Don't talk down to Donald Trump's supporters; take their concerns head on, says Eric Liu
Liu: Listen to what they say and explain how there's a better way forward than what Trump promises
Editor’s Note: Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and executive director of the Aspen Institute Program on Citizenship & American Identity. He is the author of several books, including “A Chinaman’s Chance” and “The Gardens of Democracy.” He was a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. Follow him on Twitter: @ericpliu. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Everyone hates Donald.
Major elected officials, respected pundits, and significant business leaders. Hillary and Bernie agree with Marco and Ted and John – and now Mitt – that Donald is terrible for America. Everyone seems to agree.
Everyone, that is, except for Donald Trump’s millions of supporters. And what is so striking about the campaign now is that while it has become bipartisan sport to attack Trump himself, still nobody is truly speaking to his people — or listening to them.
In commentary from the left and right, Trump people are punch lines. They are objects of condescension. They are pitied for their ignorance, and for their ignorance about their ignorance. They are objects of fascination, in news stories that treat them like visitors from another planet.
What’s missing, though – from the media, and even more, from presidential aspirants not named Donald – is a sincere effort to communicate with and humanize the people who support Trump.
To be clear, I believe Trump is a repugnant person. I wouldn’t choose him as a leader – or as a relative, friend, neighbor or co-worker either. I think a Trump presidency would be a disaster – a threat to the social norms that bind a democracy together and to the very idea of the rule of law. As a candidate he has blessed bigotry; as president he would decimate our better angels.
I believe that the core of his support – the white-hot core – consists of nativists and white supremacists. They’re the ones motivated by racial and religious animus toward nonwhites and Muslims. But outside that hard core, I also believe there is a silent majority within Trump’s self-proclaimed silent majority.
They have chosen Trump not because they are bad people but because they see him as the only choice they have. Most of us know some of these people. And for our society to work, every leader now has to speak directly to them.
Every candidate – in both parties – has to take responsibility for the brokenness of national politics, and for the disenfranchisement of so many citizens. Imagine if in the coming weeks each candidate were to spend time listening deeply to Trump supporters, then give a speech to them. It could go something like this:
“I know you support Donald Trump and not me.
“I know that it feels like America has left you behind. Your wages have been flat or falling — not just since Obama, not just since Bush or Clinton, but for 40 years. Under both parties. Your jobs went overseas, while CEOs got sweetheart deals. Nothing I say about how trade makes our country richer seems true to you. What’s true is that your job, your way of life, isn’t here anymore.
“The rap on you is that if you support Trump you must not be that smart. I think that’s dead wrong. You may not all be college graduates. But you all have the common sense to realize that over the last few decades, people like me — politicians, of both parties – have gotten too cozy with organized money. And you think people like me don’t know or care about people like you anymore.
“You know what? You’re pretty much right. Maybe not about me – I care, but why would you believe that? Of course I’d say that. You’re right that the networks of power in this country treat you like a cost to be cut. An afterthought.
“You don’t feel like you’re in charge of things anymore. And you know what? You’re pretty much right again. Some of that is for the good – you can’t boss people around just because you’re white or straight or a man or Christian, and they’re not. But some of it is simply bad – you don’t have a say in how our society runs.
“A lot of folks say Trump is a fake. But maybe that’s why you like him. He shows just how fake all of politics has become. He’s so fake he’s real. You like that he totally disrespects a system that has totally disrespected you. He may not feel your pain. But he knows that you prefer pride to pain.
“Well, so do I. I don’t like being looked down on. I want to feel good about the future. But this isn’t magic. You don’t make things great just by saying so. You have to know how to fix the system. You have to have more than, ‘You’re fired.’ If that man is elected he can’t just fire all of government. He’ll be out of his depth. And you know it.
“Don’t trust me? You shouldn’t. Trust us. A strongman is what people in other countries fall for. Not Americans. As bad as things may be, they aren’t so bad that we should just hand the keys over to a dictator. We can still make government of the people work – if you push people like me to do better. You have. And I will.
“I hear you now. And I promise you nothing but this: I will not write you off. I will use all my skill to help you make a place in this world you can be proud of. It will be hard. But beware people who tell you it’ll be easy. America is great because it’s not easy.”
Each non-Trump candidate, Republican and Democrat, will have trouble delivering parts of that speech. But imagine if they all make a sincere effort to speak directly and constructively to this moveable part of Trump’s base. More to the point, imagine if none of them do. That could be the most dangerous future of all.