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Never Underestimate The Power Of Saying 'I Like You Just The Way You Are'

Supporters of US President Donald Trump wait to see him to leave Trump National Golf Club on November 22, 2020 in Sterling, Virginia. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Supporters of US President Donald Trump wait to see him to leave Trump National Golf Club on November 22, 2020 in Sterling, Virginia. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

There is no shortage of thoughts about President Donald Trump’s supporters. Comments abound. They are “ignorant,” “immoral,” “climate change deniers,” “racists,” “misogynists,” “religious fanatics,” “deplorables,” and on and on.

Much of what is being said is silly. Or worse, it groups 74 million people into one big polluting lump of coal, making the behavior of the most extreme represent everyone. We “blue” folks can be pretty “othering” when we set ourselves to it, and we are good at the quiet sneer. We’re enlightened — they’re the unwashed masses. We get structural racism, climate change, gun control, science, and the real price of wealth inequality — they don’t. We’re good. They’re bad.

Wouldn’t it be nice to think so. I’ve worked for decades as a psychotherapist, and I am reminded each day what a mistake it is to assume that rational thought has the upper hand over our unconscious minds. However different our ideas about government, I believe the polarization and intense anger Red and Blue folks share springs from the unconscious wish each person possesses to feel that they are good enough just as they are.

In fact, were I to wager one vast generalization about many of the more fervent Trump voters, it would be that they experience him as their Mr. Rogers. You know, the man who so repeatedly and convincingly said, “I like you just the way you are.”

I understand that these two men seem like polar opposites, but it’s exactly that gulf that makes the comparison true. Trump is the anti-Rogers who likes his followers just the way they are.

Trump is completely unapologetic about every single aspect of his being: what he says, what he does, how often he lies, what he eats, how he cheats, who he hurts … and on and on. And so they can be completely unapologetic, too.

Trump's supporters adore him because by insisting that a broad range of human behaviors are acceptable, he makes them feel understood, and not ashamed.

While humans have a capacity for love and for compassion, we have a whole host of not so pretty traits, too — violence, greed, selfishness, cruelty – and this president isn’t having anything to do with the thick frosting of respectability that attempts to make the human cake all shiny and sweet.

He knows ugly, and he says ugly is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s just part of who we are. In turn, Trump's supporters adore him because by insisting that a broad range of human behaviors are acceptable, he makes them feel understood, and not ashamed. They feel that he spares them their dignity (even if, in others' view, he's shredding every bit of decency, and deeply harming society).

That notion can be a huge relief. Especially to people who are being pushed to change in ways that seem abstract — and mostly just make them feel bad about themselves and misunderstood, and like they’re being chastised, told they’re bad and that their sacrifices are meaningless.

When I think of the small, rural towns I grew up in, in Oregon and then in Vermont, normal meant occasionally enjoying being mean; making fun of peoples’ differences, forming cliques, bullying. We sometimes called each other ugly names, we told awful sexist and “ethnic” jokes. As girls, we all knew we were “less than.”

When, as a 22-year-old in 1974, I worked in a huge working-class daycare center in Lowell, Mass. my female boss called me “The Jew” when she was irritated with me, and “The Wop” when she wasn’t. (I was both.)  Other staff members included the “The Polack, the Cannuck and the Mick.” We all laughed a lot, not thinking much of it, but the tone was nasty.

What’s acceptable to do, or be, or say aloud, even to believe in private, has changed radically in half a century.

I worked for many of those changes, and heartily applaud the bulk of them. I passionately favor racial equality, gender equality, and on and on. But the changes have been accompanied by an unintentional oozing sense of superiority in those of us who have bought into this newer vision of what’s OK and what’s not. We’ve seen the light. But the unspoken rest of that assumption is, “We are virtuous” and “You are inferior, you are shameful.”

[T]he changes have been accompanied by an unintentional oozing sense of superiority in those of us who have bought in to this newer vision of what’s OK and what’s not. 

Wittingly or not, we often strip the dignity from anyone not in our club. We forget that there’s a difference between feeling your vision of the world has something better to offer humanity, and feeling you are superior because you hold that vision. But the heat of the battle tends often to melt that distinction.

Part of Trump’s genius has been to say, “No, you’re not less than to me. You are good people. I embrace you just the way you are. If you vote for me, I will have your back. I won’t let anyone make you feel bad or ashamed — even when you behave indecently. I do that too.” The power of the message, however disingenuous the speaker, is profound.

The question facing those of us intent on creating greater racial, gender and economic equality, and on fueling a full-throttle effort to reverse climate change, is how we move forward legislatively, how we gather power and use it forcefully, without dehumanizing, devaluing or patronizing those who may disagree.

I don’t know. It may be that the best our minds' hardwiring will let us do is move the “othering” from one place to another, and that ever rearranging groups will make meaning only by battling forever. I’m not sure we can find another way. But it’s certainly a burning question. And were he still with us, I think Mr. Rogers would be all in on seeking an answer.

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Janna Malamud Smith Cognoscenti contributor
Janna Malamud Smith is a psychotherapist and writer.

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