Special Issue: Trump and the 2016 Election

Tear Down This Wall: Charitable Citizenship and the Deficit of Public Trust in the Age of Trump

by Christian Golden

ABSTRACT. I consider how American citizens alarmed by the election of Donald Trump and the authoritarian populist movement around him should respond to both given the deficit of public trust in the media, political leaders, institutions, and other citizens. I argue that mobilizing broad-based resistance to Trump’s divisive regime requires building trust in the electorate. I take trust to be a social condition bound up with civility, a virtue of democratic citizenship endangered by our increasingly polarized political discourse. Building trust therefore requires raising standards of civility by practicing charity, which in turns involves vulnerable listening across politically charged differences. I develop a model of democratic interaction based on an ethos of charity, which I call the open model, partly by weighing the tragic risks assumed by alternate strategies of response. I defend a strong presumption favoring listening to, or at least not silencing, one’s fellow citizens in the hope of promoting reconciliation in our time of crisis.

A despot easily forgives his subjects for not loving him, provided they do not love one another (Tocqueville 1835, Volume II, Section 2, Chapter IV: That the Americans Combat the Effects of Individualism by Free Institutions).


The weekend of January 21, 2017, laid bare deep and dangerous divisions in American society. On Friday, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States after running a narrowly successful campaign on a message of chauvinistic nationalism, divisive racial animus, populist outrage at elites, and gauzy cultural nostalgia. The next day saw a worldwide protest involving five million people that began with the largest single-day demonstration in U.S. history. Half a million participated in The Women’s March on the capital against Trump’s rhetoric and in support of human rights issues, including women’s rights, worker’s rights, racial justice, and LGBTQ equality.

The volatility of these contradictions was dramatized when a masked Antifa, or “anti-fascist,” vandal sucker-punched Richard Spencer during an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on a sidewalk in Washington, D.C., that weekend. Spencer is an outspoken white nationalist credited as the leader of the “alt-right,” a far-right-wing movement steeped in racist visions of an America restored to its inherent whiteness. Spencer sees Trump’s ascendency as a windfall for his cause:

Donald Trump as a potentiality was undoubtedly energizing. And what I mean by that is that the Donald Trump campaign was the first time in my lifetime that an identity politics for white people was on the scene. (Ganim and Welch 2016)

Spencer’s assault was celebrated on the left. After all, lashing out is a natural product of feeling vulnerable. As Martha Nussbaum explains in recent work, anger and violence are common responses to acute vulnerability in the absence of trust in those thought to have power over one (2016, 21). Mistrust among Americans is clearly not confined to Trump’s supporters, many of whom resent elites and fear perceived outsiders; it exists among liberals and progressives, too.

I want to explore the connection between trust and vulnerability in order to illuminate the question of how concerned Americans may counteract the illiberality that Donald Trump has unleashed in our common political life. I will try to show that there are strong ethical and pragmatic grounds for charitably and vulnerably engaging one’s fellow citizens across politically charged differences. And trust is the key.



What is trust? Trust is, among other things, a social condition bound up with agents’ virtues in subtle ways.[1] Take civility, considered as a virtue of citizenship. Civility and trust do not strictly presuppose each other, but in healthy democratic communities they form a circuit that makes sustained nonviolent relations possible.[2] Tomas Spath and Cassandra Dahnke, founders of the Texas-based nonprofit group Institute for Civility in Government, define civility as “claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process” in a way that involves “listening past one’s preconceptions” (The Institute for Civility in Government 2017). Building on this, I regard civility not as a bare activity but as an excellence of character—a disposition to act—essential within practices of communication predicated on charitable listening across differences.

Being disposed to listen charitably to others is not sufficient for being civil towards them, but it is necessary.[3] If I am unwilling to listen to you, you will naturally doubt that I have your interests at heart. Not trusting me, you will refuse to listen, too, perhaps by withdrawing or attacking. Seeing this, I also withhold trust—why trust someone out to ignore, hurt, or silence me? A vicious cycle is joined. Justice, conceived procedurally or as a material condition of personal relations, is forestalled when incivility prevails and folks mistrust one another. And if the 2016 United States presidential election has revealed anything, it is that there is a socially corrosive deficit of trust dividing the American electorate.

Recent studies of U.S. adults’ attitudes towards government, the media, and their fellow citizens should trouble those who think healthy democracy rests on public trust and civility. According to recent Gallup data, Americans’ trust in politicians and other Americans to make political decisions hit record lows in late 2016:

The percentages trusting the American people (56%) and political leaders (42%) are down roughly 20 percentage points since 2004 and are currently at new lows in Gallup’s trends…At no point in the last four decades have Americans expressed less trust than they do today in U.S. political leaders or in the American people who voted those leaders into office. (Jones 2016)

A related, widely reported fact is the public’s current historically low, bipartisan, declining trust in the media (Kauffman 2016a). As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt observed in the wake of the 2016 election, “We are in a trust spiral” (Tavernise 2017).

Meanwhile, experts find a concurrent decline in civility. Public opinion polls during the Obama years showed many Americans concerned over “the erosion of civility in government, business, media, and social media.” According to one 2012 poll,

65% of Americans say the lack of civility is a major problem that has worsened during the financial crisis and recession. What’s even more distressing is that nearly 50% of those surveyed said they were withdrawing from the basic tenets of democracy—government and politics—because of incivility and bullying (Williams 2012).

Another survey of 1,000 U.S. adults found that “Most Americans report they have been victims of incivility (86%),” while many “admit to perpetrating incivility—approximately six in ten (59%)” (Williams 2012). And many commentators within higher education and government have expressed grave concern about the sharp decline in standards of civility during and after the 2016 election (Farish 2017; Mendieta 2016).

