Wajahat Ali on reaching out to Trumpers: "White supremacy is a terrible drug"

Trump's core supporters have been "radicalized" against democracy, says Ali. Winning them back is a lost cause

By Chauncey DeVega
December 7, 2020 12:00PM (UTC)
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Supporters cheer as US President Donald Trump gestures after speaking during a rally to support Republican Senate candidates at Valdosta Regional Airport in Valdosta, Georgia on December 5, 2020. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Joe Biden is a devout Catholic. His deep faith has helped him to endure several life tragedies, including the loss of his wife and infant daughter in a car accident as well as his adult son Beau's death from brain cancer. As shown through both his private and public behavior, Joe Biden is a fundamentally decent human being. At some point in his life, Biden likely internalized the Bible's directive that a person should love their enemies.

Such wisdom may help a person live a better life. Unfortunately, that same wisdom can make for bad politics.

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Biden won the 2020 presidential election with 80 million votes, the largest total for any presidential candidate in U.S. history. He defeated Donald Trump by almost 7 million votes. The American people spoke at the ballot box and gave Biden a clear mandate to lead the country out of the Age of Trump and the coronavirus pandemic.

But Trump and his followers do not care for such quaint notions of democracy. The only votes that "count," according to Trump's neofascist movement, are his supporters' votes for him. Democracy — especially multiracial democracy — is deemed illegitimate if Trump or other white Republicans and right-wing extremists are not in power.

In response to Biden's victory, Donald Trump has launched a coup attempt, effectively a range of attacks against the rule of law and the country's other democratic norms. This ongoing plot involves far-fetched lawsuits (all of which have failed), "burrowing in" loyalists into key national security and other government positions to sabotage the Biden administration, causing more harm to the economy, worsening the coronavirus pandemic and destabilizing strategic areas of the world.

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Trump and his spokespeople have already convinced a large majority of Republican voters believe that Joe Biden "stole" the election through "fraud," and that the "deep state" and other nebulous forces are conspiring against them and their Great Leader. Trump's representatives are continuing to encourage violence against public officials deemed "disloyal" or "treasonous" simply because they confirmed that Biden in fact won the 2020 election.

In what has been described as one of the most dangerous, delusional, and lie-filled speeches by an American president in the country's history, last Wednesday Donald Trump posted a video to Facebook aimed at continuing to rally his supporters behind his coup.

As he has done many times during his presidency, Trump is abusing the office of the president and its inherent power by engaging in acts of stochastic terrorism. When the political violence occurs, as it almost inevitably will, Trump and his sycophants will deny any responsibility for the resulting carnage and mayhem.

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Too many pundits and other political observers believe that Trump's coup has "failed" and that he is a "clown" who should be ignored and not taken seriously. Such a conclusion is a failure of political analysis and imagination: It confuses the Republican Party and the right wing's long-term strategic plan to delegitimize multiracial democracy with what the Trump regime and its allies are doing in the immediate present.

The narrative that Donald Trump's coup attempt is a failure functions as a happy pill, to distract an exhausted (and politically unsophisticated) public from the damage already done to the America's political culture by Trump's authoritarian shattering of democratic norms.

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One cannot ignore how Donald Trump's underlying mental pathologies are connected to his aberrant political behavior. Like other authoritarian strongmen, Donald Trump is incapable of admitting or believing that he has been defeated in a fair election. Moreover, Trump's mental pathologies make him uniquely qualified as an agent of destruction against American democracy.

In a new interview with Vice News, Donald Trump's niece, Mary Trump, who is a clinical psychologist, echoes such concerns, warning: "If Donald feels rejected by the American people, he's not going to distinguish people who voted for him from people who didn't. … He's going to take all of us down with him."

Biden and his spokespeople continue to encourage his voters and other good Americans to "reach out to" Trump's tens of millions of human deplorables in the interests of healing and unity. But this is a group of people that social scientists and other researchers have repeatedly shown to be motivated by racism, white supremacy, nativism, misogyny, authoritarian beliefs, conspiratorial thinking, anti-intellectualism and other antisocial and anti-democratic traits. 

