I recently wrote a short blog post on TheRoot.com. It highlighted reporting by USA Today about the Trump administration’s decision to increase deportations to Mauritania, a country known for black slavery in the 21st century. I alluded to the absurdity of the Kanye West-Donald Trump alliance but included this context:
“Immigration policies and practices are never easy, and even administrations with the best of intentions have done things for which this country should be ashamed, including the Obama administration. We should never forget that, and it should be top of mind when we vote in November, in 2020, and beyond.
“But the Trump administration—led by a man who has repeatedly demeaned non-white immigrants—has taken things to all-new-lows. He’s trying to curtail legal immigration by the millions in order to slow down demographic changes that are projected to transform the U.S. into a majority-minority nation. He’s trying to break the will of undocumented immigrants who show up on our southern border by essentially stealing their children, many of whom are unlikely to ever be returned to their parents. Now Donald Trump, Kanye West’s hero, is ramping up the deportation of black men and women to a country [the administration] knows traffics in black slavery. Apparently, Kanye and others might be OK with such a move because, after all, slavery is a choice. Right?”
After I linked the post to Facebook, this was the first comment from a man I know well: “Deporting illegal immigrants. Say it ain’t so.”
Yes. A white evangelical, pro-life Christian, upon learning that people were being sent back to face literal slavery and other kinds of abuse because of a Trump administration policy, responded with snark about “illegal” immigrants. I didn’t choose that comment because his view is an anomaly—but because it is representative of what I hear, in a county that gave Trump 67 percent of the vote in November 2016, on a daily basis.
The man who wrote that comment has strong military roots. He has a wife and two beautiful daughters who are good friends with my kids. We’ve visited them several times and have broken bread with them in their home and in their backyard; they’ve done the same at our house. We’ve prayed for them during tough moments and medical scares. They’ve done the same for us. Despite our political and other viewpoint differences, they would help me in a pinch even today, and they know I’d do the same for them.
I know they are good people. That’s why I know being good often doesn’t mean much during times like these, when empathy is in short supply and the meanness and ugliness emanating from the White House has colored everything. That’s why I know reporters who are overly concerned about reminding everyone that these are good people could be falling into the trap a writer for Rolling Stone did a few years ago when she wrote a now-infamous story about gang rape at the University of Virginia that turned out to be little more than a hoax conjured up in the imagination of a disturbed young woman.
The reporter didn’t do her due diligence, in part, because she empathized too much with the alleged victim and allowed that to blind her to basic journalistic principles. She didn’t contact the alleged victim’s friends, who could verify or rebut what was being claimed, and did not try to get in touch with the accused, at the request of the alleged victim. She didn’t think through all of the possibilities, including that maybe the alleged victim was no victim at all.
I suspect that’s why so many journalists are struggling with how to categorize or label the Trump voters who are impervious to facts they don’t want to believe, embrace conspiracies, and are willing to say and do ugly things to support the president. We know they are more than their worst moments and instincts—but neither are they only the good things they do. They are both, good and bad.
It’s right to remind journalists that we shouldn’t demean or dismiss Trump supporters, or anyone. That doesn’t mean we should protect them from their words and deeds.
Implicit in the reflex to shield Trump voters from the consequences of the decisions they repeatedly make, though, is an instinct we’ve seen manifest itself throughout journalism since Trump was elected, a tendency to overly empathize with Trump supporters, leaving little room for discussing how Trump supporters are hurting those we often don’t empathize with enough.