Since the run-up to the presidential primary in Spring 2015, U.S. citizens, both in my orbit and in public fora like blogs, major news networks, talk radio, and social media, seemed to be united more by what they lack than by what they share. Conversations, especially online where there is a false sense of moral limbo and fewer immediate consequences for uncivil behavior, were tense and fraught with recrimination, sometimes devolving into the virtual equivalent of a shouting match. I was struck by how commonplace this was among those with ostensibly similar commitments, and I found it to be far worse across political differences. It is a truism that Americans from divergent groups often overlook the grounds for political solidarity in their common social, economic, or other interests. It does not help that political divisions among U.S. citizens have widened and ossified in recent decades. Journalist Bill Bishop has argued that, demographically speaking, Americans have self-segregated into increasingly ideologically homogenous communities since the late 1970s (2009). And political polarization is not confined to older generations. A Fall 2016 study by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute showed first-year college students throughout the United States to be more ideologically divided than they have been in over half a century (Glattner 2017).

I believe the difficulty we have listening to dissenting voices is both partial cause and consequence of the lack of solidarity that has made the electorate vulnerable to Trump’s demagogy. But what are the sources of this fateful impasse? Are they racial or economic? Religious or ideological? As we will see below, the difficulty is that they are all of the above.



The deficit of public trust was exploited by the weaponized religious and racial anxiety, a “politics of loss, nostalgia and grievance,” behind the nativist populism of Trump’s presidential campaign (Marshall 2016). Robert P. Jones, author of The End of White Christian America, observes that, as a result of long-term demographic trends, during Barack Obama’s two terms, “America has transformed from being a majority white Christian nation (54 percent) to a minority white Christian nation (43 percent)” (2016). Jones ties Trump’s electoral college success, particularly in the key states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, to his ability to mobilize fear and anger among white Christians who feel that the nation defined according to their identity is under siege by demographic and cultural changes that will displace and “demote” the white majority by the middle of the century.

Trump’s white nationalist strategy depended upon blaming ethnic and religious minorities for complex social, economic, and national security problems (Painter 2016). A paranoid urge to fortify the porous boundaries of American selfhood was expressed figuratively in Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” and literally in his theatrical campaign vow to construct a wall along the Mexican border—punitively, at our southern neighbor’s expense. Indeed, many have observed the latent or tacit fascism of Trumpism as an authoritarian populist brand rhetorically steeped in economic protectionism, vilifying the press and academics, ethnocentric scapegoating of minority groups for the supposed decline of a glorious, forsaken national character, and adulation and empowerment of a demagogic strongman presumed capable of restoring what has been lost.

But things are more complicated. Though Trump’s appeal relied heavily on racist dog-whistles, chauvinism, and nativist xenophobia, it is not to be reduced to bigotry among the electorate. His economic populism resonated with voters from communities that suffered under the rising inequality that culminated in The Great Recession of 2007-2009 (Klein 2016). Like his socialist rival Bernie Sanders, the billionaire Trump blamed financial elites, “crony capitalists,” and decades of bipartisan neoliberal trade policies for the economic insecurity and underemployment of millions of Americans. This messaging was decisive. Scarcely more than 100,000 votes from the mostly white working-class in the upper Midwest delivered Trump a narrow winning margin in the Electoral College despite his historic loss of the popular vote to Clinton by nearly three million ballots (Meko, Lu, and Gamio 2016).[4]

Sanders’s and Trump’s shared rhetorical strategy was well-founded. In recent work, political economist and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich shows that

starting in the early 1980s, large corporations and their top executives, major actors on Wall Street, and other wealthy individuals have exercised disproportionate and increasing influence over how the market is organized…

dominating public institutions that make and enforce market rules, eroding popular trust and participation in governance, and benefitting themselves at the expense of poor and middle-class Americans and the stability of the U.S. economy as a whole (Reich 2015, 92). During Obama’s last term in office, Reich presciently observed that

Capitalism, alas, depends on trust. Without trust, people avoid even sensible economic risks…Moreover, people who believe the game is rigged are easy prey for political demagogues with fast tongues and dumb ideas. (2015, 73)

Such figures exploit popular frustration at widening inequality under a rigged system

by turning the public’s economic anxieties into resentments against particular people and groups. Isolationist and nativist, often racist, and willing to sacrifice overall prosperity for the sake of achieving their ends. (Reich 2010, 127–28)

Trump’s campaign fit the bill, exploiting a hodgepodge of popular fears and anxieties, from embattled white, male, and heterosexual privilege to common experiences of economic precarity. His campaign’s appeal among voters is thus a morally mixed bag. Progressives will have little sympathy for a white person’s loss of the relative status conferred on them by a racist social order, but will share the resentment of low-income people made to work longer hours for lower wages under a legal and economic system that deprives them of collective bargaining rights and other basic protections while lavishly subsidizing the richest Americans. But it is harder to say whether progressively minded folks should morally countenance the disorientation of (typically white) Christians over the loss of their sense that the United States is home to their distinct spiritual aspirations as religious pluralism widens and they are confronted with a sharp decline in religious affiliation, especially among younger Americans (Smith and Cooperman 2016).

I think this is a hard question with no simple answer. Much depends on what it means to say that someone’s loss of their sense of self, or of the social world that gives that self its place and its rich, lived significance, deserves moral recognition. One difficulty is that the disorientation accompanying such loss goes to the heart of peoples’ identities and their sense of what is most deeply worthwhile. In the first instance, the issues at stake are intimately existential, not impersonally moral.

Take the apt expression “white fragility.” It identifies a curiously widening barrier to effective communication and sympathy across a narrowing gap of racial privilege and so presents many challenges to the pursuit of racial reconciliation and justice. But white fragility really is fragility—psychologically and emotionally speaking, it realizes a distinctly human vulnerability. As a form of vulnerability, even the pangs of lost privilege must warrant some moral concern. There is something paradoxical here about the way oppression deforms our relations—a point to which I will return in closing.

