Our polarized, divergent views of Trump
Updated: Nov 6
The following is an excerpt from my book Defusing American Anger. I wanted to make this one public because I sometimes see liberals who will speak as if their extremely negative views of Trump should be shared by everyone; as if their perceptions of Trump's horribleness should be obvious to all. This is sometimes used to denigrate the idea of having empathy for Trump voters, or the idea of attempting to reduce and heal our divides. "These people see how horrible Trump is and still support him," the thinking goes.
But the nature of extreme polarization is that narratives on all sorts of things become very divergent. The two groups in opposition live in increasingly different realities, and in our case that divergence applies to some people's perceptions of Trump. So this excerpt of the book attempts to help liberals see that perceptions of Trump can vary drastically.
People’s perceptions of Trump are one of our major sources of division. You probably can agree with that, no matter your politics. And in polls we see evidence of our increased animosity on both sides after Trump’s election.
To some liberals, Trump is a racist, misogynist, proudly ignorant, compulsive liar. To some liberals, Trump represents white supremacy and fascism.
To some conservatives, Trump is a hero who’s fighting against a powerful and dangerous liberal establishment that seeks to dominate public opinion and divide us. To some conservatives, Trump is perceived as quite flawed but either not nearly as flawed as liberals think, or as not nearly as flawed as liberal ideas.
I’ll attempt to make the case that the truth about Trump, as with many of our divergent narratives, is likely much more nuanced than either side’s polarized perceptions. It’s possible to see Trump as flawed and divisive at the same time as seeing that there has been some very bad and irresponsible liberal-side coverage of him. There have been, as I’ll show, some very biased and overly hysterical framings of some of the things he has said and done.
And it’s possible to see how this bias in liberal-side framings of Trump (and of conservatives in general) may play a big role in why conservatives are so defensive of Trump, and why so many people make excuses for his behavior, and why so many act in similarly belligerent, divisive ways.
Some of you may be thinking something like, “But what does this matter? We know he’s horrible. Amongst other things, he tried to overturn the 2020 election. Who cares about some distorted views we might have of him?”
To that I’d say: it’s important to examine our distorted views of Trump because those views can help explain the rational reasons Trump voters have for being suspicious of liberal-side narratives and of the “establishment.” To understand our current divides, we must examine how we got here, and a significant part of how we got here is related to our divergent views about Trump.
Our divergent opinions about Trump
For liberals who believe Trump is clearly racist and bigoted, this leads to a vexing question: how can it not be obvious to Trump voters that Trump is bigoted? How can it be that black people and other members of racial minorities can vote for Trump? How can it be that racial minority support for Trump actually increased between 2016 and 2020?
Here are a few things that can help explain our very divergent perceptions of Trump:
When we look at compilations of the worst, “most racist” things Trump has said, it’s possible to interpret many of those things in different ways, and in some of those interpretations, Trump’s statements are not clearly bigoted. (We’ll look at some of those in a bit.)
As we know about group psychology, each side is primed to interpret things in ways that frame their group in a good light. This would make conservatives more likely to interpret Trump’s statements in the most generous light. It also means liberals are likely to interpret Trump’s statements in the worst possible light.
Many Americans watch biased news coverage. Conservatives who consume, for example, Fox News, are unlikely to have their attention drawn to the worst, most divisive things Trump has said. Or his statements will be explained in a very generous light.
The more that conservatives see liberal media take Trump’s statements out of context and interpret his statements in the worst way possible, the less likely they are to pay attention to liberal-side criticisms of Trump.
With all these factors at work, it shouldn’t be surprising that we can have such hugely divergent views of Trump.
For liberals, the idea that Trump supporters would not see Trump’s failings can strike them as absurd. Some liberals will think something along the lines of: “Trump voters must see the obviously bad things about Trump that I see, and yet they still support him, and this is why I see Trump voters as so morally bad.”
This gets back to our instinct to assign malice and deception to the other side when we can’t understand their points of view. I’ve personally seen many instances of Trump supporters expressing genuine bewilderment in trying to figure out why it was that liberals hated Trump so much. To name a few examples:
I once defended a conservative’s point of view on Twitter, and a Trump supporter privately messaged me, sending me a rather long and heartfelt message that I seemed like someone who understood both sides well and had good intentions and so he wanted to know if I could explain to him why I and other liberals disliked Trump so much.
