In this year's dismal race for the presidency of the United States, supporters of Republican nominee Donald Trump have been portrayed as violent, bigoted, ignorant thugs. While he does seem to poll very well with that demographic, that makes my roadside observation all the more thought provoking.
You might expect a violent, bigoted, ignorant thug to drive in violent, bigoted, thuggish ways. But on my bike commute, where I am exposed to every passing vehicle, cars and trucks emblazoned with Trump stickers have been among the most careful and polite on the way by. That's not to say they have been the majority of the careful and polite, only that they have been notably so.
This fact does not shed any kinder light on the rhetoric and leadership potential of Trump, or the greater wisdom of his supporters. If I rode long enough on the right roads, I might well encounter some of the more violent and thuggish ones. But it does indicate that a significant number of the voters who have chosen The Donald in fact possess a level of human sensitivity that gets bleached out in the harsh stereotyping of political propaganda. Not only is this unfair to them, it also oversimplifies the issues any candidate -- and eventual leader -- needs to deal with. It turns diverse humanity into a homogenized lump, to love or loathe, to join or eradicate.
Beware the dehumanizers. Once you put all the bad stuff under a label and apply the label to a bunch of others, you can too easily develop a false sense of immunity to your own evil. You lose the ability to consider all the human psychology that leads to these concentrations of destructive tendencies.
Starting well before the Trump phenomenon, I have noticed exemplary passing behavior from people whose bumper stickers make me despair for the future of the human species. The stickers still make me despair for the future of the human species, because they reflect beliefs that are going to tear civilization apart, but in the meantime the people themselves seem strangely kind.
I don't know what I look like to a motorist. Maybe I'm so obviously a white guy that the bigots figure they'll cut me a break, even though I am clotting up the motorway with my bicycle.
Nearly everyone thinks they're doing the right thing. Maybe some of the more egregious sleazeballs know on a deeper level that they are fooling themselves, but at least they go to the trouble of rationalizing their behavior on a conscious level. The leaders who send their minions to do hideous, hopeless things tell their followers that it serves a greater good. The greater good of an evil cause is still evil, but below the leadership level it can be hard to sort out the level of zealotry in the ranks. The leaders might well be cynical manipulators, using their followers like toilet paper. The toilet paper stays neatly rolled in uniform squares, loyally waiting to be pulled off and expended.
The fact that Trump can appeal to people who are not violent, bigoted, ignorant thugs could help to propel the violent, bigoted, ignorant thugs to publicly visible levels of power, rather than functioning as the dark and deadly undercurrent they've been up to this point. More likely, they will be turned back at the election, and subside into the jagged landscape scarred by philosophical fault lines, to be forgotten until they snap. The fact that they are so numerous today proves that you cannot force people to evolve by mandating certain behaviors. You can stigmatize the behavior so that a wise bigot tries to blend in just to get by. Over time -- a very long time -- the quality of alienation may fade. But humans have many centuries invested in our differences, and really only decades in pursuit of something more inclusive.