Deep Stories of the Demonized: Empathy and Trump Evangelicals

John Fletcher

Abstract


In my work studying the outreach techniques of conservative American evangelicals, I have come to value two political gestures: (1) affirming the reality and irreducibility of deep ideological differences, and (2) extending critical generosity—non-reductive and rigorous understanding—toward my political enemies. The 2016 US presidential election of Donald Trump, however, challenges my capacity to empathize with the white evangelicals whose staunch support helped propel him to victory. In this paper, I track the post-election backlash against empathy for Trump voters on the part of progressives. I situate this backlash in terms of Carl Schmitt’s notion of the political as the distinction and contention between friend and enemy. While valuing this polarization as integral to liberal democratic politics, however, I come again to valuing critical generosity and understanding. I conclude by reflecting on the differences between envisioning politics as utopias (an oppositional manoeuvre) versus envisioning politics as a practice of moral imagination (a gesture of outreach and empathy). Both, I argue, are appropriate and necessary aspects of larger activist endeavours.


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