When we talk about Trump voters as an oppressed minority, we risk erasing the history of people who were actually oppressed.
By Brandon Tensley
A Trump supporter during a rally outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 20th, 2016. (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
Over the past several months, there’s been a flurry of stories zooming in on how liberals speak about Donald Trump voters. Often, these stories — such as this one and this one — center on accusations that those supporters are bigots: Since Trump’s win in November, many of his voters have chafed at the suggestion that there’s no functional difference between being a bigot and putting one in office, even as their votes have had consequences such as travel bans disproportionately affecting Muslims and moves to strip away transgender rights.
We saw this tussle again the other weekend, when a New York Times story asked, “Are Liberals Helping Trump?” The piece is essentially a tapestry of interviews with conservatives who — though they enabled the man who capitalized on the racist “birtherism” movement and later called Mexicans “rapists” — are frustrated by how impossibly hard they perceive their lives to have become since their candidate clinched the election.
How hard? The Times story included one Trump voter who said that he couldn’t even put a bumper sticker on his car or wear a Make America Great Again hat (except in China) or get a date on Tinder in the liberal enclave of Mountain View, California; the story compared this man’s plight to that of a closeted gay man in the 1950s. In the words of the piece, this voter “stayed in the closet” for months about his support for Trump.
The assumption behind this noxious comparison is that all closets are the same, which ignores reason and hides history. Consider what it actually meant to be gay in America a half-century ago: While queer folks had been organizing for decades before the Stonewall riots in 1969 — a moment that helped spark the modern push for LGBTQ rights — American conservatism in the 1950s involved more than the name-calling that Trump supporters find so troubling. This was the era of the “Lavender Scare,” after all, when then-Senator Joseph McCarthy was hell-bent on rooting out supposed “sexual perverts” in all parts of the United States government because they were seen as “security risks” in the country’s precarious ideological battle against communism. The government, as a result, fired thousands of men and women merely on the suspicion of being gay or lesbian.
This climate of repression didn’t just ruin reputations; it also destroyed lives. Indeed, it’s key to remember what was and wasn’t possible in the 1950s. While Trumpism isn’t illegal, down through history, anti-LGBTQ policies and posturing — from anti-sodomy laws to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to bans on marriage between same-sex couples to workplace discrimination to religious exemption bills — have been used in clear-cut ways to trample any semblance of queer equality.
Trump supporters can complain about the barbs lobbed at them by liberals, but we shouldn’t allow the non-oppressed to appropriate the rhetoric of real, lived oppression — the same way that we shouldn’t pity Abigail Fisher for her spurious claims of “reverse discrimination.” Neither should we conflate name-callers on the left with the band of bigots running our country; one group is voicing anger, the other is rolling back civil rights, with an eye to returning America to the cultural pieties of the 1950s. Trump voters who feel closeted or oppressed might consider that the White House is working to return the country to a time that, for so many queer folks, involved genuine risk: something rather scarier than whatever the mid-century equivalent of “swiping left” may have been.
What I’m saying, in other words, is that we should be diligent in not leaving unchallenged the idea that calling out bigotry is — or ever was — as bad as actually feeling its effects. Let’s give the 63 million Trump voters some agency. They knew what they were doing.