Donald Trump's rise to the White House was driven by many things: fear, institutional racism, sexism, anger, drugs, decay, unemployment, terrorism, elitism, immigration — and much more. In his convention address, Trump described a nation circling the drain. In glistening New York, booming Silicon Valley and bloated Washington, D.C., Trump's America was out of sight. The media and Democrats responded that data showed a stronger national economy and a drop in violent crime.
But these and many other facts never resonated in the former Barack Obama counties Trump flipped in his favor. Emotion and gut instinct trumped statistics in small cities and rural towns that felt no help from government. To them, the fact that six of America's top-ten wealthiest counties ring D.C. was more important than the drop in unemployment or rising wages, numbers they did not feel or believe.
All the feelings, passion and vitriol that led to Trump's election can be summed up to a failure to listen. Skeptical? Bear with me. I am from Trump country. And I failed to listen.
The voters who matter most
Before I explain my experience with listening, there is much to unpack.
To be clear, this is not about all Trump supporters. Some are overtly racist. Some are openly anti-Semitic, a terrifying fact we cannot ignore. And many more Trump supporters may be closeted bigots, sexists or possess other views antithetical to ideals of inclusion, fairness and freedom. Some are beyond dialogue.
This group is not my focus. I am most concerned with people who punched a ballot for Trump in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and especially Ohio, my home until six months ago. These voters delivered Trump his narrow margin of victory in states that had not gone red in 30 years.
Insofar as American elections shape America, this group matters more to our country's short term future than any other. As minorities become a greater share of the electorate, the influence of white voters will continue to wane. But two, four and eight years from now, this group will still have influence in states that pick the president. They are the swing vote. Underestimate them at your own risk.
Who are these people?
"Racists" — that is the term I see the most. The argument for this is sound. Trump said he will ban people from America based on their religion, said he will target immigrants, used language that offends African-Americans and Latinos — the list goes on and on. If carried out, such policies would make Trump the most racist president in modern history. Therefore, the argument goes, everyone who voted for Trump knowingly excused racism or was so ignorant of his racist rhetoric, they are racist.
Either way, the argument concludes in an easily tweetable one-liner: All Trump voters are racists.
It is far from that simple. The conclusion is simultaneously true and false. This argument trivializes complex personal motivations. It conflates institutional racism with individual prejudice to make a statement true in the aggregate yet often false in reference to the individual. And if you do not want Trump to be re-elected, you need to understand this.
When those opposed to Trump say those who voted for him are racists, they sometimes mean it constructively. They may not mean, for example, a specific white Trump voter looks down on Latinos. Instead, they reference a worldview and institutions that inherently value minorities less than whites.
In other cases, Trump supporters are labeled "racist" not to be constructive, but to angrily fight Trump's hate with more hate.
'All Trump voters are racists' conflates institutional racism with individual prejudice and trivializes personal motivations.
Systemic racism, truly unknown to many whites who perpetuate it, exists across much of America. But for white Trump supporters to ever understand their role in that system, we must use language that does not predetermine a destructive result. Nothing constructive will come of labeling all Trump supporters "racist." In a textbook sense, that label is accurate. But the word "racist" in Trump Country carries a politically correct connotation that rightly elicits a feeling of being judged by elites or outsiders.
Tell a Trump voter in Ohio they are "racist," meaning they supported a candidate who furthers racist policies, and it is not what they will hear. Instead, they will feel they have been targeted by political correctness with a term they will think means they hold prejudice against a specific race. This is common sense: Few conversations that begin with "you're racist" end constructively.
We don't talk anymore
The last paragraph may be where you decided to rage quit. I wouldn't blame you. Another straight, white man says that I need to not tell the truth about racism in this country? "Story of America," as a prominent African-American journalist (also a mentor and friend) told me on Facebook.
I actually advocate for telling the truth. But I want to see it done constructively.
Few conversations that begin with "you're racist" end constructively.
As young whites moved away from their roots in the Rust Belt to coastal cities over the past few decades, their politics became more liberal, they became open to other identities and came to value diversity. This acceptance of all walks of life is beautiful — and entirely misunderstood by friends or family back home.
My home county is 91% white. I can count the number of minority friends I had in high school on one hand. To fight this white isolation, my parents — a professor and a therapist — raised me to be very open-minded. We traveled internationally. We invited inclusion into our home. My father's students hailed from China, Nepal, Kenya and other places different from rural Appalachia.
But my parents were not the average residents of a rural Rust Belt state. Their income was about four times what households earned outside the bubble of our college town. Most kids from southeastern Ohio do not travel to Egypt, England, Mexico, Crete and beyond before they turn 14.
