My thesis in this essay is very limited: not every Trump vote is a vote that either supports or tacitly approves of racism or bigotry. That is to say, a vote for Trump is not an inherently immoral action. I am assuming that a tacit approval of racism and/or bigotry is racist and/or bigoted itself, and I am also assuming that racism and/or bigotry is “immoral” – that it has an absolute moral value and that value is, for lack of a better word, “bad.” If I can show that even one Trump vote was not immoral, I have proven my thesis.
One would think that the burden would be on those who say, “a vote for Trump is inherently immoral,” to prove their case. We usually don’t presume either moral or immoral truths in this era that has so embraced relativism (and properly so!), particularly on actions as imbued with complexity as voting. But that’s fine, let’s put the burden of persuasion on me, just for the sake of argument.
I have heard from some people that I am arguing against a strawman. That no one really believes that every Trump voter committed an immoral act, or is racist or tacitly racist, except maybe a few fringe figures. If so, then great, I got to do a writing exercise and everyone (almost) already agrees with my position. But I think the position I am arguing against in this essay is far more widespread than moderate news outlets like the Times and CNN make it seem. (One lovely bit of rhetoric I’ve heard is “A vote for Trump is a hate crime,” which serves to both viciously insult 60 million people while also trivializing hate crimes.)
Let me put all my disclosures out there that could even possibly relate to this topic, so people don’t call me a shill or a nihilist or someone who is just contrarian for its own sake: I identify politically as a libertarian. I voted Kerry in 2004, Obama in 2008, didn’t vote in 2012 but was leaning toward Romney, and this election I voted for Gary Johnson. I am pro-free trade, free markets, and capitalism. My foreign policy veers toward isolationism. I am pro-choice and pro-gay (I am, in fact, a homosexual). I think the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional. I think police nationwide are engaged in a systemic campaign to murder black men and are being protected by racist institutions. I hate Jeff Sessions and Mike Pence. I am pro-gun. I hope Trump lowers my taxes. I am a big fan of privacy and civil liberties. I am disturbed by drone warfare. I don’t believe in God. (If anyone thinks I am leaving something out here because it would hurt my argument let me know and I will add it – I really don’t want my own views to color this essay.)
I don’t think Trump is a racist personally – primarily because I think Trump is a “Trumpist” exclusively – but I do think a lot of his rhetoric (“Mexicans are rapists”) and some of his policy positions (Muslim ban) are racist. Of course I think his views on women are reactionary, bigoted, and frankly bizarre. My basic read on Trump is that he is severely mentally ill – I think he has narcissistic personality disorder and it colors every thought and interaction he has. I have absolutely no idea what kind of president he will be, but I tend to not assume the worst (that he will be an authoritarian dictator) or the best (that he will be a doctrinaire Republican with some specifically isolationist and protectionist impulses). The former possibility is very scary to me, but I recognize that it is a worst-case scenario and that he will have to contend with the democratic norms and structures around him.
One thing I am going to presume in this essay is that, very generally, it is possible to separate “acts” as distinct from their own morality based on intent and context. I have to presume this because if I didn’t I would literally have to write five books before I got to my main point. But maybe an example of what I mean will explain this presumption: a guy robs a 7-11 at gunpoint. In one hypothetical, the guy is well-off financially and does it because he is seeking a thrill. In the other, the guy’s kid is dying of starvation. I get it, this is facile, but it’s meant to show that the exact same action can be different on a moral scale based on the intent of the actor. To say that the man seeking to feed his child is not committing an immoral act is not to approve of robbery, or even to approve of “robbery for good reasons.” It’s just a very simple and limited acknowledgment that the exact same act can be imbued with different moral value based on larger factors. (I know what you’re saying – even if this is true [and probably most of the people reading this agree that it is], a vote for Trump is a moral “red line” unlike a 7-11 robbery. But stay with me, I address this.) Again, my point is limited here – I am essentially just saying that an act can be judged based on more than the act itself. Frankly, I think the counter to this is crazy – that an act is moral or immoral based solely on the act itself – but look, it took philosophers a few thousand years to sort this out so I am just going to stick with my limited presumption.
Introducing “Jim,” whose vote I seek to prove is not immoral.
