I’ve followed the last three US elections religiously. I listen to a multitude of podcasts and read every article you can imagine. So when yesterday came it was the culmination of two and half years of watching and waiting for the US to decide that a reality TV star is incapable of running a country. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster to be honest. I remember hearing Trump announce his bid and saying ‘nothing dumber than this will happen this election’. Boy was I wrong! Like, Seriously! What the hell just happened?!
What I had to face this morning as I stepped out of my front door onto this little liberal enclave of Cuba Street is that there is a big world out there. A world where almost half of the voting public in the US said they’re willing to tolerate sexism, racism, xenophobia and violence if they believe it will ‘make America great again’.
I was reminded this morning that in this world I have a very specific perspective. It’s a Christian Left perspective. A male perspective. A white perspective. A middle-class perspective. A privileged perspective. An employed perspective. A tertiary-educated perspective. Those six things alone surely make me among some of the most lucky, safe and secure in the world.
This morning I’m reminded just how myopic I can be. I’m reminded that my views are in the minority and that they are shaped by always growing up with enough to eat, not having lived through a major conflict and having almost every possible opportunity afforded to me to succeed. I’m convinced it wasn’t so much Trump who won last night, but fear. Fear won the US election. All these many privileges above make it difficult for me to truly understand what it is to have fear, and so also the perspectives of many of the 50 million people who chose a President like Trump.
I’m convinced that Trump is what a society produces when we cease to try to understand and empathise with one-another. It’s what happens when educated liberals from New York retreat to their political camps and blue-collar workers from Flint do the same. Each of their perspectives left to grow in a petri dish of like-minds. Though it’s hard for me to admit, conservatives need progressives and progressives need conservatives too. When these political identities and cultures become so fortified we can no longer talk then a Trump is inevitable. A man with the charisma and the ability to exploit and widen the divide for his benefit.
A few years ago while battling with depression I met regularly with a counselor. I was feeling torn up by the painful actions of a young person I’d been working with. Where I felt I’d been loving and gracious they had responded with some painful and costly deception. I felt raw and like it was all deeply personal. My counselor at the time gave me some of the best advice for healing the wound. They suggested that every time something like this happens I invent an empathetic narrative in my head for why this is the case. Maybe this kid is stealing from me because there’s no food in the fridge at home? Maybe he’s lying to me because he doesn’t want to let me down? Maybe he’s screaming at me to see if I’ll abandon him just like everyone else?
And you know what? it worked.
In the absence of having the full story I still continue today to imagine stories that evoke empathy in me rather than judgment and condemnation. I trick my heart into compassion when it would prefer to do the opposite. I don’t invent excuses for immoral behavior (what Trump has done is inexcusable), but an explanation helps me to take off my own perspective for a moment and stand in the shoes of another.
I’m trying to do the same this morning. I’m trying to imagine what it’s like not to live in the liberal heartland of New Zealand. I’m wondering what it’s like to be a steel worker from Flint, Michigan who saw the jobs of her or his community shipped offshore. I’m wondering what it feels like for him not to be able to provide for his family. I’m wondering how this experience of desperation framed how he saw those two planes hit the towers on September 11. I’m wondering if he remembers his childhood as a better and a simpler time where his country and his community thrived. I'm wondering if that made the ambitious offer to ‘Make America Great Again’ resonate with him just a little bit. I’m wondering if he’s not a redneck fool, but someone just desperate for change.
Because the truth is that, regardless of our own preferences, none of us here in Aotearoa want our political system to go the way of the States. To prevent that we must lean into empathy and resist division. I have a conviction this morning that I need to begin to bridge the divide with my Right Wing Conservative neighbour. I need to remember that Cuba Street is too far removed from a Taranaki dairy farm for me to claim I understand. I’m resolved today, more than ever, that we need each other. I’m praying we would all have the courage to lean across the fence/aisle, knock on the door of our neighbor and truly begin to understand. Will you join me?