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Our polarized, divergent views of Trump

Updated: Mar 21

The following is an excerpt from my book Defusing American Anger about the very different and polarized views people can have about Trump. 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.

To see all excerpts and learn more about them, go here.


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 some illegal immigrants are committing serious crimes. 

Of course it’s debatable about how serious a problem this is. Clearly some illegal immigrants do commit crime. One can look up Department of Justice statistics and see that there are hundreds of illegal immigrants in federal prison for murders, sexual crimes, and other serious crimes. 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 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.

The “Muslim ban”

Another thing Trump did that’s often pointed to as evidence of his bigotry was his “Muslim ban.”

In December of 2015, Trump gave a speech where he said, “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States, until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on. We have no choice.”

At the same event he also said, “"I have friends that are Muslims. They are great people, but they know we have a problem." His statement about a “Muslim ban” was condemned by many people, including several of his competitors for the GOP presidential nomination, and other conservatives.

For a little more context, less than a week before Trump said that, there’d been an Islamic terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, which resulted in 14 people being killed and 22 people being seriously injured. This was also the same year that the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris was attacked, and 12 people were killed. This was also the same year that 130 people were killed in Paris in a series of coordinated attacks across the city. It was also the same year that a radical Islamist killed 5 people in Tennessee. In short: it was a much scarier year than average in terms of Islamic terrorism.

In 2017, when Trump was president, he signed Executive Order 13769, which was a controversial order blocking most entries to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

This is from a Vox article about it: “The Trump administration claimed that all the affected countries posed threats to US national security based on the findings of multiple government agencies. But the agencies’ findings were never made public, meaning the nature of those threats remains unclear. The administration broadly cited terrorist activity, failure of the countries to properly document their own travelers, and insufficient efforts to cooperate and share information with US authorities as justification for the ban.”

The order was soon after blocked by various courts. This led to the Trump administration creating several later iterations that changed various aspects of the order.

The original and subsequent orders were often referred to as the “Muslim ban” because of Trump’s previous statements about banning all Muslims, despite the original order affecting only Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, countries that represented only 12% of the world’s Muslim population. A later version of this order, which applied to Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Somalia, North Korea, and government officials from Venezuela, was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2018.

I won’t attempt to defend the “ban on Muslims” language or related actions from Trump. As with many things Trump has done, it seems to me to be an attempt at solving a problem that’s extreme and, even by its own logic, likely to be ineffective. An Atlantic piece titled The Faulty Logic in Trump’s Travel Ban read:

But even by the president’s own logic, the ban was curious in its scope: He ignored the country that produced the vast majority of the 9/11 hijackers. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on September 11, 2001, were Saudi Arabians, yet Saudi Arabia was not on Trump’s list.

The Islamic State has territory in Iraq, Libya, and Syria; al-Qaeda operates largely from Yemen; and al-Shabaab is based in Somalia. But as my colleague Uri Friedman has reported, nationals of the seven countries that Trump banned killed exactly zero people in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and 2015. The people around the world most likely to be affected by extremist violence are Muslims in the Middle East and Africa, among them the very nationals Trump banned with his order.

In a similar way, Trump’s enthusiasm for a Mexican border wall to solve illegal immigration problems could be seen as similarly over-the-top and simplistic, and just as prone to problems (for example, the ease with which it’s possible to build tunnels and construct wall-climbing devices). Also, such over-the-top and extreme solutions can be seen as amplifying our divides. In their over-the-top-ness, they can strike people as motivated by belligerence and meanness.

Still, all that said, it’s possible to see Trump’s bombastic solutions as being motivated by genuine concerns about terrorism, a fear that is genuinely held by many of our fellow citizens. Or, at the very least, his proposed solutions can be seen as primarily a message aimed at telling his supporters “I also have these concerns about terrorism that you do.”

I don’t view Trump as a sophisticated political leader; in my eyes, he’s more akin to many regular conservative citizens who get excited and angry about things they see on Fox News and want to do something, do something big and do it now, to solve things. Trump has an instinct to give something “big” to his supporters, and his views are influenced by the people and conservative news environment around him.

The moment I first thought there was a good chance Trump might win the 2016 election was in June of that year, when American-born Omar Mateen killed 49 people at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida. This was the most deadly act of terrorism in America since 9-11.

