Why It’s Wrong to Vilify Trump and the Folks Who Work for Him
by Benjamin Studebaker
The right believes that people are personally responsible for where they end up in life. If you end up in a bad job or with no job at all, it’s because you did something wrong. If you have immoral beliefs, it’s because you choose to have them. It’s never because of the system or the structure–to the right, that’s just making excuses. The thing that’s cool about the left is that the left understands that we don’t have the freedom to choose to be successful people. There are only so many good jobs. Some people are bound to end up without one. We pick up our beliefs from our education system, from the people around us and from the conditions we find ourselves in. People don’t just choose to have crummy beliefs or to end up poor or homeless. We collectively create people in an imperfect way, and those imperfections produce beliefs and behaviours that are symptoms of our failures. This is why we show compassion to people whose lives have turned out poorly–because we as a society are collectively responsible for their condition and owe them our help. The right doesn’t think it owes marginalised people compassion because the right thinks the marginalised are to blame for their condition. This is a core difference between the left and the right. For the left, it takes a village to raise a child, and every person reflects on the character of the society from which they come. But over the last few decades, the left has increasingly gotten away from this. Today, many on the left only afford this compassion and understanding selectively, to people in designated marginalised groups. They forget that the systems and structures which produce marginalisation also afflict those who do the marginalising. And so increasingly they tell us that the specific individuals who work for the Trump administration–whether in ICE or in any other role–deserve retribution. In recent days, this has ranged from asking Trump employees to leave restaurants to doxxing ICE agents. But we also see it within the left, in its ever-increasing penchant for hurling accusations of individual moral failing at those within the church who sin–and to many left-wing eyes, we are all sinners.
It’s a problem with the way elements of the left understands oppression itself. Oppression is not something “oppressors” simply choose to do to “the oppressed”–“oppression” happens when oppressive ideas permeate a society through its educational and social institutions, infiltrating the minds of some people and causing those people to mistreat others. This is the sense in which oppression is “institutionalised”–the ideas which motivate oppressive behaviour are socially reproduced and spread, like a pathogen, from person to person through structures. Individuals–even those who commit the most heinous acts–are merely carriers.
If we take this understanding of human beings as socially constructed creatures seriously, we are forced to recognise that when someone does something racist or sexist or what have you, this person is as blameless as the homeless person on the street. Their actions are an expression of a deep, systematic problem. Even the Trump administration officials themselves are victims of these systems. Even Trump himself is a victim–he is a carrier of wrong perceptions and moral mistakes. Trump thinks that people can be divided into races with certain essential cultural characteristics. He thinks people can be divided neatly into two genders each of which possesses an essential and unchangeable nature. He thinks that those who are less successful than him choose failure and therefore deserve it. Each of these ideas pushes him to act in an oppressive manner–to subject various groups of people to mistreatment and to feel justified in doing so. Trump himself is morally lost in a sea of misconceptions. They are not of his own choosing–we as a society taught him these beliefs. The same goes for the people who zealously work for him and the people who support him.
It is therefore completely unjustifiable to make him and his followers suffer in any way except insofar as this suffering is absolutely necessary to prevent them from harming others. We are never justified in inflicting purely retributive punishments on other people. Just as we would seek to rehabilitate criminals, we should seek to rehabilitate those who are carriers of damaging theories and ideas. Most of the time, rehabilitating criminals works better when done with kindness and compassion. We frequently argue that our criminal justice system should be gentler, that it should focus more on promoting the kinds of conditions in which criminals can be morally healed instead of the kind of conditions that further damage them and leave them prone to reoffend. But this same courtesy is too rarely extended to the rich jerk, to the racist, to the sexist, and so on. We don’t focus on creating a discourse which offers compassionate moral healing to those who are lost. Instead, we want to attribute agency to these people, to blame them for the foul deeds they do. But when we give them agency, we give them too much credit and therefore too much blame–the people who harbour these ideas did not create them out of thin air. They did not invent them or even choose to embrace them. They simply picked them up from others. They made the same moral mistakes which many millions of people have made, again and again, because understanding this stuff is hard and because there are so many people out there ready and willing to offer simple, comforting, wrong explanations for social phenomena.
To some ears, this may sound like treating adults like children. But this is what the left is about–recognising the extent to which we are all, forever and always, like children. We are always influenced by the people and structures around us. We are always making mistakes, and we always need help from others to learn to be better people. Politics is so hard because in politics there are no adults who infallibly know what to do–the children run the playground, and every single one of us is among them. We don’t give up on helping children to become better people, and we shouldn’t give up on the big children we encounter in our political life, or on the child within ourselves.
Kindness and compassion are values of the left, and they lose their meaning when they are reserved only for those we deem worthy. Every person, no matter how lost, may yet find a way. Even Donald Trump, someday. So if you should meet a Trump supporter, or a Trump employee, or even Trump himself, show that person the compassionate understanding which is at the heart of everything we do. Show them the understanding which is borne of acknowledging that it is only by luck that we have had experiences which enable us to see truths which have for them become occluded by damaging and abusive experiences, both obvious and non-obvious in nature. There but for the grace of sociology go we–in their eyes we see a mirror of what, if things had gone just a bit differently, we would be. Love these people as you would wish to be loved, if ever you were so unlucky. And then go forth and fight to change the systems which made them what they are.