This election shows us why we need to meet our neighbors: that’s how we begin to love them.
Several months ago, a colleague of mine was driving home, his children in the back seat, when he came upon a traffic jam caused by a Trump rally. As he inched the car between rows of Trump supporters, someone threw a piece of trash at his windshield and shouted a racial slur. A few minutes later, someone else screamed that he should go back to Syria. “I didn’t know how to explain this to my girls,” he told me.
Donald J. Trump’s road to the presidency has given a public platform to forms of intolerance and violence that many of us hoped had been left behind. He is not so much cause as catalyst of these deep ills, which amount to a hatred of the “other” cast in a warped patriotism. Mr. Trump’s election further validates those voices to which his campaign gave a platform, and it risks cementing this rhetoric and its fallout as acceptable.
Scrolling through social media feeds, I see friends—mostly Hillary supporters, but not all—horrified that voters decided the United States is a place where the “other” is unwelcome. In what has become a despairing litany, their Facebook posts express grief and anger at Mr. Trump’s racism, misogyny and general inexperience that voters overlooked in selecting him. One friend wrote, “So completely disgusted not only by the racist, homophobic, sexist and xenophobic attitude of the person who will be our next president but even more so that so many people also hold those same views.” Another posted, “I am embarrassed for my country and embarrassed that so many Americans fell for the greatest con in U.S. history.”
The political left is ashamed to share the same homeland, let alone neighborhood, with Trump voters. In response, they resolve to protect those made vulnerable by a Trump presidency. They vow support for racial and religious minorities and victims of sexual violence.
Rolling up our sleeves for the least among us is at the heart of Catholic social teaching. If we are not yet exercising a preferential option for those made vulnerable by a Trump presidency, we must absolutely do so now. If we voted for Trump, our responsibility is even greater.
Yet we must recognize that many Trump voters do not fit, or even endorse, the categories laid out for them. It’s necessary to ask the hard question, “What moves them?” This is the work of solidarity, which recognizes our common humanity in Christ in spite of every kind of difference. Solidarity is bound to the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. It must be, since both are rooted in love of neighbor.
In the case of President-elect Trump, solidarity means seeking to know the undesirable neighbor, and this search will certainly end in a mea culpa. In particular, we must be open to acknowledging that Mr. Trump’s election delivered a condemnation of the intellectual and cultural elitism that has incensed many voters.This attitude is at the core of what The Washington Post called the election’s “loud repudiation of the status quo.”We cannot ignore this elitism in ourselves, and must conduct a deep self-examination to correct it.
Intellectual elitism contents itself with dismissing beliefs without unpacking them. One example is the assumption that traditional views on marriage, sexuality and life are so outdated and irrelevant that they do not deserve engaging. Socio-cultural elitism manifests itself in the term “flyover states,” in classist jabs that pass as jokes and in conclusions we draw about Associated Press photos of people at Trump rallies. Most of all, elitism asserts that those who think differently have nothing to contribute to the development of the society, and they are better off if enlightened progressives decide what is good for society, at least until they get on board. We need to call this elitism what it is: a failure of charity, that much like the worst of the Trump campaign, communicates that the “other” is unwelcome and undesirable.
Recognizing and eradicating this elitism is part of the difficult work of solidarity. We must rend our hearts. We have to put away the Notorious RBG tee-shirts, delete the smug selfies with our ballots and curb the snide remarks about the conservative lifestyle. It is time to ask whether our refusal to hear those who express reservations about the progressive vision is an expression of an intolerance as blind as the one we reject in others. We need to retrieve the proper definition of bigot; it does not apply to someone who has hopes for society that differ from our own, but to one who refuses to tolerate the existence of differing hopes at all.
We must replace these failures of love with the understanding that half of Americans espouse political concerns that differ greatly from the ones progressives embrace. We must recognize that while some Trump voters really are terrible people, most are good people with good reasons for their values, people who are sick of being told their voices do not matter because they hum church hymns and eat at Red Lobster.
Joining the work of solidarity with the work of the preferential option is critical for people of faith. It is what people of faith can offer to a wounded country. There are some neighbors that we love, and others we do not know. It is time to meet those neighbors. And maybe love them.
Jane Sloan Peters is a second year doctoral student in historical theology at Marquette University.