The fact that Trump voters have many grievances, some more sympathetic than others, discredits efforts to dismiss them all as reactionary bigots, though surely many in his base are such. Importantly, exit polls on Election Day show that Trump won by exploiting not only race and gender divisions, but also widening educational divides. He had a 39-point advantage over Clinton among white voters without a college degree, “the largest [margin] among any candidate in exit polls since 1980.” The gap in presidential preferences between those with and without a college degree, with college graduates backing Clinton by a 9-point margin, and non-college graduates backing Trump by an 8-point margin, was also the largest since 1980 (Tyson and Maniam 2016).

Racism is one thing; being poorly educated and badly informed is another. Refusing to sympathize with the former makes sense; writing off victims of the latter is callous and short-sighted. The trouble is that many Americans suffer from both at once. Since racism and poor education, as a symptom of poverty, are positively correlated, their roles in shaping attitudes cannot be neatly disentangled.[5] And as Andrew Sullivan provocatively observes in a critical but incisive analysis of the reactionary politics burgeoning here and throughout the world, besides being an oversimplification, “the American elite’s…reduction of all resistance to cultural and demographic change as crude ‘racism’ or ‘xenophobia,’ only deepens the sense of siege many other Americans feel” (Sullivan 2017).

What all this means is that though Trump’s own gross vanity, shameless incivility, and willful ignorance may put him beyond the pale of constructive dialogue, we should not draw the same conclusion about his supporters, most of whom deserve at least the presumption of empathy from their compatriots. And, as Sullivan suggests and as I will argue next, writing them off would represent a costly lost political opportunity.



Consider interactions between parties with strongly contrasting cultural, religious, or political values. Folks’ commitments arise from a rich interplay between their native endowments, training, experience, reflection, and developed aptitudes. Naturally most of this is hidden from our view when we encounter those we do not know intimately. We easily misjudge the basis and extent of differences between ourselves and others, especially when our uptake of their motives and behavior is burdened by stereotypes of supposed enemies or rivals.

Americans now spend much of our political lives online, often on social media where biased views circulate in insulated bubbles, aggressive voices tend to predominate, and combative memes and fake news shape attitudes on the left and right alike (Meyer 2017). Routine exposure to antagonistic, us-versus-them discourse distorts our perceptions of, and virtual interactions with, those stereotyped. Similar polarizing trends have been observed as a result of the popularity of talk radio and cable television news channels like CNN, The Fox News Channel, and MSNBC (Martin and Yurukoglu 2017). These developments undercut the disposition to civility, making democratic citizenship more difficult. It is especially important not to assume differences are fixed in a democratic society where civility and compromise tempers and mobilizes citizens’ shared exercise of power.

This has not been lost on Peter Levine, Associate Dean and Director of CIRCLE (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) at Tufts University, who recently blogged about how to proceed in the wake of the 2016 election. A few days after the election concluded in favor of Donald Trump, Levine shared a flowchart offering suggestions under various subheadings to help readers “think about how to respond to the devastating results of the election” (Levine 2016). Under the subheading “Repairing the civic fabric,” options include “Working with vulnerable/traumatized communities” and “Dialog across partisan divides.” One suggested tactic for the latter is “ideologically diverse deliberation; listening.”

What exactly this should mean in practice is an open question for engaged participants. But something surely needed is listening of the sort that helps loosen the grip of ossified divisions along cultural, ideological, racial, educational, and other sectarian lines. Positions have hardened and discourse on the left and the right is frequently insulated and uncharitable. Or so Charles C. Camosy observed in a Washington Post op-ed on the day after Election Day, arguing that seeing one’s political opponents as exhaustively identified with their supposed commitments contributes to ideological fragmentation that makes our politics more brittle and polarized:

Thus today’s college graduates are formed by a campus culture that leaves them unable to understand people with unfamiliar or heterodox views on guns, abortion, religion, marriage, gender and privilege. And that same culture leads such educated people to either label those with whom they disagree as bad people or reduce their stated views on these issues as actually being about something else…Most college grads in this culture are simply never forced to engage with or seriously consider professors or texts which could provide a genuine, compelling alternative view. (2016)

Uncompromising stances, particular about what the other side must be like, stymie efforts to enter into the frame of mind of one’s interlocutor. This can be seen in the shrill debate over the function and value of “political correctness” on college campuses where safe spaces and trigger warnings are derided by some as a form of coddling and defended by others as bulwarks for mental health and social justice. One commonly finds a palpable lack of trust for the other on each side.



What can be done? Many things, and here I make only one suggestion. I said earlier that one earns another’s trust by addressing her civilly. And, as Peter Levine’s work on civic engagement suggests, that this in turn requires charitable listening. What is charity, then? The most politically important element of charity is allowing oneself to be vulnerable.[6]

A charitable listener tries to enter into a speaker’s frame of mind. He invites her presence into his own by trying to be receptive to the stands she takes. But, crucially, he cannot do this while remaining fully himself. By “the self,” I mean understandings of what is worthwhile, true, and relevant that one brings to encounters with others.[7] Asserting the self over against others expresses natural impulses to impose one’s will, gratify desire, return harm for harm, or defend against perceived threats. But doing so undercuts prospects for reciprocal empathy and trust that grow from listening, especially when self-assertion visibly prevails among those who believe they are one another’s enemies.[8] This suggests a revision to the view we started with, offered by Spath and Dahnke, that civility is about “claiming…one’s identity.” If civility involves not just attentive but vulnerable listening, it is less about asserting one’s identity than it is about relaxing our grip on it, and its grip on us, in order to pursue “the hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-seated and fierce disagreements” (The Institute for Civility in Government 2017).

