“You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.” These words, uttered by Hillary Clinton at a fundraiser on Sept. 9, 2016, are some of the most infamous of the 2016 campaign. They sparked an immediate backlash and the term “deplorable” was proudly adopted by Trump and his supporters as a badge of pride and a rallying cry.
In the aftermath of the election, Trump and his deplorables having won the presidency, a Facebook group called Pantsuit Nation rapidly and organically grew to millions of members, most of whom are progressive and liberal. From a year ago to now, the content of the group hasn’t changed much. It’s still lots of people sharing personal stories of hardship and struggle, not always political, and tens of thousands of people liking and commenting in support.
Seeking some balance in my nation-spanning self-selected political-identity groups, I also joined a Facebook group called The Deplorables with almost 500,000 members. The difference between the two groups could not be starker. The Deplorables is a nearly unimaginable cesspit, a black hole of anti-vaccine conspiracies, uncritically shared fake news pages and a degree of racism, homophobia, transphobia and Islamophobia that, in sufficiently high concentrations, filled me with physical revulsion.
After several months lurking on The Deplorables, it was readily apparent to me how anger, ignorance and a lack of critical thinking skills can feed on each other to incite hundreds of thousands of people to dehumanize those different from them.
I stopped being surprised when, going to the profile of someone who had posted a particularly hateful comment, I saw pictures of smiling children and Bible verses. The hypocrisy was apparently lost on these people.
There were some flashes of goodness, though, that suggested that even in such an environment, people don’t lose all decency. Whenever an explicit white supremacist would post, they would be deluged with condemnatory comments telling them to leave. Condemning explicit white supremacy is just about the lowest bar imaginable but some bar is better than no bar in a group like this.
Other flashes of brightness included the vegan whose faith in Trump had been shaken by his administration’s decision to allow elephant trophies to be imported and the sexual assault survivor who was incensed by Trump’s endorsement of Roy Moore, the Republican senate candidate in Alabama who has been credibly accused of sexually preying upon teenage girls.
Sometimes, I would reply to commenters, trying to point out the hypocrisies and falsehoods that they were sharing. Most of the time my comments were ignored or I was called a “snowflake” — what I get for trying to talk politics with strangers online. However, on two occasions, I did have a modicum of success.
On the first occasion, I went back and forth with one man over the course of a day, and by the end of it I had convinced him that the Washington Post is a reliable news source, that not all anonymous leaks are bad and that his fears of a deep state conspiracy were overblown. We ended our conversation amiably and one woman who had been watching our thread commented to say how much she appreciated two people speaking civilly.
On the second occasion, I saw a conservative woman condemning the racism of the group and sticking up for a liberal who was being mocked for their attempts to engage with the deplorables of The Deplorables. I reached out to this woman privately via Facebook messenger to express my appreciation for what she’d said and we agreed to discuss politics sometime soon. We’ll see how that goes.
These are very small victories, they took a great deal of time to achieve, and they will have no immediate impact on the political and social realities in this country. I would certainly not hold it against anyone who declined to spend their time trying to do something similar. Grassroots activism and politics are more efficient and, in the short term, more important means of addressing the issues in our country.
However, I think that there is still value in exposing ourselves to the most extreme, hardcore elements of Donald Trump’s base and realizing that some of these people are reachable given a bit of patience, a friendly attitude and some common humanity. There’s hope for the future to be found in that.