Don’t be so sure Trump voters were all idiots and racists

oistinsI WANT to tell you about Bill. I have a feeling you won’t like him very much, but at the moment you quite possibly hate him, and hating him won’t get us very far.

Bill was a Trump supporter. As of early June, Bill agreed with “at least 90 per cent” of what Donald Trump had to say, and I doubt that figure fluctuated much between then and Tuesday, or whenever he cast his vote.

I met Bill at the Oistins fish fry in Barbardos, where he and his wife have a timeshare. Bill wanted to know what I was writing in my notebook. I wanted to know what he thought of Donald Trump.

I love talking to Americans, and in my experience most Americans love to talk. But that’s about the only generalisation I’ll make about this nation of 50 states and more than 300 million people. Because the United States of my right-on, liberal friends in New York and Los Angeles is a very different place from the United States that had turned red by the time I woke on Wednesday morning. It’s a very different place from the United States I’ve criss-crossed by Greyhound bus, a mode of transport many well-heeled Americans believe is used exclusively by thieves, rapists and murderers.

I understand the temptation to dismiss all those Americans who voted for Trump as “other” – as dumb hicks, racist rednecks, ignorant white trash

My friends are angry, and they’re embarrassed. They are tweeting furiously and posting impassioned, intelligent analysis on Facebook. I feel their pain and dismay – of course I do – but I hope when the initial shock and horror wears off they will remember Michelle Obama’s words: “When they go low, we go high”.

I understand the temptation to dismiss all those Americans who voted for Trump as “other” – as dumb hicks, racist rednecks, ignorant white trash. As tinfoil-hat-wearing simpletons who don’t trust the media but happily parrot every meme their aunt Doris posts online. As inbred hillbillies who cannot possibly have had reasoned arguments for abstaining, or for declining to support Hillary Clinton, because for the love of God look who she was up against.

Bill was not stupid. He was a retired history teacher who had done his homework

Inconveniently, Bill was not stupid. He was a retired history teacher who had done his homework, and who could talk about immigration and trade deals and foreign policy using longer words and more coherent arguments than I’ve ever heard from Trump. I don’t think Bill is a racist or a homophobe, though I’ll wager he’s never protested that #BlackLivesMatter or danced the Macarena at a gay wedding. Bill’s a Christian who owns a shotgun but insists he could never take another man’s life (his limit would be one of the alligators snapping at the cats out back at his Florida home). Bill’s concern for the environment doesn’t extend as far as refraining from dropping litter on a paradise island. Bill’s favourite tennis player is Maria Sharapova, although Martina Hingis is “also very attractive”. I’m confident Bill has never grabbed any woman where she didn’t want to be grabbed, but I also doubt he lost any sleep over Trump’s boasts about doing the same.

I didn’t find common ground with Bill … I didn’t like him, but I didn’t hate him either. He was an ordinary man with an ordinary life

I didn’t find common ground with Bill. We didn’t exchanges email addresses or become Facebook friends or make plans to grab another fish tea together. I didn’t like him, but I didn’t hate him either. He was an ordinary man with an ordinary life. He’d provided for a wife and kids, cared for his elderly parents, volunteered for his church. His family had been touched by addiction, by stresses at work, by money worries.

Yes, it feels like the votes of Bill and millions like him have turned the world upside down, but shouting at these people that they are all stupid, hateful, white supremacists is no way to mitigate the damage. And using language that stigmatises the poor and marginalised while doing so is a quick way to lose the moral high ground. If we can accept that those who voted for Brexit were not all motivated by xenophobia, and that the dynamics at play during the referendum were more complex than those watching from overseas may have appreciated, then we have to at least try to give Americans the benefit of the doubt. It’s convenient to put people in the categories of goodies and baddies, but first and foremost we are all human beings. We all have flaws and blind spots, prejudices and fears.

It’s certainly not easy to respond to bullying, name-calling and hate with tolerance, understanding and love, but if Americans are to be brought back together they will need to try

It’s certainly not easy to respond to bullying, name-calling and hate with tolerance, understanding and love, but if Americans are to be brought back together they will need to try. If it is assumed everyone who voted for Trump is a dyed-in-the-wool bigot then the window for dialogue and understanding closes. If it is accepted that many of those who abstained had legitimate concerns about Clinton – her ties to big business, her enthusiasm for military action, or her support for immigration amnesties – then there can be even-tempered discussion about how to move forward, not just panic about the nation sliding backwards.

Trump went low, but his opponents must resist the urge to stoop to his level

I understand things are very raw right now. It was a vicious, extraordinary election campaign, and the outrage and panic at the result is entirely justified. But when West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin asserts that Trump has a “serious psychiatric disorder”, he isn’t helping anyone (not least those with serious psychiatric disorders). When people tweet jokes about assassination attempts, they aren’t helping either. Trump went low, but his opponents must resist the urge to stoop to his level.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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