We began by observing that trust is a precondition of healthy social relations. Contrary to John Rawls’s suggestion, justice cannot be the value at the foundation of practices that matter to us because, without trust, the relationships necessary for instituting and maintaining justice (or any decent social value) cannot survive (Rawls 1971, 3). And whereas justice can be demanded, trust cannot. Efforts to do so naturally backfire. This is important for our intimate relations, but it is no less pivotal a fact about democratic life. One of its most precious conditions eludes the adamant will. It cannot be brought under sovereign or unilateral control. It responds to an invitation, not a threat. Like everything that matters to politics, it is precarious.

But this does not make it unattainable. For as folks find ways to loosen their grip on what they see as true and important, animosity across recalcitrant differences can soften, expanding the space of possibility and fostering trust. Trust involves but transcends mere belief, such as the belief that another cares about one’s interests or means one no harm. It is a richly embodied orientation to another with cognitive, motivational, and affective dimensions. It is a way of being situated in a relationship that embodies one’s sense of what matters, what makes sense, and what is possible in one’s dealings. Importantly, trust and vulnerability are bound together in more than one way. We know we trust those in whose presence we are comfortable being vulnerable. And where trust is lacking, as we saw before, we can invite it through a charitable posture of vulnerable listening. Thus, trust is a condition of relations that at once requires and promotes vulnerability.

But how can an absent condition be established if doing so takes something required by the condition itself? This whiff of paradox evokes the Aristotelian maxim that virtue is acquired through habituation. And I think Aristotle was right: with such things, we must simply fake it till we make it. But this sounds pretty glib. What does it really mean in practice, and is it realistic, given the stubborn divisions between us?

After all, just as we sometimes anxiously cling to the sense of self we bring to encounters with others, we often misperceive those who contradict us, seeing them as defined by their supposed ideological commitments, past speech or behavior, or status and privilege. Seeing someone stereotypically disposes us to further engage them in those terms, acting on or over against rather than with them. Empirical research on motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and “backfire effect” suggests that such reactive uptake has deep and abiding sources in our psyches (Nyhan and Reifler 2010). And polling of the electorate before and after the election showed that voters’ perceptions and behavior are deeply shaped by cognitive effects disposing us to cling to our original beliefs or attitudes when presented with contradictory evidence (Mitchell, Gottfried, Kiley, and Matsa 2014; Kauffman 2016b). Importantly, efforts to avoid hearing only what one wants to hear can backfire by increasing one’s felt vulnerability, making defensive maneuvers more tempting and likely.

Experts on these effects concede that work on concrete solutions remains inconclusive (Silverman 2011). But by attempting to mitigate their control over our interactions, we express an aspiration to epistemic humility, particularly about the character and motives of others, that is one mark of a good citizen.

A grassroots volunteer initiative that has arisen in the wake of the election is determined to make such an effort. Its aim is to build broad-based, cohesive opposition to Trump and Trumpism, starting with the sort of open, engaged listening I propose here. The #KnockEveryDoor campaign, organized by former Bernie Sanders staffers, volunteers, and supporters, hopes to succeed where they believe the Democratic party failed by “conducting nationwide, door-to-door canvasses” and learning from face-to-face conversations across political differences. The campaign hopes that

by talking to voters [and non-voters] and focusing on listening and understanding, we’ll be able to communicate the stories, concerns and hopes that the establishment politicians and media either missed or ignored in this past election.

The campaign’s site explains that

groundbreaking political science research suggests that long, open-ended conversations like these can actually change people’s minds—maybe even Trump supporters. (Knock Every Door Campaign 2017)

They also state their desire to better understand what motivated some Obama voters to flip to Trump in 2016, so that such disconnects and reversals can be prevented in future elections.

The Knock Every Door campaign suggests a model of interaction that may help dislodge the ideological barriers preventing folks with varying background commitments, affiliations, or habits of mind from articulating the shared interests underlying the different positions they bring to mutual encounters. Call it the open model. Another version of it is the “calling-in” strategy of engagement around issues of privilege, as opposed to the practice, common among left radicals, of “calling-out” overt exercises of privilege by those who have it (Trần 2013). The open model enacts a commitment to the importance of inviting others into relations whose spirit of empathy and respect across differences creates space for sharing the possibility of being transformed by the encounter.

The open model involves the idea that faking it till you make it, displaying vulnerability in hopes of eliciting it from another in the absence of the trust that makes doing so mutually comfortable, is not a feat of cognitive dexterity, or a problem requiring a rationally formulated solution, but a risky exercise of the sheer bodily ability to be and remain present with another who offends or even threatens one.[9] There is no intractable paradox here because vulnerable listening, an invitation to trust, does not itself require trust. Instead it takes what we can call civic courage—the willingness to risk and possibly sacrifice one’s own comfort, one’s confidence, one’s privilege, even a measure of one’s security, to help decent relations between citizens survive. Civic courage in this sense does not require trust so much as hope, a curious blend of desire and expectation that is perhaps more durable than trust, but no less important to the survival of decent relations in times of crisis.

A charitable listener in this sense embraces, and allows their interlocutor to see them embrace, the possibility of being offended, confounded, disproven, or rejected. What he accepts is the uncomfortable possibility of exchanging a self-assured confidence in his accustomed perspective for a greater degree of doubt about, or a change in, his outlook. Allowing another to see one’s openness to her perspective communicates a recognition of her standing as a worthy partner in deliberation, a function that Cheshire Calhoun rightly argues is essential to the virtue of civility: “Civility always involves a display of respect, tolerance, or considerateness” (Calhoun 2000, 259). In her account, the outward signs of such an attitude include “listening carefully.” I agree, but I think that the charity for others’ standpoints and experiences that civility requires, especially during a crisis when mutual trust is scarce, requires visible vulnerability, not just careful attention. We expect the latter even from our declared enemy, whereas good citizens try to see, and be seen by, one another as entitled to participate in deliberation about matters affecting them together.