My politically liberal friend said that his conservative father asked him to explain why there was so much hatred of Trump. His father had spent a good amount of time trying to figure it out online and still couldn’t understand it and wanted his son to explain it to him.
I have a conservative acquaintance who I believe is genuinely bewildered and angered by liberal side narratives that Trump voters are motivated by racism. On Facebook, she’d occasionally post memes with messages like, “Trump supporters are not racist.”
As examined in the earlier chapter on race, there are other explanations for Trump support apart from racism. This can include economic anxiety, anti-establishment feelings, social isolation, or simply voting for Trump because he’s the Republican candidate and not a Democrat.
If we’re going to heal, more liberals will need to approach this subject with more humility and less certainty about the motivations of both Trump and his supporters. At the very least, it might be helpful to consider that simplistic and worst-case interpretations about Trump and Trump voters may themselves be significant drivers of support for Trump.
Now we’ll examine some very negative liberal-side views of Trump. This will only be a small sampling, but my goal is to show how it is that his supporters can have very different opinions about the things he’s said and done.
Mexican criminals and rapists
A statement Trump said at one of his early rallies became an emblem for his perceived racism. This was often framed as “Trump called Mexicans rapists.” One example of this kind of framing is from a 2018 Business Insider piece, which read: “President Donald Trump on Thursday defended what was perhaps his most notorious remark on the campaign trail: calling Mexicans ‘rapists.’”
Let’s look at Trump’s statement in context:
When do we beat Mexico at the border? They're laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me. But they're killing us economically. The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else's problems. [...]
When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we're getting. And it only makes common sense. It only makes common sense. They're sending us not the right people.
It's coming from more than Mexico. It's coming from all over South and Latin America, and it's coming probably—probably—from the Middle East. But we don't know. Because we have no protection and we have no competence, we don't know what's happening. And it's got to stop and it's got to stop fast. [emphasis added]
It seems obvious that, in context, Trump is talking about some Mexicans, and not all Mexicans. He’s making the point that there are a lot of bad people crossing the border.
Personally, I believe that Trump has amplified divisive takes about immigration and many other issues. But it’s also possible for me to see how, in this context, Trump is addressing a genuine concern that many conservatives have: that illegal immigration is causing an increase in crime.
Obviously this is a debatable issue. Clearly some illegal immigrants are committing crime. One can look up Department of Justice statistics and see that there are hundreds of illegal immigrants in federal prison for sexual crimes, amongst other felonies. But it’s debatable how important an issue it is.
To make the case that it’s not that big an issue, liberals will point to statistics showing how immigrants are less likely than non-immigrants to commit crime. But that misses the point: that it’s possible to perceive even a relatively small amount of crime as “too much,” if it’s thought we could easily be doing something to reduce that crime. In the same way, some liberals perceive our rates of police violence and mass shootings as much too high and as requiring emotional responses and immediate action, even as others might consider those numbers as relatively small in context, considering our country’s size and our amount of crime and guns.
Another way to put this: it will always be possible to form an emotional narrative around violent crimes and murders, no matter their relative numbers. And we should be willing to acknowledge the rational and compassionate aspects of these stances and not assume they’re motivated by malicious or irrational reasons.
Regarding Trump’s “They’re rapists” statement, some Hispanic and Mexican-American Trump supporters did not see Trump’s statement as racist. The following is from an Economist article titled A large minority of Hispanic voters support Trump populism:
When Donald Trump descended his escalator six years ago and inveighed against Mexican rapist immigrants, it was assumed that Hispanic voters would take offense.
But a short hop across the Hudson river, in heavily Hispanic Passaic City, Angel Castillo loved what he heard. “Trump kept it real,” recalled the 43-year-old immigrant, over a cup of strong Dominican coffee in his small family restaurant, El Primito. “He didn’t say all Latinos are rapists. He said a lot of those coming over the border are rapists and drug-dealers and he’s right.”
