Your Empathy for Trump Voters Isn’t Just Misplaced—It’s Immoral.

CW: Anti-LGBT, anti-immigrant, and anti-Latin@ hate crimes

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, we got so many news articles about why Trump was winning with poor, rural, white folks, people who had been abandoned by Washington, by liberals, and by the general march of progress, that parodies of the genre even popped up. These pieces kept shifting the blame back to liberals and progressives, “coastal elites” who just don’t understand life in rural America. Then, when Trump won the electoral college by winning in states where rural white votes are weighted unfairly, to the disadvantage of people of color, we got a new round of liberal hand-wringing and self-flagellation. Oh, why didn’t we bother with the poor rural folks? Why didn’t we take their concerns seriously? We lament our “echo chambers” and our “bubbles.” We decide to visit a Southern Baptist church or get Little House on the Prairie off the bookshelf to read to our children and try to become more empathetic about voters who chose a man who would sexually assault us if he got a chance. We get all romantic about country life. We turn to Charles Murray, whose intellectual work in works like the discredited, racist The Bell Curve feeds is beloved by the alt-right, to tell us that if we’re out-of-touch with ordinary people if we don’t watch NASCAR.

I’m going to weigh in here with a seemingly ungracious proposition.

Stop it.

Look, I get the liberal inclination to explore other people’s feelings. To radically accept them for who they are. To take stock of relationships and see how you can do better on your end. To be more open to diverse, even challenging perspectives. To be more inclusive. To be vulnerable and to let other people be vulnerable, too, which is how our richest, deepest connections flourish.

Do not let that inclination be further abused.

Most of you probably know that, professionally, I work with maybe the most despised people in America. No, not college students, though they often get unfairly bashed. I mean Westboro Baptists—the folks who picket about God’s hatred for gay people at the funerals of soldiers. Yeah, so everyone hates these folks, right? (Well, not quite. But you’ll have to read the book to learn about that.) But I love them. I really do. Genuinely. Heck, I even like most of them. Most of them are really good, decent, generous, kind, smart people—exactly the kind of neighbor, employee, student, friend, or fellow citizen you would want. Except, for, you know, the picketing and the beliefs that go with it. But, other than that, there’s probably not someone I’d rather be stuck on a desert island with than Shirley Phelps-Roper (and I say that with no sarcasm at all—she’s smart, hard-working, and a great conversationalist).

But that is how hate works. We’re rarely all—or even mostly—hateful. Most hateful people are mostly good, and probably all of us have a little bit of hate somewhere that we need to work on, some implicit bias we are just bringing to consciousness or some role we have in institutional or structural racism or sexism that we haven’t quite figured out how to exit. We’re all implicated, almost all of us living on land procured through genocide, bound in a capitalist system founded on and expanded by slavery. It’s not just that “We’re All Just a Little Bit Racist”—we’re neck deep into a system of oppression, so deep that we can’t see it any more than a fish sees water. And that system works by hiding itself, tucking the slave labor into sweatshops and fields far removed from your grocery store, hiding it behind bars or in shady off-shore investments.

So it doesn’t really matter if Trump voters are racist or not. They’re like the rest of us anyway—embedded in a system of oppression.

They just aren’t bothered by it.

So you can stop worrying about them. They’ll be A-OK. In fact, this system was set up to make sure that they are going to be alright.

But you also need to get the story right:

Trump won because of support by college-educated whites, both men and women, not poor working class whites. Trump supporters, on average, have higher incomes than Clinton supporters.

No, poor people did not break for Trump, though among those who do not have college degrees, people who are anxious about their children not doing as well as they have been able to did. These people are actually economically okay right now, just worried about a future. (As well they should be, whether under Trump’s trickle-down scam or Clinton’s neoliberalism.) In other words, they are used to an America of rising expectations—which may explain their nostalgia for the 1950s—and resent that their on children’s futures might not be an improvement on theirs.

These folks are disproportionately white men in blue-collar jobs with no advanced formal education. They’re probably nice people. They are surely embedded in racist, sexist, heterosexist, ableist systems that have benefitted themselves. They feel that their future is as threatened by Chinese steel as it is by “political correctness”—which is just another way of saying that they don’t want to have to treat other people as their equals. (And college educated whites probably feel the same way.) The future has always been theirs, and now it’s not.  That’s dislocating, and it’s easy to turn to that economic anxiety into racism.  Which is exactly what Trump did.

This is, to say it kindly, worry about their age of entitlement ending.

We will have years (sigh!) of data to come out of this election, and it will yield us new and important insights into the needs and hurts and worries of Trump voters. In the sense that they, too, are Americans, I care. I care because I think neoliberal capitalism is what ailing them (and me and probably you) and that is where progressives and Trump voters can unite (eventually). I care because I think the oppressive system they are inflicting on all hurts them too.

But mostly I care—and this is, really, what we all need to be caring about right now—that they chose racism, sexism, misogyny, sexual violence, ableism, xenophobia, Islamaphobia, homophobia, and anti-Semitism over basic human dignity for others. They chose to calm their own fears about the future over the present harm Trump is doing right now to others.

One more time: They voted for violence against their fellow Americans so they could feel better.


Anti-immigrant, anti-Latin@ vandals attacked a sign at Episcopal Church of Our Savior advertising the church’s Spanish-language mass in Silver Spring, MD. Similar church attacks happened in Indiana. They wrote the words “Trump Nation Whites Only” on the sign as well as on a wall in the church garden. 

To be sure, their choice was not logical as a Trump presidency offers no promise of a making their financial futures better. And it’s really a losing proposition for lower income people, including working class whites.

So, really, they choose their soothed feelings at the cost of real violence to others.


On November 11, a man in the city where I live found his car spray-painted with anti-gay slurs. Trump has downplayed the connection between his campaign’s hateful rhetoric and the hateful acts of his supporters. We knew this–both these attacks and Trump’s abdication of responsibility–were coming from his campaign, which frequently invoked violence against minorities. 

Use your empathy to build up people who Trump is hurting, not those who welcomed the chance to get conned by him. Right now, you can’t do both, because every moment you are reflectively listening to a Trump voter, you are losing a moment to comfort a victim. (I will give you a few hours off at Thanksgiving, if you are heading home to dinner with a Trump supporter. But, other than that, go take care of the people who are hurting, not the people who are injuring.)

You get to decide now whose pain weighs more heavily on the situation—the disconnected Trump voter (who can’t be so disconnected, after all, as his candidate won) whose actions have emboldened hateful extremists or the woman being sexually assaulted right now because that voter told men they can do whatever they want to women if they have power. Trump voters already have power—to give them your empathy would add to their abuse of others.


Question for future research: I am not a social psychologist, but I have been thinking a lot about empathy. In a FB conversation, I asked folks if they thought we had an “empathy gap” in politics. My sweet, kind, generous liberal friends immediately said yes–we need to understand Trump supporters better, to listen to them and take their concerns seriously. 

But my question was actually something else: I think there might be a gap between voters in terms of their empathy skills–that is, that some of us can easily imagine how it would feel (as close as we can) to be in another’s shoes. We care about justice for others. We feel their hurt and think of ourselves as fellow citizens, sharing an America to everyone’s betterment. I think there may be an entire group of voters–roughly 60 million of them–who either can’t do this or choose not to do it. Or, among the 7% who voted for Trump because they saw him as racist, they can imagine what it feels like to be in another’s shoes, and they voted for a candidate because they expected it would hurt those they hate–exactly as it is. 










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