Recently, at a protest against the separating of immigrant children from their parents, I was interviewed by a local news station. The woman asked me a few questions, but one of them stuck with me.
“And what do you think of the people that defend this practice? Why would they support this? Do you think they’re inhuman?”
I could see in her eyes that she felt almost like she was putting words in my mouth, like she saw how upset I was by this, and by how many in my own community support it, and that she was just leading me towards expressing what I was already thinking.
But something in my mind rebelled at that moment. No, no, they weren’t inhuman. In fact, the very question revealed so much of how we misunderstand the way people think and how they justify evil, especially their complicity in it.
After all, if you went up to any of these people on the street a year ago and asked them if they’d ever find a way to justify indiscriminately taking children from their parents, and putting them in centers where they were drugged and mistreated, they’d gasp in horror that we even asked.
Are the 60 percent of Republicans who, then, suddenly support the president’s inhuman policy inhuman themselves?
I don’t think so, and I think the evidence is staring us in the face. And it’s one that we tend to be dismissive of it because it’s so seemingly ridiculous for those of us on the outside of it.
What happens whenever the president says something horrible, or when he enacts something horrible, or when his administration does something that only a few years ago would have been considered unimaginable?
At first, there is usually a silence from the right. As if they are trying to collectively wrap their minds around what is happening. And then the media onslaught happens. The talking heads, from the administration’s own skilled liars to the talking heads on FOX to the extreme conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones.
Suddenly, it seems like people on the ground on the right have an explanation for it all. No, what Donald Trump said about grabbing women on that tape wasn’t the words of a sick mind that had just confirmed what scores of women said he did beforehand. It was “locker room talk.” No, it’s obviously not a Muslim ban, since Trump targeted specific countries, even though he spoke about it throughout his campaign and into his presidency as a ban against all Muslims.
And no, Trump and his administration weren’t responsible for tearing children from families. It was the immigrants’ fault for bringing their children (even though many were seeking asylum, and crossing the border is a misdemeanor, not a violent crime). It was Obama who had started this all. Didn’t you see those images from 2014? Even though Obama’s policy was specifically not about doing this to every single immigrant who tried to cross our border. Oh, and did you know those children are being treated better than they were in their home countries (which both isn’t true and doesn’t change the fact that these children are being taken from their parents)?
And today, as Trump commits treason on the international stage for all to see (this is not just my accusation, it is that of the former CIA Director John O. Brennan), people will still parrot the words of the president that this is all just a “witch hunt.” Never mind that one doesn’t need to believe a word of the collusion accusations to see that Trump has openly sided with Russia in what every person in the intelligence community agrees on: we have been attacked by a foreign adversary.
Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???
— John O. Brennan (@JohnBrennan) July 16, 2018
And this is how it goes, ‘round and ‘round like we’re on a ferris wheel with no exit. People believing the most insane ideas, or simply quieting themselves as they try and “stay out of it” and grumble why “both sides” can’t get along.
Either way, no matter what, there seems to be an exit ramp, a way to escape the logic of what is happening in our country, the inhumanity of it all, and the very real possibility that we are losing the system of democracy that we supposedly all love and cherish.
It all seems crazy, all seems upside-down and beyond understanding and, most of all, absolutely and painfully intolerable. To see people turn themselves into pretzels for two years now to explain this man’s horrific effect on our country has been a constant exercise in disappointment, because with each backwards and illogical explanation we hear, we lose that much more faith in our fellow human beings. People whom we once hoped would have some sort of breaking point, a “bottom” as it were, but who instead seem to have a ravenous appetite for more and more insane theories to explain what’s happening. How much moreso when they are our good friends, or our communities, or our families.
So, then, back to the question the woman asked me. Are these people inhuman? Are they evil?
It certainly seems like it. Who in their right minds would dare say that conditions are better for children when they’ve been separated from their parents? This is the logic that leads to very scary results for vulnerable populations. It’s the road the most despotic and evil nations use to justify their crimes. And it’s only one talking point of so many.
I feel like many of my friends who care deeply about “healing the divisions” of both sides will look at such people and try to see the good. They’ll point out how so many of these people really are good. They are family people, they are people just trying to live their lives who have gotten caught up in a narrative. After all, how many people actually pay that much attention to politics, they ask? And at the end of the day, if we can’t see the humanity in others, how will we ever “heal the divisions” in our nation?
Not good enough, I and others have said repeatedly. One doesn’t need to read the news every day to know what this president has been accused of. And someone being good to their families does not mean a thing about how they’ll treat those who aren’t their family (or race or ethnicity or religion). This is especially true since Trump’s very appeal is to that of nationalism: treating those in the United States (especially those of a particular skin color and gender) as the highest priority. His very arguments come close to the “but it’s good for your family!” point of view. We’re capturing gang members, not innocent families with innocent children, he argues, and soon his gang of talking heads run with this and imply things like these children will one day grow up to be gang members.
Over and over, this argument that people are good just because they care about the people around them, or because of their ignorance, is thrown around like a shield by those who feel caught in the middle, as if they’re desperately trying to hide from the fact that their friends and family may actually be committing great evil and even with evil intentions. It is perhaps this fear of theirs that makes their arguments seem so empty and vacuous, and only “deep” and “humane” to others who are scared of acknowledging the evils all around them.