Okay. Let’s take our hypothetical Trump voter. I am going to call him Jim because that is, for whatever strange reason, the name I always default to with hypothetical people. I am trying to make Jim as true-to-life a figure as possible, but I am also not giving myself any easy outs. Jim’s reasoning is at times flawed and he is a flawed person, like some of us. But remember that the ultimate goal is not to say that Jim is right, but to say that his action is not immoral.
Jim lives in rust-belt Wisconsin. He’s white, 45 years old, and he has a wife and two kids (20 and 21). His father worked for the local plant that manufactures air conditioners. He made a good living, nothing extravagant, but enough to own a home and raise a family in relative comfort. Jim graduated high school and took a few classes at a trade school, but he never earned any sort of degree. When he was 20 (so this was 1991), he took a job at the same plant his father worked at. He started off making an hourly wage of 10 bucks, which rose over the years to reach 20 bucks by 1998 (in 1998 dollars), and he had healthcare and some kind of retirement plan. He married his wife in 1995 and they popped out two kids in 1996 and 1997. In or around 1998, the plant closed and sent production to some other country where labor is cheaper. Jim was laid off, but thanks to his union he received a limited severance package. His wife cleaned houses for a maid service, which helped pay the bills, but try as he might Jim couldn’t find another labor/manufacturing job. He noticed that his community was decaying – drug abuse was up, suicide was up, and all across Wisconsin and the greater Midwest manufacturing jobs like his were disappearing. He also noticed the headlines that ran rampant throughout the mid to late 1990s: economic miracle, dot-com millionaires, a new era of American prosperity. But all he saw in his own life was economic misery, and a more and more difficult time putting food on the table.
Nonetheless, in 2000 he voted for Gore – he had gone Clinton twice and his father was an old school Democrat. He initially supported the Iraq War but quickly grew disgusted by its mismanagement and voted Kerry in 2004. He, like much of America including Wisconsin, was captivated by the hope and change offered by the young candidate Barack Obama in 2008, so he voted for him. In 2012, he had grown bitter and disappointed with the lack of change in his own life that he felt Obama had promised, but he thought Romney was another fat cat who had played a part in closing the very plants that had sustained his community, so he stayed home that year. Through Bush and Obama, his home life stayed relatively the same: his wife cleaned houses, he took a low-wage service job here and there, and took odd jobs when he could using his limited trade skills. Things got tougher financially as the kids got older, and he felt immense pressure to send them to college.
Jim knew a few black guys, some from his old union, but not too many. The ones he knew he quite liked, although he had also begun to believe that the government was too generous with individuals he saw as lazy, which included some black people. Having had a few run-ins with the law himself as a young man, he found the slate of recent killings of unarmed black men by police to be highly disturbing. He had never met a Muslim, but he had concerns about the series of terrorist attacks in Europe he saw on the news. He didn’t really think too much about gay people, one way or the other, and he had an old-fashioned and naive but somewhat romantic view of women as resilient and ideally, supportive of their husbands and families above all else. His only experiences with immigrants were the Spanish-speaking men he sometimes worked labor jobs beside.
That’s Jim circa 2015. By the time it comes to cast his vote on November 8, Jim has limited the issues that he sees with Donald Trump, both pro and con, as follows (the parentheses are his own brief thoughts on the matter, and because Jim doesn’t live in a vacuum, asterisks indicate issues he feels have been largely unaddressed by Hillary Clinton, whether to support or oppose):
- Renegotiate trade deals (very good – economic decline in Jim’s world coincided with the move toward free trade, so he associates one with the other. Call this Jim’s “big issue” – he believes that ultimately, reducing free trade would make his family have a better life)*
- Lower taxes (bad – Jim thinks Trump will lower taxes for rich folks far more than he will for people like Jim, and he wants to see rich folks pay more)
- Tariffs (very good – Jim is for anything that he believes will bring more of the manufacturing base back to America)*
- Foreign policy isolationism (good – Jim is tired of hearing about America’s failures in foreign theaters of war, and he particularly likes Trump’s rhetoric that the money spent in Iraq could have been used here in America)
- Infrastructure (good – Jim supports what he thinks of as investing in America)
- The Muslim ban (good – Jim doesn’t know much about Islam and doesn’t know any Muslims, but he doesn’t see why we can’t end new Muslim immigration temporarily until what he perceives to be the terrorist threat is under control. His understanding is that Trump does not intend to deport Muslim US citizens.)