The reason I thought Trump might win the election after that incident was because many people seemed to be very concerned about Islamic-associated terrorism, including people who previously may not have been that concerned about it. This included gay people. You can find interviews from 2016 with gay Trump voters who pointed to Pulse and a general feeling of being unsafe as reasons they voted for Trump (roughly around 14% of LGBTQ voters voted for Trump in 2016.) In short, it seemed to have aroused a lot of fear amongst a lot of different types of people, and it struck me as significant for that reason.

It’s possible to see how there can be genuine fears about terrorism, and genuine feelings that we aren’t doing enough on that front. It’s also possible to see why the countries in Trump’s travel ban were chosen, as there was significant chaos in those countries. It’s also good to remember that the countries in the ban represented only 12% of the world’s Muslim population, so it technically was not the offensive “Muslim ban” he’d previously proposed.

It’s also good to remember that Trump was in his rights as president to create such an order. If it hadn’t been for his previous comments about wanting to ban all Muslims, his original order might have been significantly less controversial and might have not been blocked. The third version of the order his administration created after the initial rejections did end up being upheld by the Supreme Court.

This isn’t to defend Trump on this issue, but more to make it easier to see how Trump’s actions can be perceived by his voters as not being motivated by bigotry, or evidence of bigotry, and more about a desire to do something about an issue that was the source of a lot of emotion and concern.

On the other hand, if you’re a Trump voter, hopefully you can see how Trump calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” alongside his other belligerent behaviors, can be seen as unreasonably intolerant and xenophobic.

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.

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.

Trump and sexual assault allegations

When it comes to allegations of Trump about sexism and allegations of sexual harassment and assault, many conservatives are able to overlook these things in the same way that we can see liberals overlooking similar allegations against Bill Clinton, and other liberal political leaders.

A article from 2017 on these topics said the following:

Last year, three in four Republicans who were bothered a lot or some by Trump's treatment of women cast a ballot for him.

Political party affiliation has played a big role in whether or not allegations of sexual misconduct against Donald Trump and Bill Clinton are believed. During the 2016 presidential campaign, a number of women came forward alleging that Mr. Trump had made unwanted sexual advances toward them. CBS News polling at the time found that opinions on the truthfulness of these allegations were highly influenced by partisanship. Three-quarters of Republicans did not believe the allegations to be true, while more than eight in 10 Democrats thought they were.

Nearly 20 years earlier, the public split along party lines when these kinds of allegations were made against a Democrat, Bill Clinton. Paula Jones alleged that Clinton sexually harassed her while he was Arkansas governor and Kathleen Willey accused Clinton of unwanted advances while in the White House. In both cases, it was Republicans who were more likely than Democrats to believe the women's charges. Women, who are more likely to identify as Democrats, were less likely than men to think Clinton was guilty of Jones' accusations.

The nature of polarization is that it motivates people to make excuses for people in their group, and harshly judge people in the other group. And of course the more the us-versus-them battle is perceived as hugely important, the more they’ll be able to overlook the flaws of people on their side.

When Trump voters see liberals harshly judging Trump support as immoral due to his misogynist language and the allegations against him, they see that as hypocritical, just as liberals can see it as hypocritical when conservatives harshly judge Democrat politicians for their sexual scandals.

When it comes to Trump’s misogynist language (for example, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”), there can be a perception amongst Trump voters that he’s simply more honest and transparent about his nature than are Democrat leaders who do similar things. They can perceive Trump as being an open book, however flawed, whereas they perceive Democrats as being perhaps more polished and compassionate on the surface but often just as flawed underneath.

None of this has been an attempt to defend Trump: it’s simply an attempt to see why it is that his supporters are capable of overlooking or downplaying such things.

Trump’s failings

If you’re conservative, you’ve maybe appreciated my attempts to get liberal readers to see how liberals may be contributing to our divides. If you’ve appreciated that, I’d ask that you be willing to entertain a similar role-playing and go along with me in attempting to see why people can see Trump as a horrible person and leader.

It’s only by seeing things in that way that you’ll have more understanding of what it is that drives liberal anger. If you’re interested in healing our country, I hope you’re willing to see things from that perspective, at least for a little bit.