We turn now to some final thoughts about what some of the dangers of such a practice are, how much they might be worth, and for whom they make sense.



I said that I offer only one limited suggestion about how to respond to the election results. Other sensible responses are possible and some will compete with mine in spirit and substance. Some call for more aggressive, confrontational, or doctrinaire tactics than I propose here, and perhaps these are sometimes necessary and even to the good. There are serious grounds for thinking that the practice of the sort of explicit, militant racial terrorism advocated by the Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalist groups must be directly confronted, perhaps even violently.

Shamefully, the Klan is not the only source of right-wing extremism and open bigotry currently shaping our politics. The alt-right, an authoritarian ethno-nationalist movement bent on entrenching white supremacy in the U.S., is a conspicuous presence in Trump’s base and has an outsized influence within his regime. Its ideals are personified by former banker and broadcasting mogul, Stephen Bannon. Bannon was a filmmaker and executive chair of Brietbart News, a website trafficking in far-right commentary, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, and other racist and nativist content. He serves as the White House chief strategist and was briefly placed by Trump on the Principals Committee of the National Security Council. One naturally doubts how far extremists like Bannon and Richard Spencer can be reasoned with, and whether listening vulnerably to them might not normalize, making one complicit in, their degradation of the national conversation about issues like immigration and criminal justice reform.

Here I take no position on such questions besides acknowledging that the circumstances of human action, perhaps most saliently in politics, are fundamentally tragic. We must choose between plural and competing goods that claim our allegiance. Besides involving an opportunity cost, where we neglect some values by seeking others, pursuing goods always carries the risk that our efforts will backfire or otherwise fail to realize our intentions, even catastrophically. And, crucially, oppressive social conditions tend to erode prospects for justice at both the structural level of impersonal institutional mechanisms and the subjective, psychological level of personal experience and action.

Indeed, it might be objected that the humility and self-surrender involved in charitable listening, which I urge in the name of democratic civility, mutual empathy, and trust, is itself a privilege or a product of it, a moral good not equally available to everyone in a society like ours where some groups are generally less secure than others. Vulnerability is already distributed unequally by systems that disproportionately subject minorities to many forms of violence, as with the noxious operation of racial bias in the criminal justice system (Alexander 2010; Wagner and Rabuy 2016; Davey and Smith 2016; Apuzzo 2015). The result of left- and right-leaning Americans enhancing their vulnerability during encounters across gendered, racial, and economic differences may be to entrench the oppressive conditions we hope to see eroded. This could mean that the open model cannot be generally adopted without disparate risk of injury to differently situated persons.

For instance, men and women in a sexist society like ours do not operate from the same baseline of security. There may be greater average risk for a woman than a man in engaging someone whose speech or body language may more or less subtly reinforce her subordinate social position. Women are already more subject than male peers to this sort of discursive violence where her capacities as a competent and credible knower and speaker are damaged or undervalued (Fricker 2007). Increasing men’s and women’s discursive vulnerability therefore preserves the prior disparity rather than redressing it. Similar points can be made about other structurally disadvantaged citizens. So, by advocating for a general practice of civility in my sense, I may invite greater harm to minorities by overlooking the inequality of moral opportunity prevailing in American society.

This criticism rings true. Conditions in a social order corrupted by violence and resentment are severely inhospitable to the general cultivation and exercise of moral virtues like civility.[10] There are potentially ruinous institutional and psychological obstacles to creating healthy relations in American society, corrupted as it is by the traumatic legacies of capitalist exploitation, hetero- and cissexism, military and cultural imperialism, and white supremacy in the forms of native genocide, chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. The underlying issue concerns what it takes for human beings deeply shaped by pernicious conditions to transcend them without reproducing them in the effort. Degrading circumstances must be overcome, if at all, by the very people whose powers and abilities they have substantially disfigured.

This is another defining paradox of real political action. Nothing less than the concrete possibility of deliberate moral transformation is at issue. We must articulate it and define and limit its scope, but its tragic nature is precisely why it cannot be mastered or completely evaded—and why any concrete solution will fail to meet whatever ideal standard of equity we wish to institute. This can clearly be seen in the moral residue created by even the most apparently justifiable strategies of violent resistance to oppression, which, whatever else they may accomplish, always serve to reinforce violent dispositions in those who enact them and generate lasting collateral damage in the surrounding social environment.

So why pursue the open model if it risks further harming those already disadvantaged by a corrupt order? Because, due to the tragic realities in play, no approach can avoid this risk; there is still hope for a generally nonviolent reconciliation of the differences that Trump exploits to his own advantage; and I believe the open model can help extend that hope. Widespread persistent violence, or the credible threat of it, is entirely foreign to most Americans’ experience. This is not only a luxury but a precious resource for engaged citizenship that we neglect at our peril. Calls for violent escalation from either the left or the right therefore strike me as perversely naïve and reckless.[11] But if we are to pursue a nonviolent course, I think the findings of cognitive and social science, together with common experience, suggest that critical dialogue predicated on charitable listening can be more effective than the defensive maneuvering and strident declamation that angry political rivals often claim as their right.

But precisely to whom do I prescribe the open model? To start with, and above all, I think my argument has greater presumptive force for those with greater degrees of social privilege. When relations are strained, and important interests are served by a relationship’s survival, someone needs to stick their neck out first. Only thus can an impasse be overcome. Especially for those with privilege—and we cannot forget that most Americans with varying levels of relative privilege are extremely secure and well-off by global standards, a fact made relevant by the far-reaching impact of policies enacted by the U.S. government—sticking one’s privileged neck out is a fine way to use it in the service of democratic hope. Those who avoid doing so when they risk only discomfort or disorientation will be complicit when the situation deteriorates at great cost to many of our country’s and the world’s most vulnerable.

