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February 20, 2017

Antisocial Media

Refusing to engage with Trump supporters will only hurt liberals going forward.

The nascent Trump administration has started a thousand firestorms in its first month, from the immigration ban to the global abortion gag rule to presidential chiding of department stores. For most of the president’s contentious choices, the reaction has been consistently negative, prompting social media to erupt into a cesspool of sound and fury.

But one pattern that has emerged from the discontent is surprising. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people post things to the effect of “if you voted for Trump, unfriend me.” Or, “If you supported Trump, you’re a racist/sexist/xenophobe/[insert alternative insult of choice here].” Or, my personal favorite, “If you support Trump after the DeVos confirmation hearings, I can’t respect you.” (Seriously? Betsy DeVos is completely unqualified to run the Department of Education, but can she really be the last straw in an administration that also includes Stephen Bannon, Jeff Sessions, and Scott Pruitt?)

You might think this is perfectly justifiable—isn’t it, after all, simply retaliation? Trump supporters troll the Internet routinely. They’re hardly restrained by rules of civility themselves. The pro-Trump posts I’ve seen are borderline libelous at their politest. And Trump’s mud-slingers are not only puerile, but they also don’t respond to reason. Why shouldn’t such people be met with contempt in return? Why shouldn’t we cut off all Trump voters? Lashing out at Trump supporters, and their often outrageous prejudices, is always a tempting proposition, but using social media to insult and shame Trump supporters is hardly the solution to our nation’s political woes.

When we shame Trump supporters, we tend to insinuate several things: that if you voted for Trump you support everything he does and says, that you are therefore personally responsible for every move he makes, and that you are not redeemable as a human being or worthwhile as a friend unless and until you renounce Trump categorically.

In taking this stance, we confound a massive, heterogeneous pool of voters with the alt-right. To be sure, Trump was a horrible candidate, his election was a national catastrophe, and the alt-right deserves every bit of hatred it gets. But not every Trump voter is part of the alt-right. Not every Trump voter likes everything Trump did on the campaign trail. Not every Trump voter, for that matter, actually likes Trump. As Jon Stewart aptly pointed out, Trump voters shouldn’t be defined by the worst of his rhetoric.

The fact is, there is no single Trump voter who adequately captures the entire group. We act like the alt-right forms the entirety of Trump’s base because it’s easy and it makes us look benevolent by comparison, but all we’re doing is disparaging millions of entirely decent Americans with legitimately thoughtful concerns. Insulting the vague monolith of Trump supporters is also implicitly self-aggrandizing, as we #NeverTrumpers glorify ourselves in the process.

Plenty of people cast votes for Trump because they’re in dire economic straits and don’t believe they can afford any more of the status quo. Trump won’t be a good president for these people, but that doesn’t make their concerns any less pressing, or their reasons any less real. Plenty of Trump voters saw their insurance premiums skyrocket beyond their means in recent years, yet many liberals are still resistant to any potential changes to the Affordable Care Act. Trump will almost certainly fail to “fix” Obamacare, but stories about middle class families suffocated by premium rises aren’t conservative conspiracy theories. Plenty of Trump voters were ensnared by fake news; those people genuinely believe that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a D.C. pizza joint, or conspiring to hide other serious crimes, or taking dirty money from foreign governments. As far as they’re concerned, they’ve occupied the moral high ground.

You can’t pin that delusion on willful mass stupidity. Our media and our newsfeeds are too polarized for these mistakes to be rectified. It’s not like a Trump supporter who reads Breitbart faithfully has been ignoring a banner at the top that reads, “UNRELIABLE.” The sources that identify fake news are precisely the sources many Trump supporters have been told are fake themselves. Additionally, pinning Trump’s success merely on the rise of fake news paints all Trump supporters as homogeneously incompetent, as if the only way someone could legitimately support Trump is if they were spoon-fed deliberate falsehoods.

Fundamentally, when we pretend that all Trump voters come from the same toxic moral swamp as their candidate, we’re acting irresponsibly. But it’s not just a misrepresentation of Trump voters, it’s also extraordinarily pretentious. Castigating all Trump voters is nothing more than an attempt to adopt the mantle of moral purity without doing anything to work for it. Consider the oh-so-common Facebook post: “If you voted for Trump, unfriend me now.” What? Are we really so pure that we can’t afford the slightest association with the moral hoi polloi? Does the party of inclusion have no better proposal than to wall itself into an island of digital sanctimoniousness?

If the dividing line between good and bad is a box you checked in November, then human decency is a politicized label, one largely without substance. Face it: you aren’t good because you voted against Trump, just as your neighbor isn’t bad because he voted for Trump. Grouping Americans into one of two rigid blocs is a noxious lie. You barely know anything about a person based on their ballot. To argue otherwise is to lend credence to the long-standing complaint that liberals are out of touch, sermonizing elitists. This drives people away from the Democratic Party. It ensures that the moderate conservatives at home today are the extremists flocking to the polls tomorrow.

Attacking all Trump voters is not merely an overly simplistic generalization: it’s a strategic misstep. No person ever changed his mind on politics because he was accused of being evil by a college student online. Slinging around personal insults is how you leave people more entrenched in their original opinions. That goes for the over 62.9 million Americans who voted for Trump. Every time we attack Trump voters rather than attacking Trump, we perpetuate our existing political divide. Making an echo chamber on your Facebook newsfeed might not sound like much, but it’s part of the problem. If we liberals refuse to engage with Trump supporters on social media, our United States will be little more than two countries bound in one, each a stranger to the other, each standing for little more than its rabid struggle to dismantle all that the other has done.


Natalie Denby is a second-year in the College majoring in public policy.

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