Some of the worst-case interpretations of Trump’s phrasing are likely due to the ambiguity of the sentence, “They’re rapists.” One could read that as either saying “They’re all rapists” or “Some of them are rapists.”
This gets back to an earlier point made about the role of language in polarization. Ambiguous language can be a source of polarization, both for how those statements are likely to be interpreted by people in a highly polarized society, and for how people from the other side will, fairly or unfairly, hold up those statements as evidence of the other side’s malice. But also, clearly, a lot of language is ambiguous. At the same time as we should attempt to speak in more precise and less polarizing ways, we should be willing to cut people some slack when they use ambiguous language that could be interpreted in different ways.
Another factor here is that Trump has always been a reckless, off-the-cuff speaker. He’s a brash person who “says what he thinks.” This is one of the things his supporters like about him, and for others is an indicator of his inability to be political and persuasive and bring people together. Even if we were 100% certain that Trump didn’t have “a racist bone in his body,” as he has claimed, Trump’s uncareful and exaggerated speaking style is likely to generate many statements that could easily be perceived as bigoted.
To sum up, it’s possible to construe Trump’s comments about Mexican criminals as simply trying to communicate the point: “We need to do more about border patrol because of the crime.” This is largely how Trump supporters interpreted these comments.
And because this statement of Trump’s is so often held up to be a prime example of his racism, we can also see why such charges can be seen by Trump voters as unpersuasive and biased.
Trump calls white supremacists “very fine people”
One thing Trump has said that’s widely interpreted as an indicator of racism was his seeming defense of the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. A piece from The Atlantic from that time includes a common framing of how that was perceived by liberals:
President Trump defended the white nationalists who protested in Charlottesville on Tuesday, saying they included “some very fine people.”
When you ask liberal people for reasons why they think Trump is racist, this is often one of the top things they’ll point to.
To help explain some of the nuance around this debate, I’ll include this analysis from Jon Haidt’s and Greg Lukianoff’s 2021 piece The Polarization Spiral:
Readers of our book might be surprised to know that almost all of the hate mail that we get about the book comes from readers on the right, not the left. They mainly accuse us of perpetuating the “Charlottesville Hoax,” which is the claim that Donald Trump called the white supremacists, neo-Nazis and KKK members of the 2017 Unite the Right Rally “very fine people.” The claim that this is a “hoax” relies on the fact that soon after in that same wild press conference, Trump mentioned, “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists—because they should be condemned totally.”
This seems like a good point to make against someone asserting that “Trump called neo-Nazis and white nationalists very fine people.” But that’s not what we wrote. We wrote: “With those three words—‘very fine people’—the president showed that he was sympathetic to the men who staged the most highly publicized march for racism and antisemitism in the United States in many decades.”
We watched all three press conferences carefully, multiple times, before we wrote what we wrote. In his remarks after the murder, his contemporaneous tweets, and even as recently as September 2021, Trump showed that he was sympathetic to the aims of the Unite the Right marchers: to oppose the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia. But in the same remarks where he mentioned “very fine people,” Trump showed sympathy for the Unite the Right organizers, specifically, comparing them favorably to the counter-protestors by saying “you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest” and pointing out the pro-statue protestors “had a permit,” unlike the counter-protectors. That permit was obtained, in fact, by prominent white nationalist and recurring Stormfront radio guest Jason Kessler. Trump also praised the protesters from “the night before,” perhaps trying to de-emphasize the Unite the Right protestors on the day of the violence. But the only documented protest in Charlottesville on August 11 was the march by neo-Nazis and white supremacists chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
Defenders of the “hoax” accusation like to claim Michelle Piercy as one of the kind of “good people” Trump mentioned. The New York Times reported that Piercy was “a night shift worker at a Wichita, Kan., retirement home, who drove all night with a conservative group that opposed the planned removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee.” While the article said that she “had no interest in standing with Nazis or white supremacists,” her organization, a heavily-armed militia group called American Warrior Revolution (AWR), served as a sort of self-appointed security force for a march that included Klansmen in full regalia, neo-Nazis with swastika signs, and numerous other white supremacist and antisemitic groups. But even assuming Piercy counts as a “very fine person," AWR was present at the August 12 event—not “the night before.”