Beyond that, it is not for me to say here how committed to charitable citizenship particular, already especially vulnerable, folks should be. Generally, I think that more privileged Americans—for instance, white, cisgender, male, heterosexual, and so on—have a stronger responsibility to cultivate it as a practice. But, noting that most Americans enjoy what amounts to absolute privilege, I commend the open model on its merits to U.S. citizens with less relative privilege.[12]



I conclude by addressing some sensible worries about the open model.

First, it may seem that the disorientation risked by listening vulnerably to rivals is not so trivial a cost, for it can lead to a morally dangerous change of heart that uproots one’s antecedent convictions. Indeed, we must worry about this. But this danger is another tragically inescapable fact of life, one that is especially salient in an open society like we wish ours to be. This suggests a further, perhaps less tactical, ethical consideration in favor of vulnerable listening as opposed to merely attentive listening. Finite creatures like us may hope for a measure of clarity and autonomy only on these terms.[13]

Since humans always act among others, to act at all is to risk unleashing forces beyond our control, like unforeseen responses from those who have power over us. Hope, like that of a future where relations are otherwise, comes from the fact that speakers are by their very nature capable of listening. Listening itself is an exercise of power—to extend sympathy, to challenge without attacking, to invite a kindred response, to thus express and foster hope. Moreover, listening to dissenting others is not necessarily riskier than shutting one’s ears to them. Recall John Stuart Mill’s suggestion in On Liberty that refusing to interrogate the values at stake in our lives is the greater moral danger, since

Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right…owing to a quality of the human mind, the source of everything respectable in man either as an intellectual or as a moral being, namely, that his errors are corrigible. (Mill 1997, 55–56)

The reality to which Mill alludes is that there is no pristine discursive position lying outside concrete circumstances of action from which one might survey the truth before entering the fray. There is just the fray and us, the fallible but corrigible creatures in it.

Of course, reality is far more complicated than these abstractions suggest. There are gaps in principle and in practice between interrogating one’s own values, listening to others, listening to rivals, listening to any rival, and listening to anyone, let alone rivals, vulnerably. I do not suggest that the first step leads inexorably to the last. Serious questions, beyond this paper’s scope, about the range of situations to which the open model can and should be applied need answering. But the model may help guide reflection about tough questions around speech, such as, who, if anyone, should not be listened to? and, who, if anyone, should not be allowed to speak? Typically, I think a strong case can be made for, if not listening, at least not silencing, even when vulnerable listening may be uncalled-for.

Take the controversy surrounding speaking engagements by divisive figures like conservative pundit Anne Coulter, whose scheduled speeches at the University of California, Berkeley, on April 19 and April 27, 2017, were canceled at the last minute due to the administration’s professed security concerns. To justify the cancellations, Berkeley cited the destructive rioting that preceded the canceled February 1, 2017, speech of alt-right media personality Milo Yiannopouos. The violence at these events is often produced by clashes between radical groups on the right and the left. Here we cannot satisfactorily address the question of whether progressives are ever justified in trying to prevent speakers such as Coulter and Spencer from speaking in public. But we should note that the aftermath of these cancellations—framed by some as assaults on free speech, by others as victories in the fight against fascism—illustrates our theme of tragic risk.

Recall Robert Reich’s observation that those less trusting are more averse to risk. Some attempts to mitigate risk produce results that are not only tragic but ironic. For instance, trying to remove the risk to vulnerable populations that supposedly comes from the speech of reactionary figures like Coulter and Spencer, whether by violent protest or personal assault, raises the stakes and risks of backfiring both legally and in the court of public opinion by allowing such figures to pose as victims. It is a further tragic irony that, depending on the extent of the damage done by the violent means of resistance used, silenced figures may become genuine victims, whether by having their authentic rights to expression curtailed, their bodily integrity violated, or in other ways. Their most hardline opponents may not be moved by these injuries, but many more moderate folks likely will be, and not without cause. As Donald J. Farish, president of Roger Williams University since 2011, puts it:

The alt-right movement provokes violent dissent, the black bloc anarchists are only too happy to provide violent dissent, the alt-right then claims that government intervention is required to protect free speech, the anarchists celebrate the breakdown of civil order, and universities become the unwitting foils in an attack on democratic principles. (2017)

In short, efforts to coercively deny platforms to divisive but prominent figures like Coulter and Spencer risk entrenching a cycle of polarization and violence by reinforcing the narrative peddled by such figures themselves, namely that communication with the enemy is impossible or worthless because American society is hopelessly broken and must be transformed by authoritarian means—whether police, executive, or mass action. This sort of apocalyptic thinking is tempting in a society like ours where trust is scarce. It compensates for lost hope with defiance and a gratifying feeling of personal rectitude. But, implicated in degrading the situation to which it is a fatalistic response, it is false comfort. Our situation is grim but, as I will argue now, it is not yet apocalyptic.

Those sympathetic in principle to the case for charity might yet doubt that it will be effective when positions are as polarized and entrenched as they are now. I share the worry. But there are strong grounds for hope that listening works. I want to close by contrasting the punching of Richard Spencer, with which we began our discussion, with a recent case similar in outline but very different in outcome.

