I rolled my eyes when Clinton’s supporters cried on Election Night 2016. I thought Trump was bad. And, as someone who had represented immigrants seeking asylum, I knew his administration would harm helpless persons. But I also knew that immigration practices under the Obama administration were horrific, and I saw the previous administration’s lack of concern for innocent unborn human persons as gravely unjust. The Clinton administration put the promotion and expansion of abortion procurement at the center of its concerns, which I could not support in good conscience. But when it came to Trump, I saw it as inconceivable that his marital infidelity and abuse of women had not resulted at some point in an abortion. Weighing the options, I saw both Clinton and Trump as undeserving of my vote. I objected to Clinton based on policy, and I objected to Trump based on character.
A Defense of Trump Voters
I did not vote for Trump. Still, I argued that Catholics had good reasons to vote for him, even if I did not agree with those reasons. I invited young Catholics to my home to discuss the election, asking three individuals to present a Catholic argument for voting for Clinton, Trump, and a third party candidate. I thought it was important for Catholics to seriously consider all options and to imagine reasonable arguments on each side. And even if I didn’t agree with the arguments in support of Trump, I respected them. When Trump was announced as the winner of the election, I was disappointed but thought the public grieving and prophetic warnings of what was to come were unnecessary shows of hyperbole.
But over the last four years of the Trump presidency, I found the Catholic arguments for Trump less and less tenable. Finally, with the events of the last year, I pleaded with friends and family not to vote for a president who made me feel personally unsafe. I argued that Trump did not deserve the “pro-life vote.” And I encouraged, at the very least, those who had voted for Trump in 2016 to consider a third party vote.
Even so, I defended Trump voters at times. On Election Day 2020, I argued that, contrary to what many were saying online, a vote for Trump does not make you “anti-gay.” Even if I thought they did not overcome the harm Trump has done over the course of his presidency (and his life), I respected arguments that some Catholics made in favor of voting for him. I have been, and remain, committed to the principle that healthy politics requires political discourse which requires hearing what another side has to say, no matter how toxic or terrible, and giving a clear response. Hearing another side out, even if that side’s views are toxic, can help ease tensions, while dismissing or attacking them outright can often inflame and impassion antagonists to pursue their ends more forcefully. This does not preclude saying the other side is wrong, but healthy political discourse requires uncomfortable (and, at times, dangerous) listening.
The violence at the U.S. Capitol last week swung a lot of Trump voters. I’ve heard many stories about friends’ family members changing their minds about Trump in the wake of last week’s events, as well as the specter of violence in the coming days. Someone in my personal life who voted for Trump said that he may become a democrat. One friend who has been struggling with their family’s passive aggressive support of Trump (usually framed as “Biden is worse”) heard from one of those family members that he blamed Trump for the violence and was wrong about supporting him.
Republicans have turned against Trump. Cabinet members have resigned. Objections to the election results were dropped. Twitter stopped giving the President special treatment and permanently suspended his personal account.
My own “last straw,” and what pushed me to more forcefully advocate against Trump during the election, was the incident where his supporters harassed Biden campaign buses, resulting in the cancellation of campaign events across Texas. In response to a video of his supporters surrounding and slowing down a Biden campaign bus, Trump tweeted: “I LOVE TEXAS!”
In many ways, I saw his response as worse than the harassment itself. I shared that the event had changed my previous perspectives, convicting me of just how terrible Trump is. I wrote:
“His response is the response of a fascist dictator in a third world country, not the response of someone seeking a position of public service in what’s supposed to be the greatest democracy in the world. And not only this, but I have yet to see any Trump apologists condemn, or even address, this, even as I have a friend experiencing harassment in her town by Trump supporters. This is no longer about any particular issue, but about the state of leadership in this country. He is unfit to serve and unable to lead.”
In response, one person argued that videos alleging vehicular assault by Trump’s supporters were ambiguous. He said (to paraphrase), “This one story is also a weak basis to be the catalyst for such a significant change in how you view the President.” He also argued (again to paraphrase): “This isn’t really harassment. They overtook the bus and slowed it down with traffic. The media exaggerated the incidents. The Biden campaign just chose to cancel its own events, and this makes me concerned that Biden wouldn’t have the strength and perseverance to be a good president.”
As a matter of simple logic, I think he was right, especially when it came to my own change of course. The video, on its own, could be interpreted in multiple ways. Considering each event in isolation, one might argue that the only thing the majority of Trump’s supporters really did was slow down traffic. And, also in isolation, one could argue that Trump just really liked the creativity in slowing down his opponent’s campaign. Should the situation, in isolation, really be the catalyst for a significant change in perspective on the election? One could argue that it’s not reasonable to conclude someone is a fascist, just because he likes his supporters slowing down buses.
The problem with this critique, however, is that human reasoning doesn’t actually work this way. Most human beings don’t come to a position, or change a stance, based on a simple syllogistic progression. Our deepest positions come, instead, from a complex constellation of experiences, past perspectives, habits, histories, knowledge, and personal contexts. A change in a deeply-held perspective, accordingly, does not usually come from following a bit of logic to its natural conclusion. It comes, rather, through the gradual dislodging of those experiences, perspectives, habits, histories, knowledge, and contexts. Those things shift and change over time, and sometimes what one needs to finally make the change is not a big piece of logic, but simply the lifting of a small singular stone which is the last thing holding the building in place. It can be as small as a brief twitter video, and it can be as big as a heartbreak, or a riot at the United States Capitol.
