I’m done with the stuff about empathy. And I’m only saying I’m “done” because I experience myself, in the now, as being incapable of empathizing with anyone who intends to vote for Donald Trump. At the same time, though, I feel miserable about the degree of polarization and mutual hatred that are everywhere.
I am wondering out loud if I have anything in common with Trump voters, because theoretically I am supposed to be understanding them or at least listening to them and trying to understand them. And then of course optimally, I would perhaps even be working with them to make our country better. And, because I’m a therapist, I’m prone to thinking that behind what and who we hate, we might find something important about who we are. There I said it: hate.
So, I posed this question to myself, “What do I have in common with a Trump voter?”, and that is to say, “do I share anything at all?”. On the one hand I hope not and on the other hand having nothing in common would be a sorry state of affairs because Trump supporters form a significant constituency in the country I live in. To start, I return to one of my most trusted sources regarding the extremes of human conduct, a book entitled The Nazi Conscience by Claudia Koonz (Harvard University Press, 2003).
While it can be easy enough to surmise that people who were Nazis had no conscience at all, Koonz suggests they had a certain kind of conscience. Early in the book on page 5 she writes, “Knowledge about the identity of those ‘to whom we do what’ provides the mental architecture within which moral thinking occurs. In traditional societies, religious leaders tell the faithful who deserves moral consideration. But in modern societies experts create assumptions about which people belong within the community of shared moral obligation.”
In other words, it can become very easy to adopt hate and fear toward those who are outside the acceptable and sanctioned community. And, as it was in Germany, who is in and who is out can be improvised and switched around to scapegoat, reject, torment and murder.
For the most part, Trump supporters view the enemy as radical liberals and the “fake news”. Those who in their mind want to take away their sacred freedoms and force everyone to embody one or more forms of socialism. In other words, they see non-supporters as strangers opposed to and intent on destroying their values — strangers wanting to tear down all they hold dear. And we in turn see them as, well, the enemy, the enemy we can’t begin to understand, and that is if we want to at all.
Actually, most of us learn to demonize very early in our lives. Many religions — even those we consider the most civilized — have demonized a portion of the population in their midst. The God of the Old Testament saves the Jews from harm and kills the first born of the Egyptians … and on and on; at various points He threatens the Jews with exile and even extinction.
Christianity seems to find little conflict in heralding the burning in hell for nonbelievers, the “us” and “them” theme in vivid if futuristic technicolor. Now we have the culture wars in America, in keeping with a mood not too far from apocalyptic in its own right.
Just to wax religious for a moment longer, as liberals many of us were raised to feel righteous, above the fray of petty hatred and prejudice, holier than thou if you will. As I think about the righteousness of our position, I am hearing (yes, figuratively) the voice of Carl Jung. Jung suggested that we are all potential criminals by the mere fact of our being human.
He spoke of the insidiousness of the shadow when it stays hidden and becomes the source of sudden explosions. Or when it is basis for our projecting those hidden and rejected feelings onto others who we then demonize and in turn brutalize either physically or emotionally or both.
Jung’s advice on the business of the shadow was that we each attempt to do the work to take back our projections, so we can own up to the deeper angry or more tender aspects we might be hiding from. In this way, we can allow our own emotions back into community with each other and with us, so they don’t have to remain ousted, lonely and more dangerous because they stay mysterious and inaccessible.
At this moment in time, some of us might be feeling that we are full of light only and that all the darkness is on the other side. In that case we might find this process of dealing with the messier aspects of our own demons distinctly unattractive and even unnecessary. And yet, according to Jung, wherever there is light there is also darkness. Alas for human beings, there is no such thing as pure light. Whatever we have come to believe, none of us is altogether pure and immune to hate; none of us is entirely immune to the tendency to blame others for what we detest inside us.
To do our part in moving toward a saner collective and more healthy nation, we might need to begin to refrain from setting ourselves up as better than we are. Even if we didn’t vote for Trump, our being naive about the danger he posed speaks to our indirect but complicit enabling of his current power. Our shock at the emotional fires lying in wait in his current base of fans that would place him on the pedestal he now occupies for so many, speaks to our lack of preparedness and awareness. We didn’t recognize the danger, and perhaps for the reason that what Trump and his followers represent, embodies some of what we have rejected from our own psyches. Ultimately what we reject we can’t afford to recognize.
I am thinking that our task at hand has to be one of expanding our notion of “community” so we include each other, all of “each other”. As Claudia Koonz intimated, once we hold people outside our community, we feel freer to hate and to harm them, whether the basis is racial or religious or economic or political. As suggested earlier one way of including each other can be to expand our own internal borders to include or to welcome back emotions previously evicted. We can hardly be truly inclusive of others when we reject much of ourselves.
We have to start the process with as much honesty as we can muster, even if the picture isn’t pleasant. For instance I can’t hide behind a healthier or more generous adaptation than what I possess at present; I tried and it’s not working. As of now, I feel threatened by Trump supporters. I am scared/angered by their viewing the likes of me as polluting a swamp, and as being part of a conspiracy. I can’t stand their own conspiracy driven world view and their stunning lack of empathy. I can’t stand their feeding into white supremacy movements and sentiments. I can’t stand their refusal to deal with Covid as real. And more.
When “they” talk about Nazism, saying we are the Nazis, it makes my blood boil. I am horrified that there are so many of them. I won’t be able to watch a second of the Republican convention because even anticipating it fills me with dread. It feels surreal and overwhelming.
Even when I have done some reading that has aimed to help the reader understand where people who are part of Trump’s base are coming from, my empathy is too tenuous, so tenuous as to ultimately collapse. So that empathy, for me, is out of the question. At least for the moment. For the moment, I am stuck right here: I believe in the dignity of all people: but do I really? Perhaps not quite yet. Ouch.
I’m still not sure what I have in common with people who are voting for Trump. Even if I sense some answers may well be lurking nearby, perhaps in a shadow or two. If intensity of feeling is any indication, there is more here than meets the eye.