So, even the people who say Trump called the white supremacists, KKK members, and neo-Nazis “very fine people” have a good argument. Trump may not have known who the people who got the permit were; he may have contradicted himself in that press conference; but nothing turns the claim that he complimented racist protesters into a “hoax.”
One important point here is that Trump did say this sentence: “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally.” On its own, this can be helpful in explaining why many conservatives think liberal-side anger about this incident was overblown.
At the same time, if you’re a Trump voter, hopefully this explanation can help you understand why his follow-up clarification doesn’t seem sufficient for some people. Maybe you can also see why it is that some racists praised Trump for his language. David Duke tweeted, “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville.” The white nationalist Richard Spencer said, “I’m proud of him for speaking the truth.” And seeing all of this can perhaps make you better understand why people see Trump as not doing nearly enough to criticize the racist activity in Charlottesville.
One factor that’s ever-present, and likely a factor here, is Trump’s reckless way of speaking. He often speaks about topics he knows little about. It’s entirely possible Trump didn’t know that much at the time about what happened in Charlottesville. For example, it’s possible Trump didn’t know how many white supremacists were involved or even that they were the ones who planned the event. It’s possible all Trump knew was that there were left-wing and right-wing people present and that there had been violence, and perhaps he thought it was similar to fights that had happened in other cities, like Portland, Oregon, where people on both sides could be seen to share some responsibility for the conflict. (And even if Trump had been briefed about the event in detail, it’s still possible he wouldn’t have retained that information. The book Trumped!, which covered his management of his Atlantic City casinos, tells several anecdotes about how poor Trump’s focus and memory are, and the events in that book took place 30 years earlier.)
If Trump didn’t know much about Charlottesville and thought it was like other conflicts that had happened in other cities, we can better understand how Trump might have had an instinct to defend conservatives. This could be seen as similar to how some liberals have an instinct to downplay the significance of violence associated with their side.
Some Trump supporters, in defending Trump, point out that Biden had his own “fine people” moment. The following is from a USA Today piece titled Trump did condemn white supremacists, too bad so many people won't listen:
Biden has his own “fine people” moment to answer for. In 1993, at a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the issue of refusing a federal charter to the United Daughters of the Confederacy came up. Biden, who opposed the charter, still referred to the commemorative group as “an organization made up of many fine people who continue to display the Confederate flag as a symbol.”
To be clear, these are different contexts. But this is just to help show that political leaders can have motivations to bend over backwards to not offend potential supporters and allies, and this motivation can lead to some statements that others see as condoning bad things.
Even if you think Trump was purposefully defending white supremacists, maybe you can see that many conservatives wouldn’t see it that way, especially if they’re already skeptical of liberal-side criticisms of Trump.
Trump again refuses to condemn white supremacists
There’s a liberal-side perception that Trump, many times, has refused to condemn white supremacists. The Charlottesville, Virginia march just examined was one such incident that people point to. Another one was during a presidential debate in 2020, when the moderator, Chris Wallace, asked if Trump would denounce white supremacists and militia groups.
Here’s a transcript from the September 2020 debate:
WALLACE: You have repeatedly criticized the Vice-President for not specifically calling out Antifa and other left-wing extremist groups. But are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland.
TRUMP: Sure, I’m willing to do that.
WALLACE: Are you prepared specifically to do it? Well go ahead, sir.
TRUMP: I would say almost everything I see is from the left-wing not from the right wing.
WALLACE: So what are you, what are you saying?
TRUMP: I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.
WALLACE: Well, do it, sir.
BIDEN: Say it. Do it. Say it.
TRUMP: You want to call them? What do you want to call them? Give me a name, give me a name, go ahead who would you like me to condemn.
WALLACE: White supremacists and racists.
BIDEN: Proud Boys.
WALLACE: White supremacists and white militias.
BIDEN: Proud Boys.
TRUMP: Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what: somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right wing problem, this is a left-wing, this is a left-wing problem. . .
BIDEN: His own FBI Director said unlike white supremacists. . .
TRUMP: This is a left-wing problem.
BIDEN: Antifa is an idea not an organization…
TRUMP: Oh you gotta be kidding.