Yet despite this travel, I never truly learned the value of diversity. In high school, a diverse perspective meant blaring "Fuck tha Police" or na, na, naaing along to the latest Kanye record — with zero lived experience to understand the message behind the music.
To this day, I can rap every word of Tupac's "Changes." This was one of my favorite lines: "Instead of war on poverty, they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me. And I ain't never did a crime I ain't have to do. But now I'm back with the facts givin' 'em back to you." How naive to think I could even try to relate to that.
In college and beyond, I came to realize that many of my peers, myself included, knew diversity only in the abstract. Diversity was a term thrown around by the media or teachers, but not something we could regularly experience in our nearly white-only county.
If you do not live diversity, you do not know its value. And that is where listening comes in.
In Trump country, my peers and I only knew diversity in the abstract. We never lived it.
How listening could have stopped Donald Trump
As white liberals, like myself, moved away from home, we moved any opportunity for a dialogue about race and diversity to places that perpetuate an endless loop of agreement. When I speak with anyone — anyone — in my new home (Washington, D.C.) about race or diversity, their response invariably preaches openness to people of all colors and creeds.
But when I reference D.C. back in Ohio, the feedback cannot be more different. There is unfounded fear of crime driven by impoverished minorities. There is a belief drug use and violence are rampant. There is a disgust of Washington's high expense and yes, how difficult it can be to drive. There is the perception that urban (yes, code for black) Democrats have long run a "failed state" in D.C. and other large cities.
Of course, listening to people spout these statements makes me shudder. All of this language is racially tinged. Much of it is also objectively false. But because some Trump supporters do not realize these statements are racist and false, there is an opportunity to listen, then educate through meaningful conversation.
I did my best to listen to these positions. I have friends who shunned such conversations altogether. But my failure arises from listening only vaguely, largely tuning out specific arguments that often horrified me. I have to confess to quietly nodding my head and not responding.
Many of these people, lifelong Democratic voters who provided Trump his margin of victory, truly do not have hate in their heart. Surprise — they will listen to reason. But they have little to no lived experience with diversity. They hear politicians and coastal media outlets spout its benefits, with few personal stories to understand why.
I believe many voters who looked past Trump's racist rhetoric can be enlightened to understand why his words made so many so fearful. But to break through, any conversation that aims to broaden understanding of a white voter in Ohio must begin with their point of view. It may be difficult, but listen to them. Let them explain their fears, struggles, marginalization and distrust of the system. Take in the often cringeworthy racist verbiage.
These Trump voters hear politicians and media outlets spout diversity's benefits, without the lived experience to understand why.
Then pause. Now use only facts, not emotion, to respond. Explain how diverse perspectives improved your life. Explain "white privilege" in a way that is easily relatable. Tell stories about the ways diversity enlightened and educated you. Convey what your friends of different backgrounds have said about how Trump's rhetoric terrifies them. Become a conduit for thoughtful conversation about viewpoints and life experiences that your peers, isolated from diversity by geography, cannot understand without you.
It is not the responsibility of minorities or Americans with no ties to these areas to help these voters understand the racism behind Trump's rhetoric. Whites who left to enter more diverse ecosystems have the most opportunity to listen to, then correct, racist views and misunderstandings.
But these white liberals, myself included, gave up or did not try. Enter Trump.
If you are skeptical that listening and dialogue could have shifted the election, consider this. Clinton lost Wisconsin by 27,000 votes. She lost Pennsylvania by 70,000 votes. Trump leads by 13,000 votes in Michigan, a race that has yet to be called. A few thousand convincing dialogues between Wisconsinites and Pennsylvanians now living on America's coasts and their neighbors back home could have shifted this election. If voters who twice voted for Obama, then flipped to Trump, understood the pain Trump's words caused to minorities, women, immigrants and others across the country, they may have remained Democratic.
White liberals originally from Trump country failed, or did not try, to explain the importance of diversity.
If we listen, we come to understand. And if we understand, we can respond thoughtfully and fairly. All these voters want is someone to hear them out. Decades of Democratic politicians failed to listen. Liberals with roots in middle America failed to listen. News organizations failed to listen. Instead, these groups libsplained why they were right and middle America was wrong.
Trump issued a clarion call to this population: "I AM YOUR VOICE!" And that was what these voters needed to hear, tuning out the hate, lies and vitriol he regularly spewed in favor of a belief that he would fix their problems. Political correctness and racism be damned, they thought, jobs are too important.
If coastal liberals, big city media and elites fail to engage in conversation and continue to label all Trump supporters "racist," then the president-elect has already won his second term. If you feel America is beyond dialogue, all of us have already lost.
Will Drabold is a policy writer at Mic. He grew up in the poorest county in Ohio and graduated from Ohio University earlier this year. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.