On Shaming Trump Voters
People I know who have shouted loudly about the dangers of Trump for over four years have had mixed responses to their friends’ and families’ changes in perspective. Some have welcomed a recognition of the danger of Trump and his followers with open arms and an encouragement to speak out about what they now see. Some have cried with happiness. Others are angry.
The anger has come out in various ways. A common expression has been along the lines of: “We’ve been warning you about this for four years! You’ve ignored us, said we were crazy, said something like this would never happen, said that our concerns weren’t legitimate! And now you accept it only after this violence! This is your fault! It’s your fault for not speaking out, for defending him, for not opposing him! You are complicit in this attack!”
Certainly, I do want a de-escalation of violence. I want Trump voters to come to terms with what has happened, how we got to where we are today, and the various ways they may have contributed to the present situation. I don’t think that all Trump voters really have complicity in the Capitol violence, but I do think we all bear some sort of responsibility for our elected officials. I want Trump voters to consider how they may have contributed to harm and hurt those who have been put into vulnerable positions and felt endangered by the President’s rhetoric and his followers. I’m not convinced, however, that shaming them will encourage this. More likely, it will either shove them into a resentful silence or activate their defense bias and encourage them to double down.
I wouldn’t dream, however, of asking my black and Jewish American friends to quiet their anger. This is, in part, because of my limited work with clergy abuse survivors. One story I often come back to me is the experience of a survivor whose warnings were ignored.
Years after her abuse, she was at a Catholic parish and saw behavior from a Catholic priest which she thought was strange. She worried that the priest was not exercising appropriate boundaries with another lay woman, and she reported it to a second priest. The second priest responded, “I think you’re projecting your own experiences.” Eventually, it was revealed that she was right. That first priest was later criminally convicted for his relationship with the woman, long after the survivor had given her ignored warning.
The survivor I spoke with looked back on her interaction with the first priest with frustration and sadness. She now uses that experience to drive her work of pushing for accountability in the Church, refusing to let her concerns about priests to be recognized as anything other than a survivor’s gift of sensitivity. She knows what dangerous behavior looks like from a clergyman, because she has intimate experience with such behavior. She can see what many of us overlook.
If she would have later gone back to that second priest and the diocese, and blamed them, and called them out, and said this was their fault, and she had warned them, I wouldn’t dream of asking her to calm down for the sake of the feelings of the priest or the diocese. The woman was subject to her own abuse, and then she was shut down when she tried to warn about further abuse. If she would have screamed over social media, or from a bullhorn in front of diocesan offices, I wouldn’t dream of asking her to quiet down because she was shaming the priest or his colleagues. I do hope that we could eventually work with her to address problems and push for change and accountability. But if she wants to express her anger in the wake of the events and for a time focus on laying blame on those who ignored her, she can do that.
I think of her when I think about my black friends who have warned us since Charleston and then saw a Confederate flag flying in front of the Capitol’s portrait of Charles Summer, a senator who was attacked by a white supremacist in the chamber. I think of her when I think about my Jewish American friends who have tried to tell us how Trump promotes anti-Semitic rhetoric and then saw rioters in our Capitol wearing “6MWE” shirts (it means “6 million Jews were not enough”). I think about Trump’s responses to the white Capitol rioters (“We love you” and “I know your pain), and compare it to his response to black rioters after the killing of George Floyd (“thugs” and “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”). I think about a black friend who was sent defenses of Confederate statues by her white in-laws and then saw that Confederate flag go through the halls of our Capitol for the first time in American history. I think of friends who expressed horror when the President told (Ohio-born) Ayanna Pressley and some of her congressional peers, “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” and then Pressley’s staff reaching for panic buttons in her Capitol office in the midst of the riot, to discover they had been torn out. (Trump had also said of the American Representative Pressley and others: “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…”). I think of friends who have lost family to COVID, watching barricaded Republicans refusing to wear masks in the lockdown, and then Democrat representatives who had been in the room with them being diagnosed with COVID a week later. I think of countless stories, tired peers, and the tears and anguish that have been ignored and, at times, mocked by conservative friends.
We thought they were overreacting in 2016. We were proven wrong.
I’m trying not to scream at people. I’m trying to not easily throw around the word “complicit.” I won’t justify violence. I will try to keep my cool. I will try to dialogue. But if they want to yell, and assign blame (even to me), I won’t tell them to sit back and be quiet.
In his statement announcing he will not invoke the 25th Amendment, Vice President Pence quoted Ecclesiastes 3, writing: “The Bible says that ‘for everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven… a time to heal, … and a time to build up.” As Allison Hurst pointed out, the ellipses say more than the text. Christians love the Bible when it suits our aims, when it justifies our goals. Pence conveniently left out that there is “a time to kill,… a time to break down…” He represents his followers well.
I hope that my friends who have been suffering are able to enter that time to heal, that time to build up, that time to laugh, and that time to dance. But the rest of us need to stop living in the ellipses and recognize that it may be time for us within ourselves to kill, to break down, to weep, and to mourn. And to wake up.
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.