Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution and author of “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World.”
To prioritize one’s tribe or family to the exclusion of others has long been a universal condition. The nature of this in-group identity is malleable and can morph from ethnic to religious to nationalist identities. Whatever its form, however, it remains a potent force, steeped as it is in those most natural of sentiments — fear and the will to survive. As anthropologist Scott Atran writes: “Across most of human history and cultures, violence against other groups was considered a moral virtue.” Today we know that the desire to exclude shouldn’t be the norm, but that doesn’t make it any less a part of who we are.
Until Donald Trump’s victory shattered the idea, liberals — many of whom didn’t know a single Trump voter — could content themselves with the remarkable progress of the Obama era: gay marriage, universal health care and the growing willingness to confront the realities of sexual assault and police brutality. Maybe we were fundamentally good people. But, as the philosopher John Gray writes: “Sooner or later anyone who believes in human goodness is bound to reinvent the idea of evil in a cruder form.”
The “arc of history” is supposed to bend toward justice, leaving those that resist it enemies of both history and progress. Evil comes to be seen as something that is outside of us, which must not merely be fought but excised entirely. When someone writes that there is no such thing as a “good” Trump voter, the sentiment is understandable, fitting as it does within the modern liberal conception of progress. But it fundamentally misunderstands the very nature of good and evil.
For me, the more useful question isn’t why Trump voters voted for him, but, rather, why they wouldn’t. It seems self-evident that minorities would generally vote for the party that goes out of its way to consider — and protect — the rights of minorities. In a period of “existential” politics, that’s naturally what takes precedence over other concerns. Why would whites, or at least a large percentage of them, act any differently?
It has become common to assume a permanent Democratic majority in due time, as a result of irreversible demographic trends. In cruder terms, it amounts to longing for immigration and minority birth rates to erode white majorities on both the national and state levels. But this has profound implications, since it “practically compels whites to behave electorally like a minority constituency.” In this respect, white nationalism or white identity politics overlap with racism, but they are not quite the same thing.
After all, if I was a member of the so-called “white working class” rather than an American Muslim, I can’t be sure I wouldn’t have voted for Trump. This may make me a flawed person or even, as some would have it, a “racist.” But it would also make me rational, voting if not in my economic self-interest then at least in my emotional self-interest.
There is, of course, another way of seeing this — one that in many ways is easier and more pure. It would certainly feel good to think I’m morally superior to Trump supporters. I could take refuge in outright disdain for those who haven’t seen the light.
But it is unclear what this kind of purity and certainty — the self-satisfaction of knowing that we were right, despite everything — can really do for us. It leaves us without a path forward. It is also contrary to most of what we know about human nature: Good and bad have never been separate or easily distinguishable categories. They are endlessly intertwined.
That Americans increasingly insist on separating people into good and bad suggests an unwillingness to understand — much less empathize with — those who threaten our conception of America, whatever that happens to be. I could try to explain what I think our nation is, but I can no longer be sure if tens of millions of my fellow citizens would agree. But I cannot simply take solace in the fact that soon there will be more non-whites and therefore more people who share my ideology. This is a recipe for more conflict, not less.
Well before Brexit and the rise of Trump, Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev wrote that “threatened majorities — those who have everything and who fear everything — have emerged as the major force in European politics.” They feel threatened in the United States as well; the only difference, perhaps, is that they do not have everything but still fear everything. Yet as demographics inexorably shift, both the perception and reality of this “threat” will only grow. Unless something changes, American politics will continue to collapse along ethnic lines. The task ahead of us comes down to preventing what, for now, seems sadly inevitable.