used as an excuse to avoid accountability for the consequences of a Trump vote. This instinct, however well intentioned, is tantamount to gaslighting, which is a form of abuse.
(Assault survivors have been hit especially hard, since they feel that their abusers have essentially been legitimized by Trump’s words and actions. Many of my clients will have to face at least 4 years of having panic attacks and flashbacks every time they look at the news.)
Domestic violence intervention is a good analogy for this situation.
Transformative justice approaches can be a highly effective framework Not just for violence prevention/intervention, but collective healing. Generation Five is on the vanguard of transformative justice, and an excellent resource in general. Transformative justice requires empathy for both the victim and perpetrator. However, even under this model, it is not the victim’s responsibility to directly intervene or hold empathy the perpetrator. To do so will only perpetuate the cycle of abuse. This is why it’s unethical for therapists to do couples therapy when there is abuse at play. The victim has full agency over how much involvement they have in the process.
It is up to other community members and allies to step up and hold space for the perpetrator. And, while community members have understanding for the perpetrator, they still hold the perpetrator fully accountable for the consequences of their actions. See David Mandel’s Safe and Together program
Trump’s campaign has been abusive on many levels, to many people. I have never seen so much overt psychological manipulation and gaslighting on such a massive scale. I feel for people who fell for Trump’s pitch. I really do. And all too many writers and armchair analysts assume that having empathy for someone means giving them a pass for the consequences of their actions.
It’s up to people who are not in harm’s way to take on the mantle of allyship, and hold empathic space where the rest of us can’t. However, empathy without accountability can quickly turn into enabling of bad behavior.
Please keep this in mind the next time you ask someone to empathize with Trump Supporters.