BIDEN: … not a militia. That’s what his FBI Director said.
TRUMP: Well, then you know what, he’s wrong.
WALLACE: Gentlemen, gentlemen. No, no, no, we’re done, sir. Moving onto the next… [crosstalk]
TRUMP: … when a bat hits you over the head, that’s not an idea. Antifa is bad.
BIDEN: Everybody in your administration. . .
TRUMP: Antifa is bad.
BIDEN: Everybody in your administration tells you the truth, has a bad idea. You have no idea…
TRUMP: You know what, Antifa is a dangerous radical group.
The next day, Trump claimed to not know who the Proud Boys were. This exchange is from an Axios.com article:
TRUMP: I don't know who the Proud Boys are. You'll have to give me a definition because I really don't know who they are. I can only say they have to stand down and let law enforcement do their work... As people see how bad this radical liberal Democrat movement is and how weak, the law enforcement is going to come back stronger and stronger. But again, I don't know who Proud Boys are, but whoever they are, they have to stand down and let law enforcement do their work.
REPORTER: Mr. President, during the speech when you said 'stand by,' that might be [inaudible]
TRUMP: Just stand by. Look, law enforcement will do their work. They're going to stand down, they have to stand down. Everybody. Whatever group you are talking about, let law enforcement do the work. Now, antifa is a real problem. Because the problem is on the left. And Biden refuses to talk about it.
Much of the focus on this was on Trump saying in the debate: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” The “stand by” was widely interpreted as giving a vague directive to that group to essentially “stand by and await further instructions.”
A CNN article about this was titled Trump's debate callout bolsters far-right Proud Boys, and it was widely interpreted that Trump meant to bolster them. Here’s an excerpt from a USA Today piece about how one person reacted upon hearing Trump say that:
Megan Squire, a professor of computer science at Elon University in North Carolina who studies online extremism, told USA TODAY that she immediately went to the group's social media channels.
“They reacted exactly as I thought they would," Squire said. "They were extremely excited by what he said. They felt validated. They took it the same way everybody listening took it—that he was giving them a shout-out, basically.”
I’m someone who has spent a lot of time searching for hidden meaning in people’s statements: My second book on poker was about interpreting verbal behavior in poker. And I myself find it unconvincing that Trump’s “stand by” had much meaning.
For one thing, Trump could have been just trying to communicate, “Let the police do their job and don’t get involved,” which is what he seemed trying to communicate in the following interview the next day about it. The “stand by” could have theoretically ominous meanings, but that is true of so much of our language. I could find similar ominous interpretations of any politician’s language, if that were my goal.
Trump’s “stand back and stand by” sounded to me like a rushed attempt to get out the basic idea of “I don’t want to admit that conservatives have a political violence problem, and so instead of condemning this group, or any group, which may give Democrats points, I’ll encourage people on the right to not be violent.”
It strikes me as a mistake to be confident that there’s much meaning there, especially when it comes from someone as verbally loose as Trump. Trump’s language contains a lot of “noise,” and when there’s a lot of noise, it’s easier to find false signals. A belief that Trump was sending a subtle message to the Proud Boys, or other groups, requires a belief that Trump plans ahead for such opportunities and has a tight control of his language, ideas that seem unlikely to me.
Later, when talking about this, Joe Biden said, "You may remember in one of my debates with the former President, I asked him to condemn the Proud Boys. He wouldn't do it. He said, 'Stand by. Stand ready.' Or whatever the phrasing exactly was."
Here we can see evidence that our own bias and narratives can influence how we interpret other people’s messages. Biden remembers Trump as maybe saying “Stand ready,” which is clearly more of a threatening military-like command than what Trump actually said. And if we can see that, we can see how easy it can be for people in general to let their bias influence their perception of the language of people they dislike.
We should also consider that it’s entirely plausible that Trump really didn’t know much about the Proud Boys. The Proud Boys were relatively unknown amongst the American public; they were mainly known to people who had closely followed the street violence in Portland, Oregon, and a few other places. If Trump were mainly watching Fox News, it’s probable that Fox wouldn’t mention the Proud Boys much, as they, like Trump, have an incentive to downplay conservative-side bad behavior.