If you’re someone who thinks Trump is completely blameless in adding to our country’s divides, it’s unlikely that I’d be able to say anything that might convince you otherwise. But I think, even if you’re a Trump voter, it’s likely you’re already aware that Trump has been a divisive figure. You might just think that his badness has been extremely exaggerated by liberals, or maybe you think liberal transgressions have been worse.

What I’ve found in talking to Trump voters, though, is that they’re often not seeing the real reasons, the best reasons, for why so many people, liberals and conservatives, see him as such a problem. It’s true that there are many liberal-side exaggerations and over-reactions about Trump, and this makes it easy for Trump voters to dismiss criticisms of Trump. And this means it’s also hard for Trump voters to see what are actually the worst things Trump has done.

When telling Trump voters my own reasons for seeing Trump as a horrible leader, I don’t have anything on my list about bigotry or misogyny. One reason for this is because people can view many of those instances in different ways: as we’ve examined, some of those charges are on the more speculative and unproven side. Also, it’s true that there can be some hypocrisy on the left of being outraged about Trump’s treatment of women but not bothered by some prominent examples of mistreatment of women by Democrats (for example, Bill Clinton). For these and other reasons, bigotry and sexism are near the bottom of the list I’d create of reasons why Trump is a bad leader.

When making my case to Trump voters, I also don’t point to Trump’s political stances. When some liberals try to make a case for why Trump is so problematic, they’ll often include his political views, which are often just standard conservative views. But it’s important to separate the things that bother you about Trump from the things that bother you about American conservatism, because otherwise your arguments will seem unpersuasive to conservatives.

My main criticisms of Trump are not focused on his political beliefs because I want people to see that it’s possible for someone to see Trump as a horrible leader while still agreeing with many of his ideas.

The main reason I’d say Trump has been bad for America is in how he’s amplified our divides. In so many ways, big and small, he has made us a more divided country. He has attempted to divide us every day in ways that are clear and easy to see.

Trump’s divisive emails

For years I’ve been on Trump’s email marketing list. These emails from Trump’s team came at least once a day. In the lead-up to the November 2020 election, they would sometimes come as often as ten times a day. I’ll share below some of the more divisive sentences from Trump’s emails below. If you’re a Trump voter, I’d like you to consider how you’d feel if you found out that Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden or other Democrat leaders were regularly sending out emails like these.

Trump’s emails contained many statements that seem directly aimed at dividing America into two warring groups. Some examples:

  • It's US against THEM. Make no mistake this is a war, and a war we must win to save the United States of America.

  • We'll get right to the point - Democrats HATE America.

  • They hate true Patriots like you.

  • Are you a Patriot or a Big Government Socialist?

  • How do you want to be remembered? As a Patriot who fought to Keep America Great? Or as an un-American Liberal who stood idly by as Radical Democrats ripped our Nation apart?

  • They laugh at you for wanting to Make America Great Again. They call you racist for loving your Country. They verbally abuse you in the streets for disagreeing with them. They want to silence your vote, eliminate your voice, and DESTROY your American Dream.

This is textbook polarizing, us-versus-them language. It’s hard for me to imagine a more effective way for an influential politician to divide a country than using language like this.

If you’re a Trump voter who wants America to heal, are you willing to consider the idea that Trump has played a big role in amplifying our divides? Are you willing to consider that conservatives can be seen to have played a role in worsening our divides by condoning and even embracing this behavior?

If you’re someone who believes that Trump was merely defending himself and conservatives against unreasonable criticisms from liberals and unreasonable liberal-side ideas: are you able to see that one can easily criticize liberal-side ideas without acting like Trump has? It’s actually quite easy to defend yourself and push back against criticism in calm and persuasive ways. That’s what we traditionally have expected our leaders to be able to do.

When I’ve shown these examples of polarizing language to Trump voters, some have said something like, “But that’s what all the politicians do. Democrat leaders say similar things.” And to that, I’d say: you just don’t see major Democrat leaders speaking about all conservatives in this extremely us-versus-them way, or as frequently.

In the emails I’ve received from various Democrat leaders, like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, there are often framings I view as exaggerated and hysterical and unhelpful. For political leaders in both groups, the sky always seems to be in the process of falling. But Democrat leaders’ criticism tends to be of Trump or of specific Republican leaders, or specific Republican laws or policies. You simply don’t see this “it’s us versus them and the other side wants to destroy us” type of language.

