Infrastructures of Compassion: Trumpism and America’s Democratic Future

By Hilton Simmet

May God continue the unity of our country as the railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.

–inscribed on the Golden Spike, Promontory Point, 1869.

A year of disbelief ended in a morning of despair. On November 9, 2016, the American people elected a real estate tycoon with no record of public service to the nation’s highest office. I will not forget the faces from that morning at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. A November gray had sunk into the faces of bleary-eyed men and women. Balloons in red, white, and blue fell from above in the post-election ball drop ritual. Some students began singing “Amazing Grace,” needing, it seemed, almost religious comfort. Words came to me not of grace but of compassion, from the Vedic shloka “from ignorance, lead me to truth … from the darkness of suffering, lead us to the light of compassion.” I thought of Trump supporters, wherever they were, and wondered if, in their jubilation, they understood how their years of dejection and loss had now been shifted to the other side of the wall separating elite rationality from mass fervor.

Understanding on anyone’s part seemed unlikely. The election had rejected the Kennedy School’s culture of calculated truths, coolly leading the world one smart policy decision at a time. It marked a radical division between citizens, exposing the fragility of the “we” in “We the people.” This “we” depends on compassion, a feeling for the plight of the other. Yet, one of my own students asked, “How can I find empathy for groups of people who deny my right to exist?” I did not answer. How can one find a “we” of shared value and concern in a country gripped by fear and the impending threat of violence? Not, I believe, by casting Trump’s supporters as the enemy. They are only the symptoms of the breakdown of the polity into “us” and “them.” We must look deeper into this breakdown, examining failures in what I call “infrastructures of compassion”: the epistemic, material, and normative structures that underwrite the democratic enterprise. Instead of investing $1 trillion in physical infrastructure, longer-term “investment” is needed in our infrastructures of compassion to safeguard America’s democratic future against the recurrent threat of Trumpism.

First, the epistemic failure: have we known the right things? For the Kennedy School, the election was anything but a victory for truth. To many, Trump is a living emblem of “post-truth,” a term that evokes American liberalism’s unquestioning allegiance to scientific facts. But STS scholars have long contended that this view takes truth to be ahistorical, acultural, and apolitical: it is based on the belief that experts can “speak the truth to power,” presuming a “view from nowhere” that controls the only relevant truths. STS, instead, has pointed to the coexistence of multiple knowledge-making systems, whether located in “situated knowledges” [1] or national “civic epistemologies” [2]. Barack Obama and the majority of Democrats put their faith in the tools of American policy rationality: economists hailing the growing strength of the U.S. economy and statisticians pointing to demographic shifts and a rising Democratic “wall.” Ironically, those facts neglected Americans whose immediate, felt sense was of gaining nothing under Hillary Clinton and her vision of status quo globalism. To these Americans, the elite “view from nowhere” was hardly a vision for the future at all. Moreover, it denied knowledge from a messier “view from somewhere,” articulated in the anger of a rural America of boarded-up businesses, heroin clinics, and abandoned factories.

Second, Trump’s victory was a failure in the material of American deliberation. Historically, democracy has been premised upon the slow discipline of deliberation among an informed citizenry gathering in the public square. America’s pivot to the knowledge economy, however, has pushed its young people away from the face-to-face encounters of town halls into the fast, anonymous city. The high-speed cables stretched across the country enable quick storms of communication but are counterproductive to democracy. Twitter and Facebook peddle the cheap wares of insults and memes in exchange for communal reasoning. The President communicates in 140 characters, composed indiscriminately in the dead of night and during serious meetings, and the opposition responds with outraged protest. Our debates do not center on Congress or any other institutions where we once slowly built the nation’s collective purpose. What we have gained in speed we have lost in depth and substance: our discourse is shallow and ephemeral. It is cut loose from the material of human bodies and minds working together to build reserves of compassion and shared understanding.

Third, on a normative level, politics in America has increasingly failed to transcend identity. Narrowly fixing people by race, gender, culture, geography and other factors has created a national project of irreconcilable difference, lacking a collectively held vision for the future. Cosmopolitan coastal citizens and middle-American “deplorables” alike feel threats to their ways of life, and mutual dehumanization has led to a culture of incomprehension and fear. Compassion, on the other hand, is what creates the trust and shared ways of seeing that are foundational to democracy. It requires us to uncouple Trump voters from the systems that produced Trumpism, separating the hateful and the divisive from legitimate claims of disenfranchisement and suffering. It also asks more from a Republican party that has doubled down on the demands of the “excluded” white male. A larger vision is needed of a country that sees and acknowledges, rather than dismisses or degrades, the fears and aspirations of all its citizens.

To rebuild the crumbling infrastructures of compassion will require attentiveness to questions both subtle and complex: what would it take to build bridges to collective truth and share values that cut across narrow identity lines? What paths for slow walking can connect rural and urban, white and non-white, poor and rich, educated and not in a world of instant reactions on the information superhighway? The solution to these systemic problems will necessarily be more than clever Facebook memes and satirical takedowns of Trump. It will demand renewed attention to the infrastructures of a democracy that once dared to imagine a “We the people” bonded by “self-evident” truths. The gulf between Americans can feel as great as the distance between “two great oceans.” Our duty is to ask what railroad might re-connect these oceans of meaning across the fragmented land of e pluribus unum.

Hilton Simmet is a Research Assistant at the STS Program at Harvard working on the National Science Foundation project “Traveling Imaginaries: A Comparative Study of Three Models of Innovation in Transnational Implementation” and on the Who Knows? project funded by a grant from the Bassetti Foundation.

[1] Haraway, Donna. “Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective.” Feminist studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 575-599.

[2] Jasanoff, Sheila. Designs on nature: Science and democracy in Europe and the United States. Princeton University Press, 2005.