Saturday night on MSNBC, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson compared the spontaneous celebrations of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ win to the emotions he witnessed when Pinochet was overthrown in Chile. He’s not wrong.
After four years of cruelty, incompetence, chaos and racism in ways both large and small, America and the world breathed a sigh of relief. Our democratic institutions held against an authoritarian strongman determined to corrupt our nation from within and without to hold power. This is due in no small part to those incorruptible grassroots election officials and county clerks who believe in their hearts that every vote should be counted and every voter respected. And it is due to the millions of voters, especially women voters of color, who rose up and said, “Enough.”
But I want to be very clear: It is not on those of us who voted for compassion, intelligence and decency to empathize with Trump supporters. It is on those who voted for Trump not once but twice to atone for the abuse they inflicted on the country.
What Trump did was abuse. Abuse of individuals, abuse of the Constitution, abuse of power, abuse of his office, abuse of the full faith and credit of the United States of America in service of his narcissism and greed.
And Trump voters were OK with it.
They looked at immigrant teenagers caring for sick immigrant toddlers in dirty diapers in squalid detention centers at the border, because all of them were separated from their parents in a policy of sheer brutality, and said, “I’m good with that.” They looked at the picture of the drowned little girl with her arm looped around her daddy’s neck and agreed we should continue to punish people seeking refuge in this country.
They watched Trump bow and scrape and serve Vladimir Putin and Russia’s interests over the United States of America and waved it away. They witnessed Trump’s extortion of the Ukraine using taxpayer dollars for dirt on his opponent, an act of thuggery that cost a good man, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, his job and had no problem with it.
They saw him envy and flatter tyrants like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kim Jong Un in North Korea and paid it no mind. They heard him insult our military service members as suckers and losers and let it pass. They listened to him profane every syllable of every word of Jesus’ teachings about how we treat one another and still called themselves Christian. They witnessed him rob the public purse time and again and did nothing.
They looked at 230,000 Americans dead from an out-of-control pandemic thanks to Trump’s incompetence and rewarded him for it. An AP survey found counties with the highest COVID-19 surges overwhelmingly voted for Trump.
They tolerated lie after lie and theft after theft because Trump’s malice and willingness to blame others validated their desire to do the same. Trump allowed — encouraged — people who were once only ugly in private to be ugly in public. There have always been demagogues in the United States and elsewhere. But we have never had one so openly and unapologetically willing to tap directly into the darkest impulses of the human brain.
Adam Serwer in his classic essay in The Atlantic, “The Cruelty Is the Point,” summarized Trump’s appeal thusly: “Taking joy in that suffering is more human than most would like to admit. Somewhere on the wide spectrum between adolescent teasing and the smiling white men in the lynching photographs are the Trump supporters whose community is built by rejoicing in the anguish of those they see as unlike them, who have found in their shared cruelty an answer to the loneliness and atomization of modern life.”
We do not owe Trump supporters an embrace of their shared cruelty. We may be able at some point to share a common purpose.
Democracy, as stated by both John Lewis and Vice President-elect Harris in her acceptance speech, is a verb, not a noun. It is an active place, not a resting place. We need to defeat Trumpism as much as we defeated Trump, which will not be easy and will require eternal vigilance, purpose and action.