This is not to say that such polarizing language is entirely absent in Democrat political leaders: I know of several pretty egregious examples I could point to, including from some influential Democrat leaders. But it’s just to say that such language is not as much aimed at all conservatives, and is much less frequent.

And even if you think “both sides do it a lot,” hopefully you can see that this is still a problem worth working on. Hopefully you see the wisdom of attempting to make your own group more persuasive and less divisive, regardless of what the other side is doing.

Emails equating disrespect of Trump with disrespect of Trump voters

Trump’s emails would often try to portray criticisms of Trump as representing attacks on Trump voters. Some examples of this:

  • They hate me. They hate you. They hate rallies and it's all because they hate the idea of MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.

  • When they attack my father, they're really ATTACKING YOU!

  • Every attack against President Trump is really an attack on YOU.

  • Remember, Zachary, when they come after the President, they're really coming after YOU and everything YOU stand for.

It’s a well known tactic of cult leaders to associate any criticisms aimed at them with criticism of the entire group. This helps arouse anger in the group members, and create feelings of being under attack, and create group solidarity. It is a way to convert any and all criticism into a useful emotion-producing tool.

To be clear, I’m not saying voting for Trump is equivalent to being in a cult. I’m saying if you’re a Trump voter, you might consider what this kind of language tells us about the motives of people who use such language. Think about how you’d feel if Hillary Clinton tried to deflect criticism by saying things like, “When they criticize me for my private email server, it’s an attack against all liberals!” Or “When Republicans held a congressional investigation about Benghazi and questioned me for eleven hours about my decisions, it was really an attack on you!”

Fear-mongering emails

The Trump team’s emails and texts had a lot of “sky is falling” fear-mongering aimed at drumming up hatred of liberals. Some examples of this language:

  • Joe Biden wants to abolish police, ICE, bail, the suburbs, the 2nd amendment, and the American Way of Life.

  • If you vote for the Left, your kids will not be in school, there will be no graduations, no weddings, no Thanksgiving, no Christmas, and no Fourth of July.

  • The [recent Supreme Court decisions] are shotgun blasts to the face of people who are proud to call themselves Republicans or Conservatives.

  • They'll attack your homes if Joe's elected.

  • Slow Joe and Phony Kamala are trying to DESTROY our Nation.

  • Crooked Hillary is trying to help JOE BIDEN DESTROY AMERICA.

  • The Liberal Mob will come after you on the streets simply for not agreeing with them. They hate our country and they hate YOU, Zachary.

Hopefully you can see how this language sounds insane and hysterical to many people. If you voted for Trump, try to imagine how you’d feel if a Democrat president used similar language about Republicans. And hopefully, at this point in time, you can see how disconnected from reality some of these over-the-top fears seem to be.

In some emails, the Trump team used rare ideas and events and attempted to frame them as representing serious threats. One Trump email included a tweet from a far left activist that said, in part, "Yes, I think the statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down. They are a form of white supremacy. Always have been.”

Trump’s email about this one tweet read, "They've gone INSANE. They are totally and completely UNHINGED. We can't believe that Democrats are calling for the removal of statues of Jesus Christ. That's not going to happen. Not as long as President Trump is OUR President."

I think most liberals would say mobs tearing down statues without authorization is not a good thing. Most liberals I think would say that doing such things without proper authority helps create a lawless environment, and is a bad thing, even as they may also be sympathetic to the motivations of people who do such things. Even in very liberal Portland, there was a lot of liberal-side criticism of this kind of behavior. But more to the point in this case: I don’t know of any statues of Jesus that were torn down. At the very least we can all probably agree that was a very uncommon thing.

Hopefully you can see how this approach by Trump’s team is an example of embracing us-versus-them polarization and attempting to make use of it. It’s taking an extreme, strange, and rare behavior from the other side and pretending that it represents a serious threat.

And if you can see this, you’ll be able to see that this is a common tactic used by Trump. And maybe you’ll consider how this approach can be seen as similar to liberals who take the racist or violent tweets of random conservative citizens and attempt to paint those as emblematic of conservative views.