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Biden's magnanimity is an admirable quality. Trump and his supporters have not shown themselves worthy of such kindness. While many of progressives and liberals have rejected Biden's suggestion to make peace with Trumpists, there are others who have taken up the burden.

For several years, author and attorney Wajahat Ali has been speaking with Donald Trump's voters and trying to find common ground with them as Americans. Out of this experience has come Ali's recent New York Times essay, "'Reach Out to Trump Supporters,' They Said. I Tried." His essays and other writing have appeared in the Atlantic, the Guardian, the New York Review of Books and the Washington Post. 

I recently spoke to Ali about what he learned from his efforts to find common ground and understanding with Trump's supporters. In our conversation, he also reflected on what the 2020 election does or does not signal about the enduring power of white supremacy and Trumpism in America. He also discussed why even after Joe Biden's clear victory, the mainstream news media is still obsessed with the "white working class" and its "pain" and "disappointment," while largely ignoring the diverse coalition of Americans, many of them nonwhite, who elevated Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to the White House.

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You can also listen to my conversation with Wajahat Ali on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Joe Biden won a landslide victory in terms of votes. Donald Trump and his supporters are still resisting. The pandemic is still raging. How are you feeling and managing your emotions?

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I feel happy. As I've told people, experiencing joy is necessary, even if it's temporary. For many of us we felt like we were being choked, figuratively — and, for some people, literally — during the Trump administration. He became president being fueled by hate. Eighty million Americans came out during a pandemic to vote Trump out. Biden won by what looks to be 7 million votes. I have never seen such a spontaneous display of joy on the streets of New York and literally all around the world. It reminded me of the videos I saw at the end of World War II. We, especially people of color, and other people who have been marginalized need these moments. To acknowledge and celebrate the moment does not mean we put our head in the sand and think that the work does not need to continue.

But I think for the moment it is necessary for our mental and spiritual health to at exhale and realize that enough people in this country were saying, "Get rid of this man!" But at the same time, you are confronted with the reality that 74 million people saw four years of chaos and said, "Donald Trump, that's my guy." Trump got many more votes than he did last time. We have to reconcile both outcomes together.

I view the 2020 election as a referendum on white supremacy — and white supremacy won. It was not rebuffed. It was not rejected. Trump is more popular now than he was before. How do you reconcile Biden's victory with Trump and white supremacy's popularity?

I am wired to be a pragmatic optimist and I also try to observe reality as it is. Enough people came out to vote, even with the structural disadvantages and active efforts to sabotage a democracy. The coup failed not because they didn't try but because they were incompetent. There were just enough guardrails. I take all that into account.

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Your observation is also true that white supremacy is very resilient in this country. We are also dealing with a disinformation system that has radicalized far more people than most are willing to acknowledge or admit. But at the same time I think, thank God at least enough people came out, despite these challenges, to at least vote this guy out, and to flip five states, and to win by at least twice as many votes as Clinton won by.

It's like measured hope. I take joy and hope in the small victories, while at the same time acknowledging everything you have said.

I am deeply concerned that many white brothers and sisters have been insulated from the day-to-day lived consequences and impact of Trumpism and its war on nonwhite people. Our suffering is an abstraction for many white folks. I fear that many white people who mobilized to vote against Trump will now withdraw, because with Biden they think everything is now back to "normal."

Moreover, the majority of Americans have still not grappled with the reality of American fascism in the form of Trumpism. They think the 2020 election was the war and victory has been won, when in reality it is just a battle in a very long fight. The empire always strikes back. When tens of millions of Trump voters and the obstructionist Republican Party rise up against Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, many Americans, white Americans in particular, are not going to be ready.  

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Your analogy is astute. We've won the battle, we have not won the war. That's my long-term thinking as well. This is the death rattle of white supremacy, one that has become a global death march. They were playing for all the marbles. Many of us were called hysterical and radical and crazy. I tried to warn the public that the Republican Party will further radicalize and weaponize. I do not see any path towards moderation right now. I want to be proven wrong — to this point I have not been.