Another factor in how this exchange occurred was that Biden muddied the waters by mentioning the Proud Boys. Wallace had specifically asked Trump to denounce “white supremacy and racists” and, before Trump could do that, Biden interjected “Proud Boys.” This confused the situation. What went from a moment when Trump could have directly denounced “white supremacy and racists” (which, it’s worth pointing out, he had explicitly done several times before), became a moment focused on the Proud Boys. This then raised questions of who exactly the Proud Boys were, how racist they were, how violent they were, and how much knowledge Trump had of them.
Biden not only muddied the waters, his mentioning the Proud Boys could be seen as a significant mistake because it gave the Proud Boys a lot of attention when they had been, before that moment, largely unknown to the general public. This led to the Proud Boys trending on social media and led to them gaining interest and more members. I call it a mistake because it was a gift of a huge amount of attention to a political extremist group, for no obvious benefit to anyone except that group. The relative lack of awareness of who the Proud Boys were before that moment also lends support to the idea that Trump may not have known who they were.
Google Trends showing the spike in ‘Proud boys’ search traffic that resulted from Biden’s mention of the group.
Another factor here is that Trump has incentives for downplaying the significance of violence and bad things on the conservative side. This is understandable, if only for political considerations. It’s entirely possible to see how conservatives would genuinely perceive liberal-side violence as much more of a problem than far right violence, and not want to hurt their side by giving credence to the idea that far right groups were a big concern.
Another factor is in the question of how racist the Proud Boys really are. For one thing, one of the main leaders of that group, Enrique Tarrio, is Hispanic, and the group has other racial minority members. For another thing, the group says it is “Western chauvinist,” and says that they officially denounce racism and that they invite minorities to join. Some people say such statements are just the group’s way of covering up their racism. From what I’ve seen, I’d be more likely to describe the Proud Boys as “culturist” rather than “racist,” as their anger seems to be aimed at far left people and ideas in general, and such anger doesn’t necessarily require racist views.
Another factor present here is that some people will refer to some of the more extreme and more clearly racist groups (for example, the group Patriot Front) as “Proud Boys.” For some people, “Proud Boys” has become shorthand for all far right groups, and that has also muddied the waters.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not defending the Proud Boys. I think they’re hateful and strange people (and for what it’s worth, conservatives I’ve talked to have mostly agreed they are bad and unhelpful). No matter what you or I think of them as a group, though, the main point is that it’s understandable that some people will be unclear about what exactly they are or what they believe, especially people who consume conservative media.
Another big factor here and in many other instances where Trump is behaving combatively is that Trump simply does not like to be told what to do or say. He seems to naturally want to refuse to do what people ask him to do, especially people he perceives as his opponents. Once you start seeing this tendency as a basic trait of his, you might find that it accounts for a lot of the behavior that has gotten him harsh criticism.
Trump calls black people lazy
One racist thing Trump is often quoted as saying is, “Laziness is a trait in blacks.” This is often included in lists of reasons for why Trump is racist. For example, in Ibram X. Kendi’s book How To Be Antiracist, this is mentioned to help succinctly make the case that Trump is racist.
But we can’t be certain he said that. To quote from Snopes about this:
A source attributing the statement “Laziness is a trait in blacks” to Donald Trump dates to the early 1990s. It should be noted, however, that that source was a book written by a disgruntled former employee of Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino, John R. O'Donnell, and neither the statement nor the sentiment behind it has been corroborated elsewhere. [...]
[Trump] vehemently denied O'Donnell's account of the conversation when asked about it during a 24 October 1999 interview with Tim Russert on Meet the Press: [...]
Mr. Trump: This guy, I hardly know him. He made up this quote. I've heard the quote before, and it's nonsense.
Mr. Russert: You've never said anything like that?
Mr. Trump: I've never said anything like it, ever.
As the Washington Post noted, it is, at best, a secondhand quote from a private conversation, written down years after the fact, and should be viewed “with some skepticism.”
