Polls in mid-June show that American voters are split down the middle, with 44 per cent intending to vote for Trump and 44 per cent for Biden. Image: John Ruberry / Alamy

Don’t empathise with Trump supporters. Condemn them

It might feel like we owe millions of Maga Americans a hearing. We don’t—we owe them honesty about their repugnant choice
June 19, 2024

The growing alarm that many people feel about the prospect of Donald Trump returning to the US presidency goes hand-in-hand with renewed liberal anguish over how to think and talk about the millions of Trump supporters responsible for bringing us to this dangerous point. Given the full-scale erosion of democratic norms that a second term portends—with Trump doubling down on his rhetoric of vengeance and promising to persecute the disloyal—are we not entitled to condemn his supporters in the strongest possible terms? 

It would certainly seem so. But instead, just as often, we find liberals reverting to their habitual posture of tolerant, self-critical retreat. Pundits urge us to empathise with, rather than condemn or dismiss, Trump’s base—many of whom, it is implied, can hardly be faulted for feeling “left behind” by globalisation, deindustrialisation and demographic and cultural change. Is it any wonder these people, so poorly represented in DC, should seek to get their own back any way they can?

In normal times, this would be fine. Indeed, many of the sympathetic think pieces devoted to understanding the “Maga” vote are animated by the liberal virtues of charity, humility and open-mindedness, which rightly guide our approach to political conflict in times of democratic stability. The problem is that the virtuous restraint with which liberalism treats political opponents becomes a unique source of weakness and confusion when faced with a genuine (and popular) authoritarian opponent. Matters are made worse by the gaslighting that is central to the Trump playbook, but liberals themselves are also partly to blame. By doubling down on what they think politics should feel like—tolerant, inclusive, self-critical—they risk betraying their core principles. 

First, to the issue of gaslighting. Like many authoritarians, Trump and his acolytes cynically pose as champions of democracy while undermining it from within. This is what is happening when he and his backers pretend to care about fairness, complaining that the 2020 election it was “rigged”, or when they feign concern for an independent judiciary by excoriating Democrats for “weaponising” the justice system, all the while flagrantly attempting to commandeer it. They try to justify breaking democratic norms by pretending the other side has already broken them. This allows them to neuter the arguments their opponents would use against them, emptying them of meaning. The result is a confused rhetorical landscape that leaves many liberals at a loss.  

But just because you can cynically ape adherence to democratic values does not make every show of adherence to them self-serving and partisan. Fear of coming across this way—and helpless exhaustion in the face of Trump’s relentless projections—should not keep liberals from defending democracy against Trump’s enablers in the strongest possible terms. 

Perhaps there are other reasons liberals should resist condemning Trump’s base. It is often said that to do so risks vilifying them, thereby playing into the “us versus them”, zero-sum logic that liberals—in contrast to authoritarians—stand against. But while this line of argument aligns with liberals’ political instincts, its logic is in this case flawed. 

Authoritarians are wrong to see all politics as a zero-sum contest between friends and enemies, but this does not mean that this framing is never warranted by the political situation at hand. For sometimes there is an actual zero-sum game being played between those who champion equal rights, free elections and respect for the rule of law, whatever their ideological orientation, and those who would trample these things to gain partisan advantage, up to and including the entrenchment of single-party rule. 

Of course, liberals must never stoop to dehumanising their opponents as Trump does, an approach captured vividly in the epithets he uses on anyone who crosses him: “vermin”, “thugs”, “communists”, and so on. But this does not mean Americans greasing the slide to tyranny should be treated like ordinary democratic opponents. Charity, empathy and tolerance are owed to political actors who respect the rules of democratic fair play, such as accepting that whoever fairly gets the most votes, wins. It is self-defeating to pretend these attitudes are called for when that basic enabling condition of liberal politics is not met.

The virtues required to defend democracy against authoritarians attackers are—and feel—different: toughness, pragmatism, a willingness to speak truth to power, hold onto facts and defend democratic norms and institutions whatever the costs. 

If liberals are worried they might end up diminishing the full humanity of their Trumpist friends and neighbours in the process, they need not be. We respect them by holding them to our highest principles. This means condemning them for the tyranny they would impose on the rest of us, and using all lawful means to hold them to account. To do any less is to risk lapsing into the infantilising condescension of which liberals are often, rightly, accused.