You’re driving along the freeway, listening to some great music or peacefully chatting on your cell phone with a friend. Suddenly, a dusty, beaten up old car pulls up alongside you, the driver’s eyes wild, his face contorted with hellish fury. He appears to be swearing at you, he’s flipping you off, he swerves his car slightly into yours. You react defensively by swerving to avoid him, and you hear the fender of your previously undamaged car scrape along the center divider. Your anger at him immediately matches his toward you, and the battle is on. In truth, that man had already had a lot to be upset about that day, but he had actually been outwardly quite calm just a few seconds earlier. Then you had cut him off when you changed lanes without noticing him, and he had almost crashed. You were completely unaware of that: you were busy enjoying your music or talking with your friend. The fact that you weren’t paying attention now has both of you locked in a potentially deadly conflict.
The election of President Trump is like a road rage incident. Mainstream Democrats had been going along peacefully, thinking that they understood the correct focus-tested messaging and statistical analysis of the issues to run a successful Presidential campaign. Then a group of people that they hadn’t been paying attention to came out of nowhere and started ramming into them with a bizarre orange egomaniacal authoritarian in populist’s clothing (clothing purchased and custom-tailored for him at the priciest stores in Manhattan). Bewilderment turned to rage as this erratic new ruler pushed forward racist and xenophobic policies and began dismantling every institution of government necessary to the continued functioning of American civil society. Trump’s supporters defended his every move or at most shrugged, immune to all arguments that Democrats put forth, every scandal that the President created, every hypocritical act, every idiotic or offensive or even dangerous tweet. The worse it got, the more strange the non-reaction of the Trump voters seemed, and the angrier Democrats became.
Just underneath anger often lies other emotions: fear, envy, pride, sadness, a sense of injustice. The anger of the man in the road rage incident was sparked by fear: you had nearly killed him when you cut him off and almost caused him to crash. Your lack of awareness of what you had done as you drove blissfully along in your relatively nice car prompted further outrage: he had recently been laid off and was two months behind on his rent, facing eviction, and on top of it all, someone like you was so unaware of people like him that you had almost killed him without even noticing. The fact that the current conflict could now result in his death (fear of which had ironically started the incident moments before) is of little importance to him: all he wants now is to see you punished.
Likewise, your anger at him was provoked when he threatened your life by swerving at you. It was intensified when you realized that his bizarre actions had needlessly resulted in your car being damaged. Not only had his behavior endangered you: he had also cost you money in car repairs or potentially higher insurance rates. The fact that your car could possibly get totaled and you could get killed as you engage with him on the freeway is now of little importance to you: all you want is revenge.
Similarly, the anger on both sides of the Trump divide has other emotions underneath. For many on the left, like you in the road rage incident, those who elected Donald Trump have needlessly endangered your life in profound and ongoing ways. You have been thrust into living with a scandal-ridden President who seems mentally unstable, who has made the possibility of nuclear war seem real and imminent for the first time in decades, who seems bent on the destruction of essential institutions of government, who is undoing key relationships with our allies abroad, and many of whose decisions seem particularly mean-spirited toward the least fortunate among us.
For Trump supporters, like the guy in the other car, the anger was simmering decades before the election. The grievances have varied – small towns being hollowed out and brought to their knees by unemployment and addiction, hard-earned tax dollars being handed over to undeserving “others,” a long-standing cultural and economic structure upended by progressive causes like civil rights and immigration, a soft stance on the mortal danger of terrorism, or just outrage over a reakingly corrupt government. But in the end, the enemy is the same: “the system” and those in the mainstream who have been keeping it in place – both Democrats and Republicans. For almost all Trump voters, Hillary Clinton was the quintessential embodiment of the out-of-touch, cosmopolitan system of corrupt career politicians.
Just as you had been driving along peacefully in your car without noticing the havoc that you had created for other driver, you had not noticed how some significant systemic issues were (in reality or in their imaginations) endangering the lives of Trump voters. As small towns silently buckled, you instead encouraged government to help the equally needy and deserving inner cities. As people in rural America had to drive long distances to their jobs and to get groceries, you advocated paying for infrastructure repairs with a gas tax increase that would hit rural people disproportionately hard. As terrorists (whom many Trump supporters equate with “all Muslims”) waged deadly attacks against our country, you asserted reasonably that not all Muslims were terrorists, which in the minds of some Trump voters made you not only woefully naïve, but putting American lives in danger with your idiotic “tolerance.”
The guy who swerved into you on the freeway didn’t see his action as a way for him to get a new job or a way to pay his rent, but his act was partly an expression of his rage and despair over those problems. Similarly, Trump voters did not necessarily see their vote as a solution to their festering problems, but rather as an expression of long-standing anger and despair over those festering problems, and over the system that inflicted them. Going at least as far back as Timothy McVeigh, it was a kick in the nuts to the guy with the boot on their neck. The goal was simply to impose some sort of damage to the system, to hurt it. The fact that Trump supporters will likely experience even greater hardship under Trump than they would have under Clinton, the fact that the other driver could get killed antagonizing you on the freeway – it all has little relevance. What’s important to them is that punishment is inflicted, that you feel some of what you have unwittingly inflicted on them, and that you are not able to continue ignoring them and their pain. Your outrage, fear, confusion, or despair is all just an indication that the punishment is having the desired effect. Regardless of the impact on their own lives, there is satisfaction among some Trump voters in what they see as the justice of you having to lament the collapse of your democracy (they haven’t felt like it was theirs for a long time), your damaged fender.
In the road rage incident, if you and the other driver were to pull over and get out of your cars, the ensuing conversation would almost certainly be unproductive at best. You would yell about your fender, which the other driver couldn’t care less about: he would see it as just desserts for your endangering his life. He would yell at you about cutting him off, which would seem disproportionate compared to his overblown reaction and the bill that you are now facing for body work on your car. You would essentially be talking past each other, having two different conversations at the same time in which neither person could hear the other.
Most attempts at dialog between Trump supporters and those on the left are similarly unproductive. Many on the left consider Trump’s election to be primarily about racism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, and ignorance. Many of Trump’s supporters, on the other hand, consider his election to be about geographic and economic unfairness, political corruption, over-involvement abroad, strength toward foreign enemies, religious issues, and working class dignity. When Trump supporters and those who oppose Trump debate each other, they are therefore often having two different conversations at the same time. They shout past one another, neither hearing the other. It is why Steve Bannon says that he’s happy to debate “identity issues” all day long, because he knows that as long as polarization remains, he wins.
There is no easy way to heal our political divide. Many news outlets, social media trolls and craven political opportunists have found it profitable to feed division rather than seek to resolve it. A constant flow of information or misinformation supporting whatever reality each American wants to believe is certainly an obstacle too. But one thing is for certain: giving each other the simple courtesy of listening cannot hurt. When an angry person knows that they have been listened to and genuinely understood, the intensity of their anger diminishes dramatically, and they can begin to hear the other person.
Listening does not mean agreeing with the “other side,” letting go of principles, or stopping the important work to further deeply held values. It merely means hearing a different perspective and trying to put onesself in someone else’s shoes. At this point, the goal of listening is not some kumbaya moment where everyone hugs it out and moves on in harmony. The goal is to lower the intensity enough that we don’t total the car.
– rob rünt