I personally believe O’Donnell’s account, as I found the book where that quote came from, Trumped!, to be a great and even-handed account. In that book, he even would sometimes give credit to Trump for some things he’d done. The book seemed to me to be a serious and credible account from a serious and credible person. And based on what I’ve seen of Trump’s behavior and language, Trump saying this wouldn’t surprise me at all.
But the important thing is: I’m not certain Trump said that. I have my doubts. Regardless of whether he said it, for the purposes of depolarization it’s much more important to see why Trump voters would find this an unconvincing piece of evidence.
“Make America great again”
The slogan of Trump’s campaign, “Make America great again,” has been widely interpreted on the liberal side as an attempt to appeal to white people who are nostalgic about a time when white people had more power and when there was less racial and ethnic diversity.
To quote from a speech Bill Clinton made in the lead-up to the 2016 election:
It really bothers me that Hillary's opponent [seems to be] doing best among older people. They like that—some do—that “Make America Great Again.”
I was raised to believe if you spend all your time trying to recapture yesterday you blow today and you forfeit tomorrow. And I'm actually old enough to remember the good old days and they weren't all that good, in many ways. That message where “I'll give you America great again” is, if you're a white Southerner, you know exactly what it means, don't you? What it means is: I’ll give you the economy you had 50 years ago and I'll move you back up on the social totem pole and other people down. What Hillary wants to do is take the totem pole down and let us all go forward together.
A Washington Post piece by Viet Thanh Nguyen said:
When Donald Trump first proclaimed “Make America Great Again,” many white Americans focused on the slogan’s explicit appeal. Why wouldn’t we want America to be great again? But many of us who do not happen to be white understood the slogan’s subtext: Make America White Again.
A 2019 piece by Rich Barlow was titled: The MAGA Hat Is Not Campaign Swag. It's An Emblem Of Hate.
But it’s possible to view the “Make America Great Again” slogan in ways that have no racist associations. It’s possible to view the slogan as referring to a time when employment was higher, when there were more jobs that paid a living wage, when we had more manufacturing jobs, when the poor and middle class were doing better financially, when more small towns and communities were thriving and hadn’t yet been decimated by loss of jobs, when times were (or at least seemed) simpler, when there were more social groups and clubs and less social isolation.
In Erica Etelson’s book Beyond Contempt, she wrote about the pessimistic interpretations of the slogan:
Those who pine for the good old days might be ignorant or indifferent to the quality of life for oppressed groups in the 1940s and 1950s, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to bring back racial segregation and shutter gay bars. Perhaps what they’re guilty of here is not so much bigotry as naive and uninformed romanticization. As one MAGA defender said, “To attack the Make America Great Again concept with ‘Oh, you’re racist,’ it doesn’t make sense. It’s like, I’m not racist, I’m saying, ‘America did all this in this time, and now we don’t.’ That’s what they’re looking back fondly on.”
Ronald Reagan used the “Make American great again” slogan in his 1980 presidential campaign. To quote from the Wikipedia entry about the slogan (March 2022): “At the time the United States was suffering from a worsening economy at home marked by stagflation and Reagan, using the country's economic distress as a springboard for his campaign, used the slogan to stir a sense of patriotism among the electorate.”
Also, progressive politicians have used the slogan, including both Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. Before and during Bill Clinton’s presidency, he several times used the phrase “make America great again.” A compilation on YouTube titled “Make America Great Again - A retrospective” includes video of Bill Clinton using the phrase several times. In a radio ad Bill Clinton did for Hillary’s 2008 run for president, he said “Time to make America great again; I know that Hillary’s the one that can do it.”
Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. It’s common for people to have rosy, positive pictures about the past, whether that’s their own childhood or their country’s past, even if those nostalgic perceptions may be a bit exaggerated and unrealistic. Because nostalgia is such a powerful force, it’s understandable that it’s often an emotion that politicians try to conjure. (I have a podcast episode about the psychology of nostalgia.)
For liberals, it can help to examine how the liberal-side view that “MAGA” is mainly about racism can make Trump voters see liberals as being unfair. It can seem to them like a deceptive smear tactic.
Trump and Russia
There were many false and misleading stories about Trump’s connection to Russia. Some of these were egregiously bad. I’ll go into more detail about these in a later chapter on Russia, but it’s important to mention this here for context.