But as I stood there with the woman looking at me, and her asking me the same question, and knowing that she wanted me to agree with her, I felt something in me revolt.
No, it was too simple. It was just as simple as the “ignorance” and “family people” arguments to call them evil, inhumane monsters. It would fit into a narrative, perhaps, but it wouldn’t explain what’s happening.
Why, if these people are evil and inhumane, are they coming up with so many insane arguments? Why are they constantly waiting for the talking heads to feed them with the arguments they need to make, and why are they repeating those arguments without so much as a moment of analysis?
It would be far easier not to become logical and moral pretzels. They could just say, “I don’t care about brown people or people seeking asylum, so I am okay with children being separated from their parents.”
Or: “I’m happy my president commits treason on a daily level when he sides with Russia over our intelligence agencies.”
Or: “Muslims deserve to be cut out of our country because I don’t consider them as human as me.” (Okay, some do basically say this).
But they don’t. Instead, they seem to be playing a constant game. This foolishness, this stupidity, of trying to find any explanation possible to justify the evil they’ve done.
After all, there was once a time when many of these same people were willing to call out Trump. They existed in droves during the Republican primaries. No one thought he’d win the nomination, so it was easy to lambast him. In fact, the vast majority of Republicans voted against him in the primaries, but their votes were so divided because of so many other challengers that they inevitably lost to the plurality of the minority.
It took a few steps into the world of backwards-thinking for them to start changing their tune. Once it looked like Trump would become the Republican nominee, we started to hear it. The faint whispering that suddenly, quickly turned into a battle cry: “But her emails!”
That was the first insane, backwards talking point that got thrown at us. As if any of the evils of Hillary and the Democrats came close to a man who was openly campaigning to dismantle our democracy.
It justified every vote for this traitor, for this bigot, for this near-comic-book-level villain.
Even then, we could feel it. That feeling of backwardness. Of living in a world where up is down, black is white, good is evil. And it was this, this, that ate at us more than anything. Eats at us.
But it was in this moment, and all the others, of insanity, of backwards thinking, that flashed in my mind as my mind rebelled against her question.
Finally, without even knowing what would be coming out of my mouth, I said, “No. They aren’t inhuman. They’re afraid of just how inhuman what they’re doing is. And that’s why they come up with so many backwards and illogical explanations that fly in the face of reality. They’re desperately holding onto their humanity. And worse, with each desperate grasp, they have to buy into the backwards narrative.”
And there it was. The answer.
It’s that people are doing evil, but are desperately afraid of admitting it.
Imagine it: you’ve been accused of complicity in helping a traitor become president. Complicity in ripping children from their parents. Complicity in racism, xenophobia, and so much more. And not just complicity: if one voted for Trump, it enters the territory of responsibility. Responsibility for treason, family separation, and bigotry.
In other words, these are things such people agree are bad, at least in theory. And so, they will do anything to deny their responsibility.
Is it any wonder, then, that we hear so much about liberals being “hysterical?” My gosh, if they had to face the evil they’ve been party to, Trump supporters would break down into actual hysterics. Because their moral compass would finally be facing north again, instead of where the compass has been repainted to say north.
And that is why each step in the direction of Trump’s lies takes these people deeper. Because each time they buy into a lie, they become further responsible for every lie before it.
Which is, of course, exactly what has happened to our Republican leadership, except in a much more practical way: every defense they make of Trump has made them further complicit in his evil and thus responsible if he goes down, and thus they have more at stake in making sure he stays in power with every evil act he does in their name.
This may seem like a dark way of looking at it, but I see a glimmer of light.
These people are not inhuman or evil. They are lost in a web of lies that has become more real than reality. But their morality is still there. Their desire to not separate families or be bigots or support treason remains intact. For now (for the more they go down this road, the more that even these desires will start to erode as well, since that is just how all these disinformation campaigns work).
And so, this is our opening. This is our spiritual access point: the desire to be good that exists in almost all people.
In the short term, of course, none of this makes much of a difference in terms of the actual evils being committed, which is why the arguments of people who say things like “ignorance!” and “families!” sound so damn empty. Because they are empty.
The reality is that people are not ignorant. They know just how evil what they are accused of doing is. They are willfully ignorant, spending more energy trying to explain away their evil than to face it. Which is much worse, and still incredibly painful to watch. But they aren’t just good people who are misguided: they have chosen their misguidance. And they choose it every day. They are actively ignorant.
And so none of this vision into the goodness of these people detracts from the responsibility on their shoulders. Just the opposite. Their goodness, in some ways, makes them more responsible. Not evil, but responsible.
At least now, though, we have a framework for understanding those with whom we feel so disconnected. An understanding that can both allow us to feel a sense of calm when facing it and a strategy for combatting it.
Now we can understand why just giving the facts is not enough: they have chosen, willfully, to discard the facts. No facts will ever be enough. All we can do, instead, is to repeatedly appeal to their morality, and perhaps, to find ways to ease the transition that will come with the pain of realizing the responsibility they have for the evils they’re responsible for aiding.
But these are only the beginnings of a strategy. First we must agree on this reality: Trump supporters are not evil, but they are responsible. And from there, we can see the light in them.
Because once the light has been found, anything is possible.