Wissot: How Texas changed my perspective on Trump supporters (column)
I saw the same images you did: Torrential rains turning streets into rivers, people scrambling onto rooftops for safety, helicopters lowering baskets into lakes that once were land to rescue men, women and children trapped in the swirling waters.
But more than anything else, I was mesmerized by the thousands of volunteers wading through hip-deep water, pulling small boats carrying children and adults out of harm’s way, risking their own safety to come to the aid of neighbors and strangers alike.
These were Texans helping fellow Texans and not waiting for local, state and federal agencies to save them. Texans giving of themselves, not for profit or gain and often at the cost of ignoring their own homes and families. They weren’t counting on FEMA, the National Guard, the Coast Guard or any of the other branches of the armed services to help them do what they were perfectly capable of doing for themselves.
Maybe you also noticed, as I did, that the people in the boats were black while the men pulling the boats were white. Perhaps you, like me, were also taken with the image of the black sheriff’s officer gently cradling the two small white children and carrying them from their water-ravaged home.
The more you looked, the more you realized that the traditional divisions of race and class had very little to do with who got rescued and who did the rescuing. The volunteers were totally indifferent to the religions, political affiliations or positions on abortion and gun control of those needing their help.
Then this realization hit me full force. The black people in the boat, I speculated, were more likely than not Hillary Clinton voters in the past election, and probably Obama supporters in the two prior presidential elections. The white men pulling the boats, given the political leanings of a red state like Texas, I further speculated, were Trump voters. These white men may even have been who Clinton was referring to when she said many of Trump’s supporters belonged in a “basket of deplorables.”
I could feel the tension mounting in my brain. Like many liberals, I held a rather low opinion of Trump’s most rabid fans. They were, after all, largely responsible for why one of the most unqualified presidents in American history now resides in the White House.
How could I reconcile the fact that these obvious heroes, men and women who had given so generously of their time, who were blind to the backgrounds of the people they were rescuing, could also be so naive and gullible to allow themselves to be hoodwinked by a charlatan, fraud, con man, liar and hypocrite like Donald Trump?
Psychologists use the theory of cognitive dissonance to describe a dilemma faced by people confronted with conflicting thoughts, beliefs and feelings that are irreconcilable. Leon Festinger’s landmark work, “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance,” explains this quite well.
A good example would be a loving father who strongly disapproves of homosexuality finding out that his son is gay. He is faced with the challenge of either modifying his feelings toward homosexuality or rejecting his son because of his sexual orientation. He can’t accept his son as he is without accepting his son’s sexual orientation, too.
I was experiencing my own cognitive dissonance moment. How could I admire the men and women who behaved so heroically in Houston, Beaumont and Port Arthur and still despise them for the fact that they voted to inflict Trump upon us?
I decided my admiration for their laudatory behavior mattered more to me than did their loyalty to Trump. Softening my feelings for them also caused me to drop my rigid assumptions for why they voted for Trump. Thinking of them as stupid racists who couldn’t overcome their own innate prejudices and stupidity would no longer suffice for me. Stupid racists don’t stand in waist-deep water pulling boats filled with black people whom they have never met.
A less simplistic explanation for why they voted for Trump was required, one that demanded I look at their motives in ways that I had never considered. So began a more nuanced examination of the 2016 election. I stopped thinking about why voters voted for Trump and asked myself this question: Why hadn’t they voted for Clinton?
She had lost a presidential nomination to a younger and more charismatic candidate in 2008 and was fiercely challenged for her party’s nomination in 2016 by an older and more charismatic candidate. Even the most ardent of Trump haters couldn’t deny that he was much more charismatic than Clinton. Her message of economic relief for white working-class voters was long on detail and short on enthusiasm. She was a weak messenger with a weak message.
Trump in his inimitable Trumpian manner made outrageous promises for what he would do for the white working class that he could never possibly keep. But his outlandishness offered hope to millions yearning for their own economic recovery. Clinton was hopeless in her attempt to give them hope. Trump was like Santa Claus promising toys to good little boys and girls that they knew he couldn’t deliver.
Clinton didn’t even bother to offer them any toys. She seemed more invested in Wall Street than Main Street. Trump the uber populist took the opposite tact and made voters feel he was more in touch with them than the financiers. In the battle between a listless millionaire and a charismatic billionaire, enough voters favored the billionaire. It was just enough to give him an Electoral College victory.
It’s easy to ascribe motives to our political opponents. It’s much harder to question whether those motives are actually true. I know from experience what that is like. I remain culturally and politically different from those brave Texas volunteers who made Texas and the rest of the country proud. We are products of different parents, customs and values. We don’t enjoy the same music, food, dress or sports. We come from different social classes, different education backgrounds, different religions and most definitely different political beliefs. I’m sure that if I had been raised along the Texas-Louisiana gulf coast I might have joined the Cajun Navy. At least I hope I would have.
But I was raised in the dense denizens of New York City. My experience with water involves swimming pools. If I had been stranded when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, then I probably would have been among the rescued and not the rescuers. All the more reason to admire those selfless souls who accomplished what I wouldn’t have.
Even if they voted for Trump. Yes, even if they voted for Trump.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Write a column
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