What is not your fault may be your problem

What to do about those 72 million Trump voters: a conversation with activist, filmmaker, and traitor-to-her-class heiress Abigail Disney

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There are two things to say about the more than 72 million people who voted for Donald Trump. The first is that they voted for something dangerous and barbaric and, for the planet, potentially catastrophic. They are not people you need to bend over backwards to compromise or seek unity with. They need to be beaten. And they were.

The second point may seem out of step with the first: it’s that we need to change many of their minds. For the survival of the planet and the rescue of American democracy.

As I wrote earlier this week, I hear too many empty calls for unity — and, by the same token, too few calls for real mind-changing. To me, this seems exactly backwards. It is encouraging people to meet halfway those who want to destroy many of the country’s institutions and norms and highest ideals. It seems to me more important to hold fast against such people in the short term, while seeking, over the medium and long term, to make those people — or at least a sizable segment of them — no longer want that.

And when I think about that larger project of changing minds — in the direction of greater tolerance, openness, solidarity — the situation can actually feel more hopeful. Because while this election was closer than any decent person wanted, there are longer-term trends in the right direction. American democracy is under threat, yes. And it is simultaneously true that we are living in a pregnant time in which millions of Americans are actually learning about our history in ways they hadn’t before, are actually being retrained at school and at work to live differently with others, are actually coming to grips with how to be in a country without a white, male default.

For me, it has been important in these recent days — and years — to hold these truths in tandem: We are in danger; and we are in danger because we are seeking to make work something that is tough; and we are further along on that project than we sometimes give ourselves — and, even more, the activists and freedom fighters agitating for these changes — credit for.

The morning after the election, I had a conversation with Abigail Disney — an activist, filmmaker, and famous traitor to her class — that touched on many of these themes. It was for her impressive new podcast, “All Ears.” I wanted to share an excerpt of it with you below to send you into the weekend. By all means, we need to guard against the coup. But there is a deeper shift under way that is favorable to the improvement of the country, and we must also loudly cheer it on.

“No matter how wrong they are, they are your problem”: a conversation with Abigail Disney

ABIGAIL: Your book ​The True American was about the life and mind of a Trump voter before we even knew there was such a thing as a Trump voter. As I read it, I thought about the role that masculinity was playing. We talk about the angry Trump voter as feeling, debased, humiliated, thwarted. What do you think about the role of masculinity in getting us to where we are right now?

ANAND: ​I think it's playing a very dominant role. The reality is, a lot of men in this country are in a very bad way. Which doesn’t mean they don't still benefit from patriarchy and those privileges. But I think if we were to be honest with ourselves, and if many men were to be honest with themselves, they're in a bad way.

We know that because of the conversation you and I just had about the economy. For some men, that's the big thing in their lives. The desertion of opportunity is an economic fact that quickly becomes a cultural and a gender fact. In many communities, men were raised with an idea of themselves as a provider, as the stable source of income. The world has changed, where they’re not the stable provider, or the wife earns more money, or not having a college degree no longer provides the kind of life that it did.

The larger dynamics of the erosion of patriarchy, the ascendancy of women, and the growing equality in this country over the last generation are another tremendous, tremendous source of change. All my life, I've written about change, and people trying to make change, and people also experiencing change as a wind in their face. 

People who are living their lives are raised in a certain way. They have a certain idea of what the good life is, how to be, and a concept of themselves. Then, suddenly, something happens that they didn't do. If a society fails to show those men, in this case, who they can be on the other side of change, what is left for them when this mode of being is rightfully taken away — if they can't be convinced that there's some other way of being a man, of being a human being, of having dignity on the other side, then in addition to their own failure that they visit upon others, it becomes our collective failure, because they lash out.

Donald Trump, as I've written before, is a weak man's idea of a strong man. In many ways, he represents an authoritarianism fueled by feelings of emasculation. Weak men look to him to be the husband that, deep down, they fear they can't be to their wives; the father that they fear they can't be to their children; their lack of vigor in the economy or otherwise. If we don't heal men, I think we're going to have more Trumps in our future.

ABIGAIL:​ I would just kind of add one little nuance to that. We did have the ascendance of women, but patriarchy still stands fully formed, which is why the women who voted for Donald Trump still feel they have to live inside of a structure that values dominance and aggression. So I do think that the patriarchy was left intact.

ANAND: I certainly think it's strong. I wouldn't say it's unchanged from a generation ago, you know? If you think about the men we're talking about, chances are their dads had a certain degree more of immunity and privilege than they do in certain respects.​ A number of their dads could probably come home, expect dinner on the table, and not expect to have to clean up or share any child duties. Some men still operate like that, but a lot of men don't anymore.

ABIGAIL: ​I would say that this is where gender and race come together in a really important way because you can change laws, but you don’t change the individual people who are subject to those laws. There is still this stuckness in America around race. How is it that we have not been able to move one inch from where we were 50 years ago as white people? What is happening in the American conscience?

ANAND: ​It's interesting. I see it a little bit differently. I don't see where we are as proof that we're not moving on race. I think it is proof that some white people have moved dramatically on race, and there's a great backlash among those who have not changed. 

The leadership in so many of our institutions just looks completely different than it did ten years ago. That doesn't mean it's anywhere near where it needs to go. In the hearts and behavior of white people — similar to the point I would make for men — we have successfully psychologically migrated tens of millions of white people to a new and better and fuller understanding of themselves and of white supremacy. So if you don't start with that, then it can seem very hopeless.

ABIGAIL: ​Right. 

ANAND: ​ When I go to campuses and I speak to people, including campuses in red states — I remember the school in Indiana where a lot of farm kids from conservative, rural backgrounds are often the liberal ones in their families who want to go to college — it's remarkable what they are learning today, the way in which they understand themselves and how to live in a world with others and share power. These kids are doing it every day. This is the optimistic me, but we have to figure out how to get everybody to go on the journey that we have already successfully gotten many, many people to go on.

ABIGAIL: ​I want to believe your optimistic view, and I'm right on the edge of it. Except when I think about the power and success of the backlash. Why is the backlash this powerful?

ANAND: ​We're talking about race, we're talking about gender, we're talking about white people, we're talking about men. The most pressing need any person has is to have some idea of themselves that is stable. That gives them a sense of dignity, of being whole, of understanding how they relate to others and to the world.

Have you ever felt like you used to know how to play the game and then the rules change and you feel, kind of, wait, where am I, who am I? I think any of us who've ever been to another country know that feeling. 

I think there is an important civic project of helping people see who they will be on the other side of the mountain. We have failed to do that for men. We've failed to do that for lots of white people. If you don't, they retreat back to their worlds and lash out at others. They go to the ballot box every two or four years, and they lash out in politics while lying to pollsters about what they're going to actually do. At some point, the only way to get where this country needs to go is through each other. And we're going to have to actually change what is in people's hearts.

That is a project that I think people just don't talk about enough. If you have a country where an enormous number of people feel shit-scared about who they are and how they fit into the world, no matter how wrong they are, they are your problem. One of my favorite mantras is that the burden of citizenship is recognizing that what is not your fault may be your problem. The Trump voter is not our fault. It's certainly not my fault. But it is my problem.


This conversation was edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen to this full episode of Abigail Disney’s podcast “All Ears” here.

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