- Illegal immigration (neutral – Jim is not “for” illegal immigration, but in his area of the country it is not a massive problem, and he has found the immigrants he has met to be hard workers with families)*
- “Grab them by the pussy” and sexual assault allegations (very bad – call this Jim’s “worst issue” for Trump, the one that gives him the most pause. He has a daughter and he found the “pussy tape” to be reprehensible, although he also did not think it was an admission of criminality on Trump’s part. He tends to believe that at least some of the allegations women have made against Trump are true, but this is leavened somewhat by his belief that as unfortunate as he may find it, many powerful men in American history have been sexual lechers)
- Perceived racism/bigotry (bad – Jim is aware that many Americans have been hurt by Trump’s rhetoric. His black friends have told him that they despise Trump and believe him to be a racist. Jim, who sees himself as “not racist,” although not particularly concerned with racial matters, worries that Trump is too divisive in his rhetoric on these issues)
- “Political outsider” (good to very good – Jim has been promised many things by many politicians, both Democrat and Republican, that have not come to pass. He finds Trump’s “outsider” nature appealing)*
- Inexperience (bad – Jim has some worries that Trump’s outsider status has a dark underbelly, and that he may be tested in office in ways that will render his behavior unpredictable. He largely agrees with Hillary Clinton’s argument that she is the more experienced candidate and “steady hand.”)
In the days leading up the election, Jim performs a complicated moral calculation in his head, largely but not entirely subconsciously. Eventually he decides to vote for Trump. If we could remove Jim’s subconscious from his mind just before he walked in the voting booth and assign numerical values (that are weighed only against each other, because they are the only things motivating Jim’s action) to the things Jim believed and that guided his vote, we would see the following:
- Renegotiate free trade – Plus Twenty Points
- Lower taxes – Minus Ten Points
- Tariffs – Plus Fifteen Points
- Foreign Policy Isolationism – Plus Five Points
- Infrastructure – Plus Ten Points
- Muslim ban – Plus Five Points
- Illegal immigration – Zero Points
- Grab them by the pussy/sexual assault – Minus Thirty Points
- Perceived racism/bigotry – Minus Ten Points
- Political Outsider – Plus Ten Points
- Inexperience – Minus Five Points
Are these numbers entirely subjective? Absolutely. In fact, outside of Jim’s own consciousness, reasoning, and moral calculation, they are entirely meaningless. They represent nothing more or less than the subjective weight Jim assigns to the factors that helped him decide to cast his vote. To Jim’s subconscious, anything at a zero represents what he believes to be a moral neutrality – he sees no reason to apply a positive or negative moral value to it. (Having a waffle in the morning would be another example.) Adding points indicates something Jim’s value system sees as a moral good, and subtracting points a moral bad.
Are these issues limited? Again, absolutely. For example, what about what is going to happen to gay people? Why didn’t that factor into Jim’s calculus? Doesn’t that make Jim a homophobe? To that I would say, that issue is one of the many – the thousands – that isn’t on Jim’s radar. Of course these issues are limited, because we all vote on a set of issues that may number 1 (abortion comes to mind) or 20 or 50, and we limit them with our own subjective moral judgment. To those who say that Jim’s exclusion of this issue is itself an immoral act, I direct you to point three below on my list of objections, and also point out that exclusion of, say, Obamacare (saving it or ending it) from Jim’s list would be an unthinkable immoral exclusion from others perspective.
In the end, even with Jim’s very strong concern about Trump’s attitude toward women, the moral good generated by his ability to help his family eventually causes him to judge the morality of his Trump vote as being positive in nature (his final score is a Plus 10, so let’s call him a weak Trump supporter). He has done what he believes to be a moral good, and because none of the steps he took to get there were themselves immoral, his position is backed by solid moral reasoning. He has successfully cast a vote for his own legitimate interests without approving, tacitly or otherwise, of racism, sexism, or bigotry.
The objections to Jim’s moral reasoning are flawed.
I have heard four objections to the above reasoning, none of which I find convincing.
- But Trump won’t actually do the things he says he will do.