Derek Black is the 28-year-old son of Don Black, former Ku Klux Klan leader and founder of Stormfront, the Internet’s largest white nationalist website, and the godchild of former Klan leader and Louisiana state politician David Duke. Groomed since childhood for a prominent leadership role in the white nationalist movement, around 2013 Derek defied expectations by abandoning that path and the racist worldview that went with it. He explains the transformation this way:

Several years ago, I began attending a liberal college where my presence prompted huge controversy. Through many talks with devoted and diverse people there—people who chose to invite me into their dorms and conversations rather than ostracize me—I began to realize the damage I had done. Ever since, I have been trying to make up for it…People have approached me looking for a way to change the minds of Trump voters, but I can’t offer any magic technique. That kind of persuasion happens in person-to-person interactions and it requires a lot of honest listening on both sides. (Black 2016)[14]

Spencer responded to his assault on inaugural weekend by escalating his rhetoric, redoubling his propagandistic efforts, and calling for a paramilitary security force for those like him. Adept at PR, he predictably used the favorable optics to entrench his support. Meanwhile, observers not yet convinced of how dangerous Trump is, and unaware of the openly fascist elements behind him, have been given a clear opportunity to associate opposition to Trump and his supporters with criminal violence, assaults on what many will regard as rightly protected speech, and public disorder. Indeed, notwithstanding my concession that anti-democratic forces might merit a violent response, research suggests that resistance movements embracing violence and other extreme tactics tend to backfire when compared to alternatives:

Nonviolent black-led protests played a critical role in tilting the national political agenda towards civil rights and black-led resistance that included violence contributed to outcomes directly in opposition to the policy preferences of the protestors. (Wasow 2017, 4)

The authors of another recent study that examined “popular responses to extreme tactics used by animal rights, Black Lives Matter, and anti-Trump protests” found that, contrary to the activists’ beliefs, “extreme protest tactics decreased popular support for a given cause because they reduced feelings of identification with the movement” (Feinberg, Willer, and Kovacheff 2017, 2). These findings stand to reason. Experience suggests that berating or intimidating people tends to only make them resentful, which risks entrenching our current politics of resentment. We saw earlier that even presenting folks with good evidence contrary to their given beliefs or attitudes inclines them to cling ever more firmly to them. The vicious cycle we observed in our opening remarks should therefore come as no surprise: one who feels humiliated or attacked will only be that much harder to reach.

Meanwhile, Derek Black’s remarkable trajectory suggests that difficult, reciprocal listening can open minds and transform our relations, even across extreme differences. In the remarks I cited above, he adds that dialogue would not have led to his transformation without his experiencing “clear and passionate outrage” about his views from his interlocutors. Black learned that charitable listeners need not, indeed should not, be docile or morally enervated. Suitably communicated outrage can be rigorous but civil and constructive, perhaps unlike anger, which is arguably punitive, harboring a futile and counter-productive payback wish (Nussbaum 2016, 15).[15]

It must be said that the evolution of Black’s views on race and America was a largely intellectual process whereby he gradually and soberly absorbed scholarly research on the history of race as a concept, the achievements of Islamic civilization, the effects of bias and institutional discrimination on minorities, and other empirical resources. My point is not that charitable listening alone can change minds. But it can help open them. Black accessed many of these materials not in his college coursework but through informal conversations with his Sabbat dinner friends. His own account of his development shows that without his Jewish classmate’s gesture of trust, inviting into his home a known white nationalist, widely mistrusted on campus, the decisive exchange of ideas in Black’s transformation would not have occurred.

This is not to say that the less privileged parties to an encounter should shoulder a greater burden of outreach or communication. As I said before, greater responsibility generally attends greater privilege. What Black’s case shows is that gestures of trust across differences, from anyone prepared to offer them but especially those directly concerned, can do a great deal of good. Those who undertake them, like Black’s Jewish classmate Matthew Stevenson, offer us a lesson in civic courage.

The cases of Richard Spencer and Derek Black are by no means identical, not least because Spencer and Black are themselves different people. But they jointly reflect our crisis of trust from opposite directions, reminding us that we still have choices about how to respond. Not all efforts to listen will prevail over mistrust and resentment. Maybe only few will. But I have tried to defend a strong presumption in favor of listening, and in extremis, of not coercively silencing. In the words of high school student activist of color Mahad Olad:

I earnestly believe that the best and most beneficial method to simultaneously fight against blatant bigotry and for marginalized groups who are the objects of hate is more speech, not less (Friedersdorf 2014).

In this spirit, I have argued that healthy democracy rests on the exercise of civility, a virtue of citizenship requiring charity towards compatriots, which in turn calls for vulnerable listening across disagreements and differences, which fosters the trust that makes sustained civil relations possible. We saw that civil listeners charitably engage speakers’ stances by relaxing their grip on “the self,” or the attitudes about what is true and important, that they bring to the encounter themselves. With some luck, maybe civil listening can help temper the truculent identities ossified and weaponized by our mistrustful politics (McElwee and McDaniel 2017).

I presume many Americans share my hope for nonviolent transformations of our strained relations in the direction of trust and reconciliation. Whether our hope will be rewarded is an open question, of course. But I think those who wish to see Trump’s populist antagonisms overcome, rather than succumbed to, must further hope that the question remains open for as long as possible. Listening takes time. Maybe it can buy us a little more: “Our job in these circumstances is not to condescend but to engage—or forfeit the politics of the moment (and the future) to reaction” (Sullivan 2017). In all humility about our uncertain future, I suggest that a widely shared ethics of vulnerable listening may help Americans create a decent future together:[16]

These days, my young children want retribution for every unfair thing that happens to them. An eye for an eye. But in teaching them that civility means laying aside the desire for self-gratifying retaliation, I hope to alleviate for them the exhausting and toxic cycle we now find ourselves in today. If we continue as we are, no one will have the last word or obtain reconciliation. (Cunningham 2016)


Christian Golden, PhD, is a Lecturer in the Philosophy Department at University of Tennessee. Dr. Golden’s primary philosophical interests include the character and limits of subjectivity as well as normative and psychological issues surrounding agency in ethics and politics.  He is also interested in feminism, Nietzsche scholarship, and radical democratic thought and practice.  His current research is aimed at developing ways of understanding personal commitment, as well as key ethical and epistemic virtues like civility, humility, integrity, and justice, that take seriously the role and potential value of conflict in human psychic and social life. 



