It’s not easy to show grace to someone when you feel they’ve imperiled your country.
When a Trump-voter or Republican official does or says something outside of the GOP norm, what’s a good liberal to do?
Hug them? Point out that – though they may be right this time – they still support racist (or sexist, or homophobic) policies? Demand that they go the extra mile to prove their sincerity? Question past votes, actions, or statements that seem to contradict the current one? Mock them?
I can understand the desire to react with suspicion, or even a fit righteous indignation. If Senator Lindsey Graham is now so ‘enlightened’ and really opposed to President Trump’s policies, why didn’t he vote against more of Trump’s nominees? (I’d point out that 19 Senate Democrats voted for at least 10 of Trump’s nominees; no Senate Democrat voted against all of them.)
Trust me, I can understand how galling it might be to hear a Trump supporter (who for the past year responded to your pleading for them to vote for Hillary Clinton with, “He tells it like it is!” and “But her emails!”) now saying, “I think I made a mistake.” You probably want to grab them by the shoulder, shake them, and say, “I told you so!”
Even more galling might be the situation in which a Trump supporter admits they don’t like something he is doing – perhaps his healthcare plan, or his Muslim ban, or his reckless late night tweeting.
I get it.
But so long as there is an opportunity to set things right, the better tactic is to encourage Republican voters and Republican elected officials when they break from the party – and the Trump – line.
You may still disagree with them on 99% of issues, but if they come around on just one thing, be supportive of them on that one thing. Why? Because everybody has to start somewhere. It’s the crack in the door that first lets the light creep through.
I didn’t become a liberal overnight. I was an evangelical, Fox News-watching, freshman college student in South Mississippi when Barack Obama first ran for president in 2008. I’m sorry to say I forfeited the opportunity to claim any credit for the initial election of America’s first black president. I voted against him.
When I first started questioning the Republicans’ position on the Iraq War, I still supported their position on welfare.
When I first started questioning the Republicans’ position on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, I still supported their position on healthcare reform.
When I first started questioning whether Republican positions on welfare were premised on racial resentment, I still supported their position on gay marriage.
When I first started questioning the Republicans’ position on gay marriage, I still supported their position on abortion.
When I first started questioning the Republicans’ position on the Affordable Care Act, I still supported their position on taxes.
When I first started questioning the Republicans’ position on the drug war, I still supported their position on immigration.
Trump voter James Walker, 31, from Nashville, says: "This is the first step: showing up and being honest." pic.twitter.com/kP1vLUHxNl
— David Smith (@SmithInAmerica) March 15, 2017
No, my opinions didn’t change because of “liberal college professors.” I had an equal number of conservative and liberal college professors, and my favorite college professors challenged me to see nuance where I preferred to see black-and-white.
If any teacher influenced me to think outside my Republican box most, it was my generally conservative (but not ideological) newspaper mentor, Mrs. Patrick, who encouraged me to spend more time reading what the other side has to say.
“Read what the enemy has to say” before writing another anti-Democrat screed, she urged me in the Spring of my Sophomore year. I spent that summer reading books by the very liberals Bill O’Reilly had warned me against. “What happened to you?,” Mrs. Patrick would ask jokingly after I re-emerged with new opinion pieces that August.
My opinions changed because liberal friends gave me space to figure out what I thought on my own.
My opinions changed because, rather than writing me off as a bad person when I said ignorant and even offensive things (the thought of which now make me want to faceplant in embarrassment), liberal friends challenged me honestly rather than writing me off as a person of bad faith or character.
My opinions changed because, rather than demanding that I immediately change all of my positions, liberal friends allowed me to follow the slow-motion trail of falling dominos that every new realization kept going.
My opinions changed because, for three years, I watched President Obama respond to increasingly malicious and unfair accusations by people on my side with grace, humility, and decency. By the time I had the chance to atone for my 2008 vote against him, I was an enthusiastic supporter.
My story isn’t everyone’s story. There are some people whose minds you will never change. There are some people who will change their mind on one thing but disappoint you when they never budge again. Some elected officials will never earn your vote, even if they temporarily come to your side on a handful of issues.
But there are some people whose minds will change, and when that change begins to happen, our job is to assume good faith on their part, to encourage them, supplement them, and then get out of the way. We may have to be tough to win in the political sphere, but that’s not how we win people over in the interpersonal sphere.
One caveat: In the event that a Trump supporters’ past decision results in nuclear winter, feel free to dispense with this advice. But until then, let’s look to President Obama’s example of grace for guidance.
Change takes time, especially within ones’ own mind. As the late Leonard Cohen said, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”