I will take this to mean “Trump will not institute protectionist trade policies.” This could be for a number of reasons: he is a flim-flam man, he won’t get his proposals through Congress, his executive authority is too limited. This argument essentially seeks to neutralize the numerical values we decided on above for the free trade/tariff issues, Jim’s strongest concerns. If we were able to neutralize those, then yes, Jim’s vote would become immoral because it would fall below zero.
First of all, I actually think this is wrong, I think that under a President Trump, American economic policy will become more protectionist than it would be under President Clinton. But let’s put that aside, because we can address this criticism more directly with two points.
- This is essentially a predictive judgment. Its truth value is non-existent. It is not a “fact” that Trump won’t put more protectionist economic policy into place. Jim’s take on this is as valid as anyone else’s.
- More importantly, this is irrelevant. For purposes of moral reasoning, all that matters is what Jim believes, because it his beliefs that imbue his acts with intention. If Jim does not genuinely believe that Trump will put in place at least some of his policies – or that there is a better chance that he will do so than Hillary Clinton – then yes, we can wipe those numbers out for Jim. But as we know, Jim believes this, and his beliefs lead him to take the actions he takes.
- But even if Trump did do the things he says he would do, it won’t help Jim.
More than anything, this is a judgment about economics. I wonder if the people who make it realize how much they are committing themselves to a pro-free trade position, particularly since protests against globalization used to be a regular feature of leftist action (see the 1999 Seattle protests, which happened the year after Jim lost his factory job). But no matter. Let’s say the people making this argument are now committed free traders: more trade agreements, no tariffs, more goods flowing from country to country.
In order for this argument to invalidate Jim’s reasoning, and thus cast moral suspicion on his act, one would have to believe that not only is free-market economics the economic system that would help Jim most, but that this is an actual fact that is not debatable in a legitimate sense; that for Jim to even factor it into his moral equation is illegitimate. I am simply not willing to take such a hard-line stance on the issue of free trade. Further, Jim’s own lived experience has taught him that free trade has hurt, not helped, his family’s position.
Finally, as I said before, I am a free-trade advocate. Jim and I disagree on that. But where I do think Jim is correct is in his belief that for someone in his specific situation, protectionism would probably help him at least to a limited extent. Protectionism is bad primarily because it raises the price of goods and can weaken the value of the dollar. But there is at least a limited consensus that higher-priced goods would mean higher wages, and that if there were less incentives for American companies to produce goods abroad, there would be some level of increased production here. At the very least, it is wrong to say that Jim’s reasoning is completely illegitimate, akin to saying that the sky is green.
- But racism (or more generally, bigotry, which I am also taking to mean misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc) is a moral dealbreaker.
This is by far the hardest objection to my reasoning to argue against, because it is so imbued with subjective, personal reasoning that it’s almost like arguing against the idea that blue is a beautiful color. So one thing we could do is say, well, if you believe that voting for a candidate who displays any level of bigotry is an immoral act and any consideration of other factors or larger context is a futile exercise, then we are just never going to find common ground and we can both go home right now. But we’ve come this far, so let’s try to work this out and see what we come up with.
Essentially, what this objection says is that my number system above is meaningless because the lists I have up there are the words “racism” and “bigotry.” Ergo, the power of those two evils overcomes any other perceived good Jim sees in his Trump vote. Alternately but relatedly, Jim’s negative value is – objectively – too low in the racism/bigotry category. If Jim is unable to recognize this, his action is immoral and he is either racist/bigoted or tacitly supports racism/bigotry. Racism/bigotry is a dealbreaker or more formally, a “moral redline.”
The first and most simplistic (though maybe the most persuasive) reaction to this is: Jim’s reasoning pits his family’s well-being against the racist and bigoted tendencies of the nominee. Setting a moral redline at bigotry/racism is a fairly radical proposition if you are pitting it against the lives of your loved ones, and as we have seen above, Jim is convinced that his wife, his children, his grandchildren, will not suffer as much as he has in his adult life if Trump is president.