When we want to amplify our divides, the best strategy is to take the worst, most offensive things from the other side and hold them up and say, “See, look at what these people are like!”

Emails making various allegations without evidence

Trump’s emails also promoted various unverified and conspiratorial claims, like this one:

It's no secret that Joe Biden's handlers can't trust him and NOW his campaign is refusing an inspection for electronic earpieces before the debate tonight. We've always known that the Democrat Party is trying to dupe the American People into voting for Joe Biden, we just didn't think they'd go so far as to BLATANTLY CHEAT at the Debate.

This one is interesting because it echoes an influential fake news story from 2016 that claimed that Hillary Clinton wore a hidden earpiece during a debate with Trump. That story was created by True Pundit, a site run by Michael D. Moore, a former journalist who’d been previously arrested by the FBI for selling bootleg hockey DVDs and who seemed to have a grudge against the FBI and the establishment in general. The original stories that Moore wrote for his site were outlandish, unlikely stories that included quotes from various anonymous “sources,” and often his stories were not covered by any major news outlets at all, including conservative-leaning ones. (To give you an example of the kinds of outlandish and unverified things he published, one of his articles alleged that the Las Vegas mass murderer Stephen Paddock was a member of antifa and that “FBI & Vegas police worked hard to conceal Paddock’s politics.”) Moore’s Clinton-wore-an-earpiece story was widely shared in conservative circles, including by Donald Trump, Jr., and Michael Flynn, despite there being no evidence for it. It’s possible the Trump team wanted to copy the success of that previous smear campaign.

Another Trump email read, "They want you to be AFRAID of the coronavirus, because that's how they MANIPULATE you into voting for their liberal puppets. .. FIGHT BACK. We can't beat the Liberal Billionaires trying to steal this Election unless every Patriot takes action."

There have been various us-versus-them conspiracy theories spread about America’s covid response being some sort of plot by Democrat leaders, but clearly the entire world was struggling with covid, and it wasn’t just America who took it very seriously. Many countries had much more strict lockdowns than America did (see Italy and Spain, for example). Trump has sometimes tried to portray himself as someone who took covid seriously and deserves credit for his covid decisions, but such a portrayal is at odds with communications like this one, where he implies that people who want you to take covid seriously are only doing so to scare you and attempt to “steal the election.”

If you’re a Trump voter who views liberals as often being divisive and deceptive, in how they speak about conservatives and their motivations, do such things bother you when people like Trump do the same thing about liberals?

In the lead up to the election, Trump’s emails were full of accusations that Democrats were actively rigging the election. This is one of many reasons why it was no surprise to those paying attention that if Trump lost, no matter what the circumstances were, no matter what evidence existed or did not exist, he would claim the election was rigged.

Here’s just a handful of those kinds of things from his emails:

  • "THE DEMOCRATS WANT TO STEAL THIS ELECTION! There will be FRAUD like you've never seen, plain and simple."


  • "We can't let the Democrats STEAL it."

  • "It’s only a matter of time before the Democrats try to steal the Election and manipulate the results. [...] they'd rather destroy our Nation than have four more years of our President’s incredible leadership."

  • “The Democrats have absolute contempt for the American people and believe we are so spineless, so cowardly, so unwilling to stand up for ourselves that they can steal the Presidency.”

We’ll discuss election distrust in a coming chapter, but one thing to note about these accusations: they were almost always vague, with hardly any detail. And this should make you wonder: why were they vague? If Trump and his team thought specific things were happening, why wouldn’t they draw attention to those things?

As the president, didn’t he have the power to draw attention to specific things he thought were bad and try to stop them?

Trump’s lies

If you’re a Trump voter who cares about healing America, you should see it as important to understand the perspective that Trump’s amount of lying is abnormal and unacceptable. Part of what bothers people about his lying is not just the lies themselves, but that the lies are mostly used to generate anger and widen our divides.

