Why Did 74 Million People Vote for Trump?
Updated: Mar 22, 2021
It’s as if we’re at a turning point where our prized American individualism is failing us, we’ve lost it, and now we have to pay better attention to each other.
I can’t help but keep thinking about the 74 million or so people who voted for the Republican presidential ticket in 2020. Why?
As someone who comes from the NYC area, so many of us knew “The Donald”. He was a negotiator, a person who practiced brinkmanship and character assassination. He was a rich playboy, wanting to see and be seen. He was obviously not a statesperson, not a diplomat, and not a leader who would bring out the best in people. How could they vote in 2016 for such a person to be the President of the United States? Then we saw what he would predictably do. And in 2020, so many voted for him again, with 81 million going to the other candidate.
While one might want to lump all of these voters into a single category, label them in a particular way, or just be frustrated with them, you also know that out of all those people, millions of them are good friends and family members, neighbors, and productive citizens. Millions are smart, thoughtful, and caring people who want nothing more than for us all to live in a peaceful, responsible, and compassionate society. They genuinely love the United States. You just can’t lump all 74 million of them in with the extremists who attacked the US Capitol on Washington on Wednesday, January 6, 2021.
Yet they voted for Trump, the person for whom Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, for his speech at Trump’s second Senate impeachment trial, said, “There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day.” Surely of those 74 million, a great many of them must have seen how derelict (again, McConnell’s word) Trump has been for our country. Yet these good people voted for him. What’s even more incredulous, many of them who identify as evangelicals have also believed the conspiracy theories, such as Trump winning the election or that Antifa was really behind the attack on Congress. How could good religious people believe that?
We’ve all heard the explanations from the left, and some from the Republican center, as to why: explicit and implicit racism, fundamentalist Christians willing to forgo character and true conservatism for certain theocratic policy victories, the desire to hold on to privilege. Those of us who use those labels, and hopefully we do it carefully even when it’s clearly justified, aren’t always getting at a deeper challenge to which each of these very real issues point.
You perhaps have often heard that you can’t argue someone out of a position. Instead of arguing, you have to show people evidence, facts, and even better, tell them stories connecting the issues to real people and events. You have to be in relationship with someone for there to be more open mindedness, for there to be the human element.
Here’s the thing, though:
Relationship and the human element require incorporating so much of real life. It’s what you might call understanding identity. Or understanding people and understanding yourself.
I often quote psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, who said that identity is the ability to recognize oneself as you are simultaneously recognized by others. Identity is the act of being totally committed to who you are while also being intrinsically committed to a larger group. It’s a balancing act, and it can be tricky. This is why Erikson would say that adolescence, and all the turbulence it brings, is the time when you’re typically working the hardest to figure out who you are.
Establishing identity comes with potentially many wrong turns, and it’s quite dependent on the larger whole. A community that is rudderless, for example, can undoubtedly create serious identity problems for it’s people, who are often not aware of their problems in the first place. To make it more challenging, we have always been an identity-challenged society in America. We struggle with mobility, rootlessness, a drive for homogeneity and a resulting alienation. As a result, we indeed are so often not aware of ourselves, and what our identity actually is.
Lack of identity is scary. Without identity we are prone to think and behave strangely, even destructively, like an adolescent lashing out at the world. We give in to social pressure.
So let’s talk for a moment about identity. What is it?
Identity is in our language, the words we use. It’s in the way we dress and decorate living spaces and the architecture of our homes and the look and feel of our cities. It’s in the songs we sing and the way we sing them—even the inflections or the way we emphasize certain words. Identity is in the way we cook our food and the way we smell. Identity informs even our scientific questions, the structure of our educational institutions, and how we name our sports teams and local churches. You don't really think about it much, but each of these articles of experience are imbued with meaning, point toward something or someone, and we try as we must to connect them together into a coherent whole. We make choices.
Are you, are we, am I, aware of identity? Are you intrinsically settled in your community and can you also see the healthy contrast between your world and those different from you?
Here’s where the breakdown begins. Instead of being aware, we talk about political approaches, theological doctrine, and social disparities. We talk about moral right and wrong, or possibly healthy psychology and good relationships. Sometimes we even talk about love, compassion, and a deeper spiritual discipline as at the root of our issues. All of which are legitimate and should be talked about. But again, change doesn’t come simply by arguing someone out of a position.
Why so many people voted for someone like Donald Trump, to me, is explained by a fresh unwillingness to be fully aware of our own identities as well as those of others.
It’s as if we’re at a turning point where our prized American individualism is failing us, we’ve lost it, and now we have to pay better attention to each other. But Trump promised the easy path, that we just need to be tougher and build walls instead of bridges.
Instead, we have to become better aware of ourselves as we also become aware of each other. If we did, here’s what might happen. We hold ourselves more loosely, we don’t take ourselves so seriously. Like neighbors on a street, we help associate and affiliate, and we generally aren’t outright mean or violent or ignoring each other, especially the marginalized. We have empathy and put ourselves in someone else’s place. We educate ourselves with sources not solely from our in-group. We better see things for what they are, absorbing and noticing reality.
Yes, it’s obvious and simple, but it is nevertheless the most important and the hardest work we can do. And it’s ultimately the Christian walk, and the Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist. All traditions do this.
Identity does change. As an adult you can change over time. You can get influenced. Things aren’t the same as they used to be, and they never will be the same. That’s usually a good thing if we can lean into it.
Recent discovery: The ice in Grand Haven, Michigan in February, 2021.