Second, setting a moral redline at bigotry/racism puts bigotry/racism on such privileged ground that it becomes a moral error that rises far above any other moral errors. The logical consequences of this are either saying (1) there is no other issue that rises to the level of bigotry/racism and because it holds such high moral importance, it must govern my vote; or (2) there are other issues that are also moral redlines, and if the circumstances fall such that there are moral redlines no matter what choice I make, the only moral path is to make no choice at all. (1) is essentially saying that you can vote for a candidate who proposes, say, bombing England, if he is the only non-racist candidate in a race. (2) is a variation of Bernie or Bust, in a way – it presumes that one’s moral beliefs are so strong that it is immoral to vote on a “lesser of two evils” ground. If your moral redline is, say, support of capitalism, you had to stay home on Election Day. I don’t find either of these rationales persuasive.
The extreme version of this argument is, would it have been moral to vote for Hitler based on his promises to the non-Jewish population. My immediate answer to this is: I don’t know. The rise of Hitler was obviously a real world, historical event, not a hypothetical, and I am simply not familiar enough with his rise to be able to judge the morals of the people who voted for him. Hindsight is always perfect, but the limited understanding I have is that in Hitler’s first campaign, he moderated his rhetoric about Jews to the point of some Jews even supported him. But I could be wrong even about that. So I am not knowledgeable enough to specifically analyze the people who supported Hitler’s rise to power.
What I would say, though, is that the Hitler analogy is flawed, at least for the purposes for which it is deployed in this context. We only know that Hitler became Hitler because he actually did so. Whether you think Trump is approaching Hitler status is really an argument that is akin to what Jim did – a moral calculation where you add weight to some things and take weight away from others. Unless you believe that it is so self-evident that Trump will become Hitler – that we have the amazing foresight that at least some German voters lacked in 1932 – that to deny it is to itself commit a moral wrong, then what you are really doing is weighing the evidence before you in the same way that Jim has.
Where I have specifically seen the Hitler argument deployed is as regards Trump’s rhetoric toward Muslims. No doubt, Trump has been brutal and unfair toward members of the Muslim religion, and his rhetoric and policies have been disturbing, to say the least. But are they disturbing enough that it is appropriate to say that in Trump’s America, Muslims are occupying the same space Jews occupied in 1932-1934 Germany, as scapegoats waiting for the slaughter? I don’t believe it is. For one, Trump himself has not focused his ire on American Muslims – he has targeted immigrants. This is bad, but it isn’t at the level of Hitler’s initial policies toward Jews, which involved depriving German citizens of their livelihoods because of their Jewish blood. There is a categorical difference between saying “no more Muslim immigrants,” and “get the American Muslims out.” (I will leave discussion of the “Muslim registry” out of this, primarily because it doesn’t affect Jim’s vote because it only became an issue post-election, and also because Trump or his team have not actually called for a “Muslim registry,” as this Vox article explains.) Another reason I don’t find the analogy a convincing one is that Hitler purely scapegoated Jews on racial grounds, whereas there is an existence of some sort of “Islamic terrorism” in the world today that simple wasn’t presented by the Jews during Hitler’s time. In other words, Trump isn’t singling out Muslims just because he needs a scapegoat, as Hitler was with Jews. He is responding to some kind of real world issue – the threat of terrorism. Now, you may think, as I do, that his response is insane, misguided, and fearmongering, but it is different than randomly picking a group (say, redheads) and banning them from immigrating to America.
I’ll be honest – I think I have given the Hitler analogy more space than it deserves. We all love to invoke Hitler to prove a point, liberals and conservatives alike, and it introduces such an inflammatory element into a debate that it runs the risk of shutting everything down. I considered not including it here, for that very reason – that it is such a delicate issue that it is hard to stay within the parameters of so-called legitimate discourse (the Overton Window, if you will) without simply saying how terrible Hitler was and then just throwing your hands in the air and conceding. But nonetheless, that’s my response to the people who say that those who voted for Trump in 2016 are the same as those who voted for Hitler in 1932.
- Jim’s reasoning is steeped in white/male privilege and therefore invalid.
I fully agree that Jim’s logic and reasoning is both skewed by and steeped in white and/or male privilege. How could it not be? Like me, he has been marinating in his privilege literally since birth. I don’t think this necessarily invalidates his views, but that’s not really the point. The point is that this seems to me to be the fastest way to absolve Jim of moral fault in his vote. By reducing Jim’s vote to white privilege, one by necessity allows that his vote is the end product of forces larger and far more ingrained than anything Jim’s conscious thinking perceives or recognizes.