Joe Walsh, the radio host and former Republican congressperson, is a committed conservative: a conservative who many liberals would call rather extreme, and a conservative who’d agree with a lot of the same policies that Trump supports. In his book F*ck Silence, he goes through many of Trump’s most egregious and easily disproved lies, and explains why that behavior is so bad, and why it’s much more egregious than the lying of almost all other major American political leaders. If you’re conservative and want to better understand this perspective, I recommend you read Walsh’s book. If you’re someone who views liberal ideas as bad and dangerous, you should see it as important to understand why a committed conservative like Walsh can perceive Trump as a much bigger threat. You should see it as important to understand why Walsh can have a view like the following:

The general public and government bodies working from a shared set of facts—the unvarnished, independently verified truth of a matter—is absolutely essential to a democracy. As you’ll read in more detail later, one of the essential ingredients of a dictatorship is its ability to get away with totally fabricating information, over and over, about issues big and small, usually to make it look perfect and like it’s incapable of erring even just a bit. I would argue that conservatives, in particular, historically have prided themselves on rejecting this kind of behavior [...]

This tradition is a chief reason why I simply can’t support Trump—he represents a severe example of what usually would be a deal-breaker for the conservative movement.

The maddening nature of Trump

Personally, I’ll say that I’ve found Trump maddening: his lies and distortions, his reckless behavior and speech, his insults, the obvious enjoyment he took in upsetting people, his constant attempts to divide America into “us” and “them.”

When I’ve told Trump voters such things, a response I sometimes get is that I’m “watching too much CNN,” or in some other way getting a distorted view of Trump. But I don’t watch TV news, and I read a variety of news sources from across the political spectrum. I’m someone who you hopefully can see is able to think for myself and who often doubts liberal-side narratives. The things that make me think Trump is tremendously unfit as a leader are things I’ve heard him directly say.

If you’re a Trump voter and you want America to get better, you should ask yourself how even some committed conservatives, who are capable of harshly criticizing liberal ideas, can see Trump as much more harmful to America. You should be willing to try to understand that perspective, even if you don’t agree with it, because doing that will help lessen your us-versus-them anger.

If you’re someone who respects Trump for his stances and policies, you might also consider how Trump’s divisive approach has hurt the Republican party. Imagine how much stronger the Republican party might be if it had someone who was able to speak more calmly and less combatively, and able to bring more people together.

Consider how much Trump’s approach has riled up so much passion and emotion amongst liberals. We’ve looked at a few examples of this already, but one demonstration of this is how, after Trump’s 2016 election, membership for the far left organization Democratic Socialists of America increased a lot.

Also consider how frequently conservatives would speak out against Trump. Consider the fact that many people have left the Republican party altogether. (If you’re interested in learning about this, I recommend reading the Wikipedia article List of Republicans who opposed the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign, which includes links to sources for learning more.)

As one example of how much division he’s created in the Republican party, in 2020 more than 70 former senior Republican national security officials signed a statement that declared, “We are profoundly concerned about our nation's security and standing in the world under the leadership of Donald Trump. The President has demonstrated that he is dangerously unfit to serve another term.” (That statement is at

One of the best books I’ve read for understanding Trump’s personality was the 1991 Trumped: The Inside Story of the Real Donald Trump—His Cunning Rise and Spectacular Fall. It was written by a high-level casino executive, John O’Donnell, who worked with Trump in Atlantic City for several years. In the book, he described what he saw as the reasons for why Trump’s casinos failed. He pointed to Trump’s horrible memory, his frequent lying (some of which can be seen as a direct result of his bad memory), and a high confidence in his business decisions despite a deep ignorance about the casino business.

One of the more interesting things in the book was how Trump actively worked to pit the managers at his two casinos—one of whom was his ex-wife, Ivana—against each other. He seemed to enjoy watching the managers of his casinos compete with each other to win his approval. His own casinos, located in the same city, were engaged in direct competition with each other, instead of working together. This had the effect of substantially driving up the operating costs of both casinos, and this contributed to the failure of those casinos.

It’s possible to view America as undergoing some of the same chaotic division that Trump helped create in his own casinos. Maybe we’re all “fighting over Trump,” similar to the way his casino managers were. If there’s any truth in that idea then, if we want to avoid worst-case scenarios, maybe more of us need to see that we’re more on the same team than we think, and be willing to question the combative, competitive rhetoric around us.

The author of the Trumped! book, O’Donnell, was a successful casino executive who worked with Trump. He wrote that book, he said, because he felt it was his moral duty to share with the world what Trump was really like. The book is quite balanced and actually gives Trump credit for some things he did, which lends support to O’Donnell’s claims that he had noble motives in writing it and was trying to be as fair as possible. Also, O’Donnell did no promotional interviews for the book when it was published: this was another sign that he didn’t write it for attention or wealth.

