A Failed Challenge
By Bernie Mayer
October 11, 2016
A couple of weeks ago, my wife (Julie Macfarlane) challenged me to write a post that tried to articulate the most reasonable, legitimate arguments someone could give in support of Donald Trump. The point being that we don’t encourage civil discourse if we simply dismiss those we disagree with as being “stupid, crazy, or evil” and therefore not worthy of being understood on their own terms and in their own voice. I have long referred to these as the three “explanatory crutches” we use in conflict to avoid doing the really hard work of understanding where those we disagree with or are in conflict with are coming from.
So I thought this was a reasonable challenge. I still do. But I have realized at this moment in time I can’t do it. It makes no sense to try to present the legitimate thinking of a rapist, abuser, or bully—and I have never tried to do that. But what about those who would support someone for public office, despite he or she being racist, misogynist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, assaultive, and abusive? I think it is worthwhile trying to understand where they might be coming from.
For me, the most cogent example of this is the challenge of understanding Hitler’s supporters without resorting to the explanatory crutches. Of course, there was stupidity, evil, and craziness all over the Nazi experience, but that does not help us understand, and therefore combat, the forces that led to the Holocaust and the rise of Fascism and that are still alive and well in our world. And I have attempted to do just that at various times in the past.
So if I can try to understand and articulate what lies behind the support of Nazism (and I am the son and grandson of Holocaust survivors and victims), why can’t I do that now—because as much as I dislike Trump, he is no Hitler? I am aware of two forces as play—an emotional one and a moral one. But I am sure there are others, and I welcome any insight from those who may be experiencing a similar dilemma.
Emotional: I am just so pissed off (and a bit fearful) and that seems legitimate and important. To take an analytical approach right now seems phony and avoidant. The latest tape in which Trump glorifies sexual assault and harassment is the icing on a very disgusting cake—but the cake has been in front of us for a long time. I don’t need to list its ingredients—they have been around for all of us to see since the beginning of Trump’s campaign (well a lot longer than that—but that is when most of us started paying attention). But it is not Trump I am most pissed off at—it is those who support or enable his misogyny and racism—either overtly or tacitly and who justify him with totally specious arguments that piss me off the most. Jeffrey Lord, Scottie Nell Hughes, Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich, to name a few, justify their support for him by pivoting to how bad Hillary Clinton is and by denying the real meaning and import of what Trump says. It’s frankly fairly easy to deconstruct (and refute) their arguments, but at a time like this anger seems to me an entirely appropriate response, and I don’t want to diminish or ignore my anger by resorting to the analytical mode I am so comfortable with. That time will come—perhaps very shortly, but this is not it.
Moral: Understanding and respecting the views of those with whom we profoundly disagree is important and highly moral. And no matter what we think of Trump, there are very understandable concerns that many of his supporters bring to the table, for example worry about the loss of jobs due to trade agreements, fear about an inadequate response to crime, and above all a sense that our political system is rigged and broken and that Trump is the only real change agent in the race.
But here is what I have a hard time getting over—in order to support Trump because of these concerns one has to be willing to deny, overlook, minimize, or even worse support his fundamentally racist and misogynistic views. And the only way to genuinely speak in the voice of a Trump supporter is to find some way to do this in order to focus on the more understandable and legitimate concerns people are raising. I can no more do that at this time than to try to articulate the “legitimate” reasons to be racist or misogynist.
So while I can describe some of the thinking and motivations, as I understand them. of Trump supporters, I don’t feel it is possible or right to try to articulate their views or speak in their voice. I have failed my wife’s challenge.
But more to the point, I feel as if I have failed an important and not uncommon challenge of being an effective conflict specialist. As a conflict intervener, I often have to work with people holding views or articulating attitudes that I have extreme differences with, and I often have to deal with behavior that is entirely unacceptable. But as an intervener I have tools available to me to redirect the behavior and help people articulate their own concerns in a more constructive way. So I should be able to take on this challenge. But I can’t—not now.
I think it is extremely important to understand the views of those we disagree with the most and to avoid stereotyping them or becoming arrogant in our conviction that we alone hold the moral high ground or are in some way better than others. So I am not giving up on the challenge. The time will come, probably after this election is over, when I may have at this again, but for the moment I have failed in this effort. Therein lie the limits of my capacity as a writer and conflict analyst. There is certainly room for me to grow.