A Radical Idea: Listening to Trump Supporters

Mar 8, 2016
10:34 AM
Donald J. Trump, billionaire mogul and Republican presidential frontrunner (Matt Johnson/Flickr)

Donald J. Trump, billionaire mogul and Republican presidential frontrunner (Matt Johnson/Flickr)

I will be taking a radical position as a leftie that we can listen to Trump supporters to gain a fuller understanding of the stories driving their anxieties and anger. Not listening is part of what is driving voters away from messages of equality and pushing them towards the Trumps of the world.

I don’t want to excuse the -isms or violence that Trump supporters are pushing. But the compassionate part of me wants to remind you that these are people. These are people who are scared, lied to and angry. These are people who have voices.

People who feel voiceless and unheard are far more likely to vote for Trump. According to a recent survey by the Rand Corporation, Republican voters are 86.5 percent more likely to prefer Donald Trump as the first-choice nominee if they agreed to the statement that “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does.” Of all the different variables, from race of the respondent to their views on immigration and Muslims, their agreement to this statement was the strongest predictor of their likely choice in Trump.

Our primary process is designed to silence our voices. We don’t vote directly for a candidate. We vote for delegates that we trust to vote on our behalf. Romney’s plan for a contested convention would neglect the feelings, wants and voices of Republican voters. During the first ballot at the convention, delegates are obligated to vote for their chosen candidate, but no candidate would receive the required 1,237 delegates to lock up the nomination. After this first vote, all delegates are essentially made “free agents” for the second vote. If a district sent a delegate to vote for Trump, that same delegate could vote for whomever they wanted for in the second vote. The delegate has the possibility to switch their vote for a Rubio, Kasich, Cruz or — dare, I say — a fourth candidate who never primaried.

A contested convention potentially sets up the situation where Trump could not win, even though he may have received the highest proportion of delegates. Trump supporters and their voices as voters may no longer matter. Yet again, the primary process has set up the strong possibility in which voters may not be heard.

While the political structures may be designed to shut down their voices, we activists of color can do something radical on an interpersonal and cultural level in politics. We can listen more to what Trump supporters have to say. I am not saying that we have to agree with their words or excuse their behavior. I am merely advocating to listen.

If you listen, you will see that Trump supporters are suffering. James A. Baldwin wrote, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” Behind their hate is sadness about loss of their identity.

It is true that Trump supporters tend to be white, but they are also more likely to be working-class and have less formal education. Even though they are told that they are “privileged” due to the color of their skin, they are not feeling the privilege in terms of immediate material returns on their personal incomes and wealth.

Working-class whites are told that the economy is improving, yet wages remain stagnant.   They are fed the myths that government will be there for them, but then they are stigmatized as “white trash” for taking food stamps or enrolling in Obamacare during times of personal economic crisis. Whites are facing the stigma of people of color faced when they were shamed as “Welfare Queens” and lazy illegals only coming here to take government handouts.

This same government created a middle class for whites through the GI Bill and VA/FHA housing programs, yet systematically denied these same programs to people of color. They want to “make America great again” because they want to return to a nostalgic government that made them financially secure and us people of color insecure.

David Robert’s Vox piece argues that racial resentment and economic anxiety among Trump supporters are one in the same:

For the Americans rallying around Trump, economic insecurity is tied to the rise of minorities. Traditional white, Christian, small-town, patriarchal culture, along with the high-paying jobs that sustained it, is being assaulted, invaded, corrupted by the rise of demographic groups that do not share its values and a political party that manipulates those demographic groups to further its own power.

Trump and white society sold them this myth of a zero-sum game that our so-called “rise” as people of color is leading to their “decline” as a white people. The problem is not that we are taking more of the pie and leaving very little for white society. There is less of a pie for all of us who are in the middle and working-class, yet white elites have their own pies.

White elites like Trump sold his supporters the narrative of “minorities taking more from white society,” so that white elites can deflect criticism from themselves. White elites made the decisions to outsource jobs and close factories in the United States. White elites made the decision not to legalize undocumented immigrants so that they can abuse them for cheap labor and undercut wages for Americans. White elites on Wall Street and government created the Great Recession that knocked out our jobs, our savings and our financial security.

But while the Great Recession eliminated more of the wealth of people of color than whites, it does not mean that whites did not suffer. Instead of automatically dismissing Trump supporters as ignorant, racist followers, you might want to ask them: What do you mean by ‘Making America great, again’? See what they have to say. They might tell you stories of an America of when their father once had a union job robust enough to provide for his family. They might tell you stories of how their mother could once trust the public school to teach her children. They could tell you stories of the dignity that they felt — instead of the shame that they are currently experiencing. Through mutual dialogue, you might be able to communicate to them that you too are fighting for the dignity to provide for your family and to get an education.

You may be asking yourself, why should I listen when they don’t listen to us? I am just as disgusted as many of you in regards to how some of Trump’s supporters are treating people of color like punching bags at his rallies instead of engaging them in conversation. It, too, disgusts me how young activists are getting kicked out and unheard at his rallies. Remember that these situations were created because Trump’s leadership and political structures have quietened us through his supporters.

I remember when I was a young activist of color and felt unheard. As a teen and young adult, I came of age in Congressional District 14 in Texas which elected the racist Ron Paul. I remember how I was forced to listen to people in my small town who insulted me, my family and my heritage. It is difficult to listen when you are being insulted.

I remember the vulnerability and shame that I have felt over the years as a target of insult. My anger became my protective force to push back on the insults. Instead of using my anger to assert my rights to be heard, I used it to shut down others that I disagreed with. As I pushed my opinion on others out of rage, I failed to listen to their narratives and feelings. That’s when they would exit the conversation by either ignoring me, physically leaving, calling me an idiot, or raising their voices to tell me to shut up. My anger deafened me to others’ opinions and narratives.

When you listen, you might be surprised to learn that they may listen back. Even if they don’t listen back, part of being a radical is doing things that others are not doing. What makes your openness to discussion particularly radical is that you would be someone from the other side of the political spectrum and a different racial background that listened. After all, racism harms whites, too, because it denies whites the opportunity for meaningful contact with people of color.


Christina Saenz-Alcántara is Chicana small-business owner, daily meditator and nonprofit advocate. Telling stories of social change through data is her life’s work and passion. She now lives on the East Coast with her husband and her two cats. She can be found at @ctsaenz.