President-elect Joe Biden made national unity a centerpiece of his campaign, and no patriotic American who wants to repair the damage of the Donald Trump years can argue with such a noble call. The election is over, and we can now undertake the tasks Trump neglected, including fighting the coronavirus pandemic and restoring our alliances. But millions of Americans are not ready to declare that bygones are bygones and engage the loyal Trump supporters they might still find among their neighbors, friends, or families.
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They are not wrong to feel this way.
That may sound like a profoundly un-civic, even un-American, stance. After all, Democrats, independents, and what’s left of the last few sensible Republicans should not stop trying to solve problems together. To cease all political communication would not only be foolish, but our system of government does not allow it. Even in the minority, a party can help or hinder the process of governing.
Nonetheless, ordinary people worn out by the dramas and lies of the past four years have a right to refuse to take Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters seriously. To reject further debate with people whose views are completely incoherent is not only understandable, but sensible.
I am not talking about all 74 million people who voted for Trump. Some voters may well have supported Trump in both 2016 and 2020 with a sense of hesitancy, perhaps focused on a single issue, such as abortion, or because they were making a raw and self-interested calculation about taxes. Trump picked these voters up from Republican campaigns that came before him, and he will bequeath them to the Republican candidates who come after him. Some of these voters, as we learned this year, can be persuaded to reject candidates such as Trump.
Instead, I am talking about the people who are giving Trump their full-throated support to the very end, even as he mulls a military coup; the people who buy weird paintings of Trump crossing the Delaware, or who believe that Trump is an agent of Jesus Christ, or who think that Trump is fighting a blood-drinking ring of pedophiles. These supporters have gone far beyond political loyalty and have succumbed to a kind of mass delusion. It is not possible to engage them. Indeed, to argue with them is to legitimize their beliefs, which itself is unhealthy for our democracy.
I don’t want to treat our fellow citizens with open contempt, or to confront and berate them. Rather, I am arguing for silence. The Trump loyalists who still cling to conspiracy theories and who remain part of a cult of personality should be deprived of the attention they seek, shunned for their antidemocratic lunacy, and then outvoted at the ballot box.
If we’ve learned one thing about “Trumpism,” it is that there is no such thing as “Trumpism.” No content anchors it; no program or policy comes from it. No motivating ideology stands behind it, unless we think of general grievance and a hatred of cultural and intellectual elites as an “idea.” And when views are incoherent and beliefs are rooted in fantasies, compromise is impossible. Further engagement is not only unwarranted, but it can also become counterproductive.
This is why I see no point in a “national conversation” or in “reaching out,” or other euphemisms for attempts to better understand the movement that formed around Trump. We already understand: Trump tapped into traditions of ethnic and regional grievances and social resentments that are present in every democracy and wedded them to bizarre theories and conspiracies.
Perhaps most important, much of our own sense of well-being will be lost if we continue to engage with people who believe that millions of votes were falsified from coast to coast, that the military should move into the swing states and hold new elections, or even that thousands of Chinese troops were bombed into submission on the border of Maine.
Ordinary people should tune out the noise. No one needs to think one more minute about why a woman from New York would speed along in her car while ranting into her phone about stolen elections when she ought to have been watching the road. And the media have a particular obligation to end their fascination with these Trump voters. We don’t need yet another pilgrimage to diners and gas stations to hear from people whose only sources of information are cable-news hosts plumping fantasies about Venezuelan voting machines. We need not ruminate on the evangelical writer who thinks we must pray for the crackpot lawyer Sidney Powell. And journalists should stop providing media oxygen to would-be heroes such as the Texas mayor who said that if Trump called on him to take up arms, he’d engage in civil war.
The only people who need to engage such voters are political strategists, because enough of these voters in the right states can drive the Electoral College into a ditch. But the rest of us no longer need to participate in long chin-pulling exercises about “what they really want” or why they cannot grasp reality.
We must go on as a nation, and as families. Of course you still love your uncle, even if he is bellowing about stolen elections at Christmas dinner, just as you love your sister-in-law even while she’s trying to ruin a wedding reception by holding forth on socialist saboteurs. But neither they nor the millions of other diehards deserve our engagement. The sooner we refuse to continue such conversations, the sooner we might return to being a serious nation.