With Donald Trump’s chances of winning the White House narrowing, it’s not too soon to ask: If Hillary Clinton wins the presidency in November, what attitude should Democrats and Republicans alike take toward Trump voters? It will be tempting to excoriate or patronize them, or to woo them to your cause. But all of these approaches would be mistaken. A much better strategy — for both parties — is to engage in selective memory, and to treat Trump voters as though the whole sorry episode of his candidacy never occurred.
That may seem counterintuitive, especially because there’s no doubt that Trump’s candidacy shows the system needs fixing. But it’s based on the solid intuition that Trump voters, many of them alienated already from mainstream party politics, will only be further alienated by anything that associates them with a candidate whose brand was victory and who delivered defeat.
Even assuming a convincing Clinton win, many, many Americans are going to vote for Trump on Nov. 8. They will do so for various reasons, and I don’t want to make the mistake of assuming that those reasons can be captured in a few sentences.
What can be said definitively about Trump voters is that they will have judged that, whatever his flaws and demerits, he was a better pick than Clinton. That doesn’t necessarily mean all Trump voters will have thought Trump should be president; if the polls are sufficiently lopsided on Election Day, it will be logically possible to vote for him as a protest.
But it does mean at a minimum that the voter wanted to communicate that Trump’s vision is preferable to Clinton’s.
This brute fact about what Trump voters must be trying to say could lead to some potentially dangerous responses from those who don’t vote for Trump. One characteristic risk would be moral outrage. Democrats might be tempted to say that anyone who voted for Trump has bad morals and belongs in the much-discussed “basket of deplorables.” The Republican version of moral outrage against Trump voters would be to say that the candidate’s words (and maybe conduct) around sexual morality made him undeserving of election, and that anyone who voted for him must share his morals.
But moral outrage would be a moral mistake. Plenty of Democrats who don’t care for Bill Clinton’s personal sexual conduct voted for him — twice. Lest we forget, it’s a credible (if today highly unpopular) view that a candidate’s sexual morality is irrelevant to his or her qualifications for the presidency. That view may be wrong, but it isn’t inherently morally outrageous.
As for condemning a Trump voter morally for endorsing a candidate who has called for immoral policies toward Latinos and Muslims, this, too, assumes that Trump voters necessarily share his views. Of course, some may applaud the things Trump has said. But it’s also morally permissible to vote for someone who has expressed moral views with which you strongly disagree. Otherwise, it would have been immoral for some Democrats to vote for Barack Obama when he still opposed gay marriage. Put another way, voting always means picking and choosing between candidates who don’t share all of the voter’s views.
Patronizing Trump voters would also be a mistake — practically, rather than morally. The risk of condescension is especially great given polls that suggest Trump is doing better with white voters who don’t have a college degree than other Republican candidates have done. It will be tempting to think — as some have already argued — that Trump voters have been hoodwinked by a skilled salesman.
Democrats and Republicans alike would do well to remember that whites without college degrees have been especially vulnerable to the reduction in manufacturing jobs in recent decades. Their historically high support for Trump can be explained by the sense that Trump is drawing attention to their political and economic concerns. That’s a perfectly justifiable reason to vote for someone, no matter what you might think about the rest of his policies or his character.
That leads to the final temptation, namely to try to win over Trump voters either by crafting policies aimed at saving the white lower-middle class or by using Trump-like dog-whistle politics that scapegoat immigrants and minorities. The former is at least an admirable goal — but only provided it can be accomplished realistically, without doing much more harm than good, for example by adopting extreme protectionism and starting a trade war with China. The latter isn’t even admirable — and worse, it won’t work, at least not at the national level.
The alternative is to treat Trump voters as though they were ordinary, rational voters choosing among policy options available to them. That will require pretending retrospectively that this election wasn’t somehow special or distinctive, and that Trump wasn’t a uniquely dangerous candidate.
That would be a noble lie, well worth it to help Trump voters feel more connected to a polity that will (hypothetically) have rejected their candidate. The last thing the U.S. needs is for large numbers of citizens to feel that they’ve been morally repudiated for supporting Trump. The country doesn’t need more cultural condescension toward white people who didn’t go to college. And it doesn’t need pandering to those who voted for Trump, either.
Come Election Day, we should vote as though this election matters more than others. Fundamental political structures and morality really are at stake. And on Nov. 9, we should go back to pretending it never happened, and that in the words of Sinclair Lewis, it can’t happen here.