In the Summer of 2016, I set out for a road trip through the Deep South region of the US. I had spent most of the previous two years outside of the country, living in Brazil and working and traveling around different parts of the world. That summer, I had returned to the US for a few weeks and I wanted to explore a part of my own country with which I was rather unfamiliar.
My main motivation to go to the Deep South was to try to get a better understanding of the appeal of Donald Trump. Over the course of the previous 6 months, I had watched from afar as Trump rose from a fringe political figure whose candidacy for president many (including me) saw purely as a publicity stunt to become the presumptive Republican nominee. To my surprise, Trump soundly defeated more than a dozen other candidates with much more experience, and I wanted to find out why. In that context, the Deep South had long been a traditional Republican stronghold, so I was fairly certain that Trump supporters would not be in short supply there.
In road tripping through the Deep South – which took me in a triangle from Texas through Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana and back to Texas – I decided to approach this region as if I were a correspondent visiting a foreign country. I wanted to visit a few of the region’s cities and small towns, talk to a few of its people, and get a better sense of the political, economic, and social atmosphere. I wanted to put my own political opinions aside as best I could, instead observing and listening to what others had to say about the issues of the time.
In doing so, I learned a lot from that trip. First and foremost, I learned that Trump was somebody to take seriously as a candidate for president. In conversations with everyone from blue-collar workers and business owners to journalists and community activists, it became clear to me that Trump would get a substantial part of their vote. I learned a lot just by driving through the region – the landscape of the Deep South revealed an area that was strongly influenced by its past, from Confederate flags and statues in the cities to the large, sharecropping farms of its rural areas. I drove through small towns and former industrial areas, many of which were heavily shuttered, in no small part due to the disruptive effects of globalization and urbanization. This was a place where the moniker ‘Make America Great Again’ appeared to resonate strongly.
Most importantly, my Deep South road trip taught me that Trump voters couldn’t all be swept up into one generalized group of “deplorables,” to quote Hillary Clinton. To be sure, some people I encountered were racist or sexist and liked Trump’s politically incorrect rhetoric, but these were in the minority in my experience. Some were longtime Republicans who would have voted for anybody on the ticket, while others were economically disenfranchised and looking to shake up the political status quo. Still others just hated Hillary personally and/or the establishment that she represented. I learned that Trump’s appeal in this region was as varied as it was strong.
This was just in the Deep South. But apply this lesson to other parts of the country, particularly the swing states of the Midwestern Rust Belt which bear some similar features, and the result was a Trump victory in the presidential elections – a victory that should perhaps not have been as surprising to as many people as it was. Just as it was dangerous to underestimate the support for Trump, I think it is also important to not over-generalize the nature of that support.
Now, 4 years later, I think that this last lesson is more important than ever before. The US is heading into presidential elections in November in the midst of a global pandemic, wide scale social unrest, and major economic uncertainty. These factors have served to inflame social and political divisions, and the country is more polarized now than I have experienced in my lifetime.
With this polarization has come generalizations of groups that, as with Trump supporters in 2016, I have come to view with increasing alarm. Terms like “anarchists” and “terrorists” to describe all Black Lives Matters (BLM) protesters and “radical leftists” to describe all Democrats are being thrown around with increased ease, including by Trump himself. Such terms are then echoed indiscriminately by some of Trump’s supporters, just as some of his opponents come up with their own catch-all phrases for the police and for those in the pro-Trump camp.
This is dangerous. Saying that all BLM activists are anarchists is like saying that all Trump voters were/are motivated purely by racism and sexism. For one thing, it is not true – at least not completely. Of course, some BLM protesters have been violent, just as some Trump supporters have been racist/sexist in their words and their behavior. But the reality is that these are a small minority within a much larger and more varied group, a minority whose voice and actions can nevertheless be very loud and influential. Thus, calling BLM activists “anarchists” is at best only a partial truth, and recognizing this is important. As political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote: “Partial truths or half-truths are often more insidious than total falsehoods. The latter can be easily exposed for what they are by citing exceptions to their claims; hence they are less likely to be accepted as the total truth. A partial truth, on the other hand, is plausible because some evidence does support it, and it is, consequently, easy to assume that it is the total truth.”
