Understanding the Victors
Although Amitai Etzioni’s article about understanding or even empathizing with Trump voters (“ ‘We Must Not Be Enemies,’ ” Winter 2017) has many good suggestions, it seems jejune to me in face of the adamant hostility of many Trump supporters. It addresses shortcomings of those on the left but bypasses increased and increasing hardness on the right. Trump’s portrayal of Hillary Clinton distorted reality in ways that touched a streak of righteous victimization and promoted a cruel, narrow atmosphere. If understanding and empathy are required for partnership, they are needed on both sides.
New York City
Etzioni argues that progressives need a communitarian, diversity-within-unity approach to better understand Trump voters and to reach out to them—an assertion that implies that those voters would be amenable to logical persuasion. This seems unlikely. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, counterfactual disinformation, not being founded on reason, cannot be removed by logical persuasion. Thus, it is important to understand how a system of false beliefs (called “false consciousness” by economist Branko Milanovic in Global Inequality) could become so deeply seated in the identities of Trump voters that they acted against their own interests. This is particularly the case if most citizens vote according to their social identities rather than according to knowledge of policies.
Wealthy libertarian leaders of right-wing politics seem to have understood this for decades. Hence they have waged a decades-long campaign to firmly establish views that favor their interests at the expense of everybody else. They have done so by a long-term, well-funded plan to purchase intellectuals, university institutes, think tanks, and media to shape public opinion, as Jane Mayer documents in Dark Money. As a result of this campaign, anti-progressive identities had already been established in numerous voters. This and other factors—not any political genius on Trump’s part—led to his victory. Communitarianism and diversity-within-unity may well improve the approach to Trump voters, who evidently felt neglected. However, much more will be needed to penetrate their well-established identities and to catch up after decades of successful marketing of the interests of wealthy right-wing leaders.
Etzioni’s piece was a refreshing read compared with many other postelection commentaries and analyses floating about. To dismiss 60 million people as unintelligent or racist or xenophobic or all of the above is irresponsibly naïve, I think. People voted for Trump for a reason: maybe it’s as simple as the fact that the United States almost always changes parties after a two-term president; maybe it was the (completely misunderstood and misrepresented) report of rising Obamacare costs; maybe it was emails. Whatever the case, wondering how it happened is almost pointless. We now—all of us—need to find common ground to help ensure Trump’s presidency isn’t as big of a disaster as many of us anticipate it could be. After all, if he fails … we fail.
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I’m so over being asked to understand and empathize with Trump supporters. Please, I am surrounded by them. I understand them, and I actually have more empathy in general than I know what to do with. Where are the right-wing think pieces asking people to understand and empathize with those of us who supported Clinton or Sanders or who find Trump reprehensible in every way?
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Etzioni is too harsh a critic of the “assimilationist European nations.” He fails to recognize that relatively small countries such as France and Germany are facing an influx of millions of refugees. Cultural assimilation is essential to maintain any semblance of a continuous and distinct nation-state. Moreover, when he writes that cultural norms and laws lead to “excessive homogenization” at a domestic level, he fails to observe that the Eurozone is a vibrant tapestry, rather than a beige confederation, precisely because of localized assimilation.
However, Etzioni is too easy on Americans. In the absence of powerful, ancient, ethnic enclaves, “diversity within unity” is not our principled stance as much as our essential methodology. Immigration has been the engine of the United States. We would do well to fuel the engine as efficiently as possible. As far as our role internationally—and here I understand the Trump voter—we can’t simply Americanize Europe, internationalize liberal democracy, and otherwise enforce our brand of fundamental human rights across the globe.
Caldwell, New Jersey
I read Etzioni’s article with interest and not a little anxiety: I voted for Donald Trump, am probably deplorable, and was wondering how I would be “understood.” I thought the essay was balanced and well-written, but still missed the point. The same mistake explains why the outcome of the election was so poorly anticipated. Progressives shouldn’t stop asking “what went wrong,” but should stop calling themselves progressives. Defining Clinton supporters as progressives implies all Trump voters are retrogressives, or worse. Maybe some people think it isn’t progressive to keep classified information on a home server, to shut down the coal industry, or to raise rates on mandated health insurance.
Many of us Trump voters aren’t deplorable. We are just looking for solutions to health care, immigration, climate change, economic growth, and foreign policy challenges that eluded the most recent administration. We Trump voters cross traditional agendas, philosophies, and party lines and are looking for rational solutions to these challenges that transcend traditional party ideologies. We are in search of practical and eclectic solutions.
Right now we are witnessing a sea change, like it or not: for the next four years our country will be guided by individuals who know how to run large businesses. Everyone still has an agenda, but that’s where our checks and balances come into play. I commend Etzioni’s conciliatory words, and just gently remind him that Clinton supporters do not own the title “progressive.” My toast at dinner, the night after the election: “To the Republic!”
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Thinking of Others, and Ourselves
I wish to add to Nathalie Lagerfeld’s cogent critique of the limited view of human motives offered in Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy (Book Reviews). As the capacity to relate to feelings of another human being, empathy is fundamental to who we are and how we behave. The founding father of modern economics, Adam Smith, recognized this. Smith is famous for the idea expressed in The Wealth of Nations that self-interested behavior can lead to an optimal level of societal economic well-being. However, Smith also wrote an equally important treatise on ethics: The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The two works are not contradictory. In fact, Smith argued that people are both self-interested and empathetic. So, when Bloom suggests “we escape from empathy and rely instead on … a calculation of costs and benefits to … become fair and impartial,” he is expressing a perspective at odds with actual decision-making. For example, health insurers may use cost-benefit analyses to inform coverage decisions with respect to many healthcare services and technologies. However, insurers generally eschew such analyses in cases of lifesaving treatments on grounds of the so-called rule of rescue, which appeals to our empathetic side.
Joshua P. Cohen
Our Imperiled Future
Karen Coates’s moving account of deforestation in East Timor (Letter from East Timor, Autumn 2016) parallels my own experience of witnessing rapacious logging throughout Southeast Asia. I was born in a bustling town at the mouth of the Rajang River in Borneo’s Sarawak. I recall children leaping from log rafts into clear tannin-stained waters, eager to grasp darting fish. Thick palls of smoke rising from the timber mills thinned into trellised tentacles, like a cancer spreading. Also 40 years ago, the thrill of my first childhood flight on a Fokker Friendship rapidly devolved into the unvarying monotone of deep green rainforest that stretched from every window. I amused myself by imagining the meandering journey made by the thin brown waterways below. Like Timor’s, Borneo’s forest system is imperiled, and there is nowadays a smoky brown to the farthest horizon in every direction from the air, as land is readied for vast expanses of palm oil plantations.
Native American wisdom warns us that “when the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten, and the last stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money.”
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