There’s sometimes a defense of Trump that goes, “Nobody had bad things to say about Trump before he ran for president,” but obviously this is untrue. O’Donnell’s book is just one example of the many harsh criticisms Trump has faced going back decades.

Making excuses for Trump

For people who dislike Trump, one disturbing thing about the Trump phenomenon has been that many of his supporters speak as if Trump can do no wrong. To hear some Trump voters tell it, to criticize Trump at all is in itself a sign that one is an enemy, no matter the politics or stature of the person making the criticism.

If you’re a Trump voter, you should try to understand how strange and disturbing this can seem to many people.

To give a specific example: in August of 2022, the FBI raided Trump’s Maralago residence, searching and retrieving classified documents that Trump had taken with him. The reason for the raid was because they had apparently several times asked him for those documents back, to no avail.

Immediately, upon news of the raid coming out, there were Trump voters and GOP political leaders and pundits defending Trump, saying that the FBI raid was wrong and part of the so-called Deep State’s bias and plot against Trump. But clearly, these people did not yet know what happened. There was no way for them to yet know what Trump did or did not do. And yet, they reached for all sorts of excuses: the documents were already declassified; Trump was able to declassify them himself; even if they were classified the FBI shouldn’t have done that; that the FBI had maybe planted the documents, and more.

And why does this matter? It matters because it demonstrates that for many Republicans, Trump can do no wrong. No matter what he does, no matter how wrong or criminal his actions, no matter if we know the facts yet or not, there will be a large number of Trump voters and conservative pundits and leaders who will instinctively say, “No, he did nothing wrong.”

And that’s a scary thing. If you’re a Trump voter, imagine if Hillary Clinton was raided by the FBI for similar reasons, and immediately upon that happening, before the facts were even known, a wide variety of influential liberals were saying that it was all fake news, that Clinton had been set up and framed, and that there was a big, secret plot against her.

Hopefully you can see why this can all seem genuinely maddening, even if you think some of the concerns about Trump are overblown. Hopefully you can see how people can look at all this and see a group behaving in cult-like ways.

Reasons for thinking Trump was a good president

Returning to liberal perceptions of Trump and Trump voters: I think there can be faulty perceptions that support for Trump is largely about supporting Trump’s most extreme stances and his divisive approach to politics.

But in talking to Trump voters, one can find a range of reasons for why they are either okay with Trump or enthusiastic about him, including some reasons that I think many liberals would find comprehensible. And many Trump voters are able to acknowledge Trump’s flaws while believing he’s done some good things.

Here are some reasons people told me they thought Trump was a good president that struck me as likely to be interesting to liberals:

  • One Trump voter said he thought Trump was the best president in recent memory largely due to Trump not starting any new wars and being fairly isolationist in nature. As part of that theme, he said he appreciated Trump attempting to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.

  • One Trump voter told me a major issue for him was American energy independence. He told me he understood liberals’ concerns about the environmental impacts of oil extraction, but he saw America as the least environmentally harmful of all the oil-producing countries. He saw liberals as being rather hypocritical because they seemed to have no problems with oil coming from other places, no matter how environmentally harmful those other countries’ practices might be.

  • Some Trump voters appreciated Trump being tough on China. One Trump voter whose own business had been hurt by China-U.S. trade tariffs said he was okay with some sacrifice if it meant that the U.S. was getting better trade results with China in the long run.

Some Trump voters say things like, “I know he’s got problems, but he’s working towards things that conservatives want.” Some Trump voters say things like, “He may have problems, but he was rightfully elected and I think we should try to focus on the good things he’s done.”

Clearly, these are all debatable stances. But the point is that these more calm and rational reasons are a big contrast to what we often see in liberal-leaning outlets, which is a focus on the most enthusiastic Trump voters: the ones who go to rallies, the ones who are fully behind Trump’s most extreme stances, the ones who cheer on his insults of the press, Democrat leaders, and the election. Such focus can make it seem like all Trump voters are on the same page as Trump, that all Trump voters are as extreme as the most enthusiastic Trump voter. But this is missing a broad swath of Trump voters who are not like that.

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