In addition, such generalizations can compromise the more rational and legitimate concerns of various people. In terms of the BLM protesters, actions by the small minority of rioters and looters in protests can obscure the much larger segment of peaceful protesters who are on the streets to advocate for social equality and justice for all. Actions by some police officers, like Derek Chauvin’s killing of George Floyd, serve to compromise the image of the integrity of the police force as a whole. This is to say nothing of the deeper and more complex nature of these issues, such as concerns over systemic racism of the police or motivations of protesters to riot and loot that go beyond anarchism and stem from a deeply-rooted frustration with/alienation from the system. But that is the point: these issues are complicated, and generalizations undermine any efforts toward constructive dialogue and meaningful policy changes.
The more that one paints groups of people with a broad brush, therefore, the more that one can misinterpret or fail to understand them. Even worse, such misunderstandings of various groups could escalate the current state of affairs, pushing moderate segments of the opposing sides into more radicalized positions. This, too, is dangerous, because a small radicalized minority within a movement can have a major impact on the overall course of events (something that I wrote about in more detail here).
Thus, generalizing is not just a matter of rhetoric or words. It can have a real impact on the ground. Here, the sociological concept of Other-ness comes to mind: the idea that those who are different from you, whether in terms of their nationality, race, religion, ideology, or creed, are in some fundamental way inferior to you and your own group. Or, even worse, they can be seen as not even human at all.
History has shown repeatedly that when one starts to look at the Other in this way, dangerous things can happen. This was Nazism under Hitler. This was Communism under Lenin and Stalin. This is the radical Islamism espoused by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. In other words, this is totalitarian thinking and radical extremism of any persuasion. These are all extreme cases, but they share an important underlying similarity. What they all have in common is a belief in their own righteous way, and a belief that all those outside of their group should be alienated at best, or annihilated at worst. Thus, espousing the idea that Democrats are “radical leftists” or that Trump voters are “racists” is, to me, a dangerous and slippery slope that has very concerning historical parallels.
This does not mean we all have to agree with each other. Differences and conflicts between groups of people have existed as long as humanity itself. But if we want to improve the situation rather than escalate it, we must at first acknowledge the nature of these differences rather than ignore or pervert them. In doing so, it is very important to be aware of our own biases and subjective interpretations. We must understand the motivations of those different from us rather than discrediting them or attacking them on their affiliation alone. If you make the argument against the extremist elements of one side (looters/violent rioters vs. protesters), it is important to acknowledge the extremist elements of all sides (lawful vs. unlawful police actions). As activist DeRay McKesson writes, “We have a responsibility, and daily make a choice, to unpack and challenge the ideas that are carried in stories, to refine and inspect our language, and to correct false narratives despite the cost or discomfort.”
Ultimately, it is important to be aware of the subjective biases and extremist tendencies of all sides – in the case of ongoing unrest, this includes that of the protesters and that of the police. It is understandable for people in the US to want law and order and to feel safe. It is also understandable for people in the US to want social equality and justice for all of its people. It is achieving a balance between the two, not one over or at the expense of the other, that has proven to be elusive and is increasingly compromised by political polarization and over-generalized rhetoric.
During my road trip to the Deep South four years ago, I did my best to take a sober and analytical approach to the region. Instead of viewing the people I spoke with as my political or ideological adversaries, I tried to approach them with an open mind. These were not people who I was trying to fight or convince that my views were superior to theirs. Instead, I approached them as people who are shaped by personal experiences and backgrounds which are different from mine, and from which I can learn. The reality is that most people have their reasons for what they believe, and oftentimes they are rational actors within the context of their personal experiences. As a result, I was able to learn a lot from that trip; it helped me to better understand what was happening in the country at an important time, and it even offered some insights on what to expect moving forward.
Fundamentally, we must not seek to discredit or de-humanise those that are different from us, or else we will lose sight of what we stand to gain from the Other – a stronger sense of community, and a stronger understanding and sense of ourselves. As novelist Dubravka Ugresic writes, “We seek understanding, yet few are ready to understand others.” Now is the time for all of us to try our best to understand our Other, with nothing less than the future of the country at stake.