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Empathy For The Devil

On the Trump movement and the rush to understand the people driving it

I find it especially difficult to behave like a Christian on the days when our churches are burned. I was furious Wednesday morning when I woke to learn about the fire at Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi, whose predominantly black congregation was thankfully absent at the time. The damage to the building was heartbreaking enough, but someone crudely painted "Vote Trump" on its exterior wall. It is the latest in a string of violent acts during this election year; we've seen everything from assaults to arson, all either connected to or inspired by the Republican nominee for President of the United States.

I've been a practicing Christian since I was a child, but I've been black even longer. And so the part about forgiveness being necessary for salvation has always been a sticking point with me. I don't want to be handed a divine rose on the condition that I must impale my fingers on its thorns. Christianity carries with it a mandate for universal empathy that can often prove utterly inconsistent with African-American survival, let alone advancement. Too many times, we're asked to understand those who have opposed or even terrorized us, while expecting no such consideration in return. We’ve reached that moment in our presidential race, with people who look like me expected to have compassion for an electorate that plans to vote for white supremacy on Election Day.

Greenville's black mayor, Errick D. Simmons, rightfully deemed the fire an attack on the black community. "It appears to be a race crime," he said. "It happened in the fifties. It happened in the sixties. It shouldn't happen in 2016." With all due respect to the mayor, it's unclear why people are in wonderment about such violence this year, as we endure a Donald Trump campaign that has laid bare the racial animus within the white working class and the Republican Party — two groups that, during the Obama era, have grown tired of the shackles of coded language and so-called "political correctness." White resentment is usually at the center of our politics, thanks in large part to the GOP. With Trump, it's at full volume. It's Jim Crow–loud.

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About a week before Election Day, the Ku Klux Klan announced in its official newspaper that Trump is the candidate who will best help them preserve white identity, at least as they define it. And while Trump's campaign rejected that endorsement, it’s no shock given how busy he's been advancing the goals of white nationalism, primarily the subjugation of other races through institutional policies and regressive cultural norms. From a political platform that scapegoats people of color and immigrants to his utter lack of curiosity about urban America, Trump has done the bidding of those who seek a return to a time when overt racism wasn't just expected, but the norm.

Yet people of color are consistently bombarded with demands to empathize with Trump's followers, even as we are demonized and our churches burn. There are some worthwhile press profiles of Trump supporters, to be sure. But probing their motivations and parsing their vitriol is odd; there’s no mystery why a base made up of poor, uneducated white Americans would support a candidate who questions the legitimacy of President Obama — the same black president on whom they blame their circumstances.

It's now a common conception that white life in this country is currently in crisis or under siege. "What worries me is that virtually every other social indicator in these communities is going in the wrong direction, from the mortality rates to the family dissolution rates, even the incarceration rates," said Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance in a recent interview. While noting that black trends in those categories are improving, Vance was careful to recognize that white and black poverty are so different that you barely use the word "poverty" to describe them both. But he also recognized that something else feeds a lack of sympathy for white people from these downtrodden areas, and that's what breeds cultural resentment. "I’ve spent a big chunk of my life around coastal elites, and there is a sense among these people that there is a big pocket of the country that is just morally deteriorating and is not especially deserving of sympathy."

Speaking as a Midwesterner living on the East Coast, I agree with Vance. But I'd say the very same thing about a lack of compassion for people of color. That sympathy, or empathy, has been noticeably absent from conversations about civil rights or police killings. I could easily substitute "white people" for "coastal elites" in Vance's sentence, and I'd accurately capture the sentiment that runs throughout the Trump ideology: that black people, living (as he says) in these demilitarized zones we call home, can only look to Trump for salvation. If we don't vote for him, well, then we've consigned ourselves to our hellish fate, being shot as soon as we step onto our sidewalks. If black voters don't go for Trump, we must be too stupid to know what's good for us. This is the logic of the oppressor, and we're actually not too stupid to realize it. So why should we have empathy for voters backing a party that is no longer even trying to win our votes?

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The sad thing is, most people following this election are missing the real story. It isn't even white people who have the most at stake, as Jim Tankersley argued recently in the Washington Post. "The workers with the most on the line earn minimum wage, or close to it, and they often rely on government-paid or government-subsidized health plans," he wrote, noting that those workers are disproportionately black or Latinx. But I'm hardly holding my breath waiting for conservative empathy for their plight.

This Trump moment should make us finally realize why we shouldn't make empathy such an overriding priority in politics. Yes, emotion is a primary driver of voters, and should be understood as such. But I just don't feel for a white Christian family man who may be down on his luck if he's voting for white supremacy. That vote is an explicit message that he couldn't give a damn about me, or anyone who looks like me. If he's voting for a candidate who said that women having abortions (and the doctors providing them) should be punished, you can't expect women to be concerned about his " economic anxiety." A lot of folks who don't consider themselves racist, sexist, or otherwise "deplorable" will vote for Donald Trump and not think themselves hypocrites. But the Republican nominee has made it more obvious than anyone since George Wallace what his flock would get in return for their support. So I don't really care who Trump's voters are. I care what they're about to do.