From Jim’s perspective, he is voting for his family’s well-being. We can safely say that Jim’s family, whatever hardships it has suffered, has benefited from Jim’s and their own white privilege. It is this cultural system (if you want to look at Jim’s vote purely in race theory terms) that has molded Jim’s entire life up to the point where he stepped in that voting booth and pulled the lever for Trump.
At what point does Jim’s conscious thinking become directed by “Jim’s interests” and not “white privilege”? Hard, if not impossible, to say. You could try to say that Jim is, in fact, to blame for not being “woke.” Being sufficiently woke would theoretically allow Jim to abandon his own provincial interests and embrace the interests and well-being of others. I see two big problems with this. One, Jim’s life has been limited by his own experience, which has been limited by larger cultural forces. (Jim has this in common with all of humanity.) So it is hard to place moral blame on Jim for not being woke when he has probably not been confronted with “woke doctrine.” Two, this essentially gets right back to point three directly above – is it morally blameworthy to put your own and your family’s interests over the interests of others? As is detailed above, it can theoretically be, but it certainly does not have to be.
As we’ve seen, Jim did not commit an immoral act when he voted for Trump, nor did he condone or condemn racism or sexism or bigotry or Islamophobia. His act, in sum, was the result of a complex and quasi-mathematical moral calculation that was arrived at legitimately, rationally, and with good faith and intentions. Yes, many Trump voters are not Jim. They are racists, rapists, bigots, Islamophobes, rich assholes, hedge funders, alt-righters, you name it. But remember my goal: to prove that there is such a thing as a vote for Trump that is not immoral, and that does not negatively reflect on the morality of the individual voting.
An objection I’ve heard to me even attempting to make this argument runs something like this: “But why are you focused on this? Aren’t you worried about all the damage Trump will cause? Why don’t you write a little piece for your blog about the fear that vulnerable populations are experiencing?” To a certain extent, I can’t respond to this because it is 100 percent a moral judgment. But I think it’s inapposite to the point I’m trying to make, and a red herring. For one, what I do or do not decide to write about or think about need not be governed by what the predominate “needs of the moment” are. Free intellectual discourse has a value of its own. More practically, there is a vast compendium all across the internet of catastrophes that will or may befall us under a President Trump. You can X out of this right now and go to Slate or Vox and find dozens of really well-written, well-argued ones, many of which I am in agreement with. But I have not seen a thorough response to the claim that all Trump voters are, if not racist, at least suborning and giving tacit approval to racism. (Admittedly, there has been some pushback to the idea that all Trump voters are “racist,” but I find the definition of racism in those pieces to be too limited, to people who are open and vocal bigots. Almost nobody is arguing that.) Finally, my reasons for writing this are somewhat personal. I have lovely family members who voted Trump for reasons that are, if not intellectually persuasive, certainly not immoral, and I am upset by a lot of the rhetoric I see directed at them, which I feel like is largely being unresponded to. I have also heard stories from friends and on social media about family members being disinvited from Thanksgiving because of their votes for Trump, and this can be considered a pushback against that unfortunate trend as well.
To be clear: the hate crimes and rhetoric against vulnerable and minority populations are disgusting and are on balance far more serious (there’s me, making a moral judgment) than the hurt feelings of Trump voters. But there are millions of people rightly rising up to protest and fight against those hate crimes and the rhetoric that leads to them. There are, thankfully, millions who have declared their intention to fight Trump with every ounce of their being and to provide help where help is needed. There is very little in the way of defending at least a portion of the people who voted for this man.
There is quite a bit of fear in America right now, and that fear is real and legitimate and it demands to be recognized. Donald Trump is a beast unlike any America has ever seen before, and the rust-belt Jim voters who did what they felt they had to do now need to take that second step and recognize that their concerns don’t run the world, and are in fact as provincial and selfish as the concerns of all other Americans. Frankly, I wish some Trump supporter would write a piece just like this one in which they defend Clinton voters against claims of elitism, condescension, or Communism. But I am largely resigned to the idea that we live in two (or more) different Americas, and our commonalities as human beings with moral compasses and shared values fall to the din of partisan posturing. To quote our incoming president: sad.