- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Lest there be any doubt, I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
Donald Trump is gone. After exploiting the fears of many of our countrymen and ginning up xenophobia and racism to suit his political ends, the disgraced and twice-impeached 45th president has left office. The Trump era has been a rollercoaster for our nation, and for my family. I stopped talking to my Trump-voting relatives, only to move in with them a year later when a near-tragedy brought us back together. Since then, I have spent countless hours writing about why people supported that horrid man, from the authoritarian streak buried deep in the American psyche to Christian cultural supremacy. Yet I have also written about a sense of alienation among many Trump voters, and the entirely legitimate feeling that the deck is stacked against them.
It is difficult to fully summarize four years of lessons learned writing about Trumpism. Many on the left — myself included, in the first year of his administration — ridiculed and dismissed Trump voters as little more than the modern heirs to White Citizens Councils and Ku Klux Klans. Yet the truth of why the people I love voted for a man so despotic is far messier than stereotypes allow.
Trump voters are not caricatures. Many triangulated their support, liking some policies while despising others. One Trump-voting friend abhorred the internment of children on our border but feels strongly about the Second Amendment and keeping government out of her life. “I just want to be left the hell alone,” she once told me.
Still others are more open-minded than Trump’s opponents often allow. A close relative, who is a strident evangelical, voted for Trump in 2016. Yet after several frank but respectful conversations, she acknowledged there is a problem of racism in policing, expressing sympathy for the sentiment behind Black Lives Matter, if not for the movement itself. In the end, she voted for Trump again in 2020, but I haven’t given up on her.
The left often bemoans working class whites who “vote against their own interests.” As I have learned over the past four years, people will not vote for you if you don’t ask them to. Growing up in Kentucky, Democrats weren’t even on the ballot — not until my grandpa ran for local office, just to give people a choice. When I voted in eastern North Carolina in the 2018 midterms, the Democrats didn’t even bother to field a candidate for the House of Representatives.
To put it another way, Republicans are very much here in the south. They are organizing through the white evangelical churches, through local civic events from fish fries to music in the park. They have a ground game, and an impressive one at that. Many of my loved ones live in a right-wing echo chamber, whether in their communities or on social media. The only left-wing perspective a lot of them get is mine. That is a problem. It is the problem.
One of the most frustrating things about the past four years has been seeing my friends and family correctly identify their problems — stagnant wages, rising prices, a broken healthcare system — but finger the wrong culprit. Who could blame them, though? They were being told by the president, by Fox News, by their pastors, by their friends that the problem was immigrants. Or Antifa. Or Black Lives Matter. Anyone and everyone but the capitalists profiting off their misery.
It is no surprise, then, that over the past four days since Biden took up the presidency and Trump left the White House I have seen a doubling-down on the bitterness and resentment ex-Trump voters feel. Underlying all of this is a very real sadness and fear. “I feel sick to my stomach,” one old friend said the day of the inauguration, before going on to praise Trump with such dewy-eyed lyricism he might have been Marc Antony himself.
But for every forlorn friend I have also seen a softening of hearts. With it, a door cracking open. One relative baselessly asserted his belief that President Biden is a pawn being used to secure the Oval Office for Vice President Harris. But he also wished the new administration luck, hoping it would be successful. “I am an American and I don’t want to see America fail,” he wrote.
It’s a heartening sentiment. If we want to truly bury the Caesar that is Trumpism, we must first offer his voters something better. Whether it’s Donald Trump or Joe Biden, they want their country to succeed because they want their lives to be better. Who can blame them?
Of course that means talking about the issues important to them — jobs, the economy, the opioid crisis, immigration — in a language they understand. Not talking down to them like they are all ignorant bigots or dismissing their concerns out of hand. Most Trump voters are willing to hear us out, but we’ve got to start the dialogue.
Dismissing 74 million Americans as a lost cause is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The left must re-engage with the white working class, and now — at the start of a new administration, with two new Democratic senators from the Deep South — is a fantastic opportunity.
Rural America may be Trump country, but that is not predestined. If we continue to lose people to the scourge that is Trumpism, the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.