The many retracted and misleading stories about Trump and Russia greatly increased many conservatives’ distrust of liberal-leaning mainstream media and political leaders. For quite a few conservatives I talked to, it was the Trump/Russia media frenzy that played a key role in their perception that Trump was being unfairly attacked by many powerful people, and in their continued enthusiastic support of him. And that can be seen as directly related to some of these people’s future distrust of the 2020 election.
[Note: if you'd like more detail about this, see this Intercept article.]
Liberal distortions about Trump help Trump
In my opinion, Trump has said and done many bad and divisive things.
One of the things Trump said that struck me as clearly bigoted was his tweet aimed at four American congresswomen who were racial minorities. A series of his tweets read:
So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.
Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.
This is disgusting enough no matter where these congresspeople came from, but it’s even worse knowing that three of them were born in America. It seemed to expose the way that Trump thinks about racial minorities: that they aren’t from here, that they aren’t American, that they’re foreign. He says “our government,” as if these people aren’t and can’t be a part of that “our.” He says they should come back and “show us how” to fix things, as if they’re not part of that “us.”
My intent isn’t to defend Trump as a good person or leader. My goal is only to show how it’s possible to view many of the things Trump has done from different angles. My intent has been to show how there can be a substantial liberal bias in some of the most commonly told stories about Trump.
When liberals take the worst-case interpretation of almost everything Trump says or does, or the worst-case interpretation of what his supporters believe, that helps Trump. Conservatives will see that he’s being treated unfairly and they’ll be less likely to listen to liberal-side perspectives. They will become more defensive on Trump’s behalf.
To take one example: the child separation policy that the Trump admin instituted at the Mexican border. When that story broke, even many conservatives were upset about it, including Republican leaders. A 2018 Quinnipiac University poll found that only 27% of Americans supported it. And this bipartisan dislike is the main reason the policy was ended.
But for many Trump voters, their distrust in the liberal media led them to downplay the significance of that incident, and make excuses for Trump’s role in it. For example, many Trump voters repeated the claim that “They did that during the Obama administration” or that “Obama built the cages.” These stories were false and misleading—the holding cells were built during Obama’s administration but it was Trump’s admin that instituted a child separation policy unlike any that had been in place before—but it’s easy to see how people with many legitimate grievances about Trump’s media coverage could be skeptical of such stories. (And if you’re a Trump voter and would like to better understand why people are angry at Trump and his administration for that, I recommend an Atlantic piece We need to take away children, by Caitlin Dickerson.)
The more biased and misleading liberal-leaning news is, the more likely it becomes that conservatives will completely abandon those mainstream news sources and be increasingly drawn to conservative-leaning sources of news, or simply the sources that support their existing beliefs. And some people will reach the conclusion that “both sides are crazy” and stop paying attention to politics.
I’ve several times searched online for compilations of the objectively worst things Trump has said and done, which I’ve thought would be useful for helping Trump voters see why people can so strongly dislike Trump. And I’ve been disappointed to find that many of those kinds of lists are muddied with subjective, biased, and unpersuasive things, including some of the ambiguous and unconvincing examples I’ve highlighted here.
It’s easy to see how a conservative would look at such articles and be easily able to ignore them. Liberal-leaning people seem to lack an understanding of what’s likely to be persuasive to a conservative audience. And this isn’t surprising considering many liberals simply just don’t understand conservative perspectives. And it’s also not surprising because, as we become more polarized and more angry, we’re less focused on persuasion and more focused on scoring points with people who already agree with us.
There’s plenty to criticize about Trump that’s objectively true and easy to make a case for, and that doesn’t require subjective interpretations of language or motivations. To quote one progressive acquaintance of mine: “I’m much more certain Trump is a divisive and ignorant leader than I am that he’s a racist.”
And even if you believe Trump is a hardcore racist, it’s possible to believe that while still seeing that many of his voters can be decent people. His supporters simply do not see the same things you see, nor see them in the same way.
END OF EXCERPT
This is not the full excerpt of that chapter: just the section focused on liberal-side perceptions. In that chapter I also try to help conservatives understand liberal-side views of Trump.