This was a victory. It was a big battle that we won because Trump will no longer be president. He will not be afforded the protection of the presidency. However, Trumpism, which is the inevitable consequence of 50 years of the Southern strategy and 400 years of white supremacy in America, is not an aberration. We will not win them over. But maybe we can build a multicultural coalition where we all progress towards the future.

Why have you spent so much time trying to reach out to Trump's voters? 

I am a Muslim. Islam says you respond in a better way. I am looking at a long-term game. I know that if you are a person of color, if you're Black, if you're Muslim, if you're brown, if you're poor, you have to overcome structural disadvantages in this country. Whiteness is its own tribe. I know that the game is rigged against us and I have to go meet these people and not just tell my story. Basically what I'm trying to do is convince them I'm a human being worthy of respect.

They want us to understand Trump voters and their pain and frustration, whereas we literally have to prove our existence. I thought if I can win over some folks, if I can listen to them, if I can maybe help a few of them realize that white supremacy is a terrible drug that is going to destroy them — that it is not going to make them great again, that Trumpism is going to devastate them — then perhaps I could help to make some positive change.

When has America ever been considerate of Black and brown people's feelings?

It is their job and America's job now to reach out to the 80 million people who braved a pandemic and ask us about our anxieties during the last four years. But this is white supremacy. This is an ideology and a paradigm that centers white lives, white tears, white pain, white victimhood and white narratives above all else. It is such a destructive and wild drug that even when they are the oppressor, they are somehow the victims. It is so absurd that those who are victimized by such oppression are then asked to heal them, redeem them and make them feel better.

Biden won with a multiracial coalition of voters. Trump was repudiated. Why do you think so many of the mainstream news media are still addicted to going out to Trumplandia, talking to "white working class" people and centering their feelings in the political narrative?

Whiteness dominates the gatekeepers. The New York Times did a review of the most influential people in America and 91% are white. Those ideological-cultural filters blind people to their biases. We are told that we must understand the pain and grievance of those who supported a man in the form of Donald Trump who wants to ban me because I am Muslim. No one has investigated why my community has "economic anxiety."

Whiteness is the direct operating system of America. When you center everything around whiteness and white tears and white fragility, it is the whole business model as well. Their default is "both sides." How do you convince a country that the GOP is now an extreme counter-majoritarian party that is hostile to democracy and is mainstreaming white nationalism? The real answer here is we have to acknowledge the reality and threat of white supremacy and racism. The reason why the United States refuses to do it is that the second that reality is acknowledged, the myths and propaganda of meritocracy are shattered. It makes people realize that the system is unfair. Ultimately, it forces people to confront their role in upholding and or resisting the system of oppression.

You spent several years traveling around the country trying to reach out to Trump voters. Was there a moment when you said to yourself, "I can't reach these people. I'm done"?

I realized, OK, I had good faith and I don't knock myself for it. But I'm now going to invest that in helping the majority become stronger, to add more numbers to our ranks, which I think Democrats can do. To help craft policies that will help all Americans, despite all their cruelty and their conspiracy theories and their racism. To this day, do you know what I want for Trump voters? Affordable health care, a living wage, a good paying job, Social Security, good infrastructure, high-speed internet and success for their families. And what do they need from me? To suffer. That is the difference between us. I will move forward to a better future for all Americans, and if they want to catch up to the rest of us then we are here waiting for them. I cannot help someone who refuses to help themselves.

What if Joe Biden asked you to lead an outreach program to help reunify the country? What advice would you give him?

Sometimes the president's job is to lead the country forward. I would tell Biden that you can have a Lyndon B. Johnson or FDR moment where you can usher in and create a new society. But Trump's followers will never be into you. They won't like you. I'm glad that you have not dehumanized them. I'm glad you see them as Americans, but they have been radicalized against you. Joe Biden, be very proactive in your progressive policies. Through your policies you can help your fellow Americans, be transparent, bring back decency and openness to the White House, reform corruption, and help this country move forward.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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