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[1] Here I am primarily concerned with trust between citizens as opposed to citizens’ trust in public institutions, though these are surely interconnected.

[2] Like Cheshire Calhoun (2000, 254), I regard civility as “a distinct and important” virtue, though she calls it a “moral” virtue whereas I hesitate to accept that term’s universalistic implications. Here I defend civility as a political virtue of democratic citizenship.

[3] There are surely many other plausible conditions on civil democratic citizenship, such as refraining from violence and coercion, respecting others’ privacy, and so on. Here I focus specifically on the role within civil citizenship of charity as explained below.

[4] Notwithstanding his populist campaign rhetoric, Trump has appointed to his cabinet many of the same ultra-rich insiders he vilified and swore to purge from the Washington “swamp” in a campaign pitched against a system rigged and exploited by Wall Street and special interests. Examples include Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, an oil executive and former CEO of Exxon Mobil; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, hedge fund manager and former senior executive at Goldman Sachs; and Wilbur Ross, Commerce Secretary and 79-year-old billionaire investor with no prior experience in government or public service.

[5] Perhaps greater moral difficulties are raised by empirical research showing a link between lower intelligence and many forms of prejudice even after controlling for education and socio-economic status. See, e.g., Hodson and Busseri (2012).

[6] Other accounts of charity emphasize the role of listening. Take Rawls (1993, 217), for instance, for whom civility is a duty of liberal citizenship involving “a willingness to listen to others and a fairmindedness in deciding when accommodations to their views should reasonably be made.” See also Kingwell (1995, 211). Here I go further, arguing that civil listening is charitable and therefore puts one’s antecedent attitudes and practices at risk of transformation.

[7] These often involve our conscious or avowed self-understandings, but may also conflict with them due to the prominent role of self-deception and other forms of non-self-transparency in human experience and action. The cognitive effects discussed below give some illustration of the finitude of the human capacity for sovereign control over our own character and conduct. There are many other varieties. For more discussion, see Protevi 2009 and Cassam 2014.

[8] I explore these ethical and psychological issues, and discuss their political implications, in “Taking Our Selves Too Seriously: Commitment, Contestation, and the Dynamic Life of the Self” (forthcoming).

[9] Members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the civil rights groups who defied Jim Crow in the South during the 1960s through sit-ins and Freedom Rides, knew the grave physical and psychological risks they took by practicing nonviolence in a brutally repressive white culture of police and mob violence. Here I argue for something far less demanding than the voluntary submission to severe interpersonal violence courageously practiced by CORE and SNCC activists. But the inspiring transformative impact of their public interventions should not be lost on those who want to resist Trumpism without reinforcing the conditions that enable it.

[10] Work on moral luck is thus enduringly relevant to a proper diagnosis of the intricate, bedeviling difficulties inherent in dismantling oppressive social conditions.

[11] Crucially, violent escalations by or on behalf of minority groups will likely backfire for the foreseeable future, since they tend to provoke more and worse repression and violence disproportionately inflicted on minority communities themselves. Here what is most relevant is not the rarity of sustained, open violence in our society but—a complexly related fact—the authorities’ virtually total monopoly on the means of violence. We see this play out in the wake of the presidential election. In pursuing their agenda, authoritarian elements formerly confined to the fringes but emboldened by Trump’s ascendency eagerly claim the protection and support of the state, dominated as it now is by revanchist forces loyal to Trump’s regime. Consider, for instance, Richard Spencer’s call for the creation of an extreme right-wing vigilante force in response to being physically assaulted by a masked protester on inaugural weekend (Solomon 2017).

[12] Here I adapt the distinction between relative poverty and absolute poverty, or “poverty by any standard,” introduced by Robert McNamara and deployed by Peter Singer in arguing for a stringent duty on the part of the global rich to prevent widespread preventable suffering and death among the world’s poor (Singer 1993, 218–19).

[13] This is part of my principled response to the objection that what my argument really requires is the pretense of vulnerable listening as opposed to the real thing. The other part is simply that, besides being intellectually weak, deceiving one’s fellow citizens is wrong and especially perverse where issues of trust are at stake. This is notwithstanding the tactical consideration that we are rarely the gifted deceivers we imagine ourselves to be; folks tend to be good at sniffing out a phony. If we cannot manage sincere openness in dialogue with others, and faking it is the really best we can do, then perhaps we should do so. But phony vulnerability as such is nothing to ethically aspire to. In short, the open model requires that we encourage trust in others by simulating it ourselves through genuinely vulnerable listening across differences. Even when we must simulate the vulnerability, we can try to telegraph that effort itself. This may be the limit of what we can do, but it may yet be enough to introduce new possibilities.

[14] After Black’s outing on The New College of Florida campus as a prominent white separatist, the first of his peers to reach out to him was Matthew Stevenson, an Orthodox Jew. Stevenson’s opening gesture was an invitation, which Black accepted, to a weekly Shabbat dinner he hosted with a diverse group of friends in his campus apartment.

[15] My sense of civility therefore does not necessarily involve law-abidance or refraining from publicly expressing convictions fellow citizens may not share, two conditions on liberal democratic civility put forward by Clifford Orwin (1991). Civility in my sense may at least permit lawbreaking (the civil disobedience practiced in the 1960s by CORE and SNCC) and require one to express views others do not share (the outrage civilly addressed to Derek Black by his fellow students) about what is true and important within one’s plural community. There is thus a key internal connection between civility in my sense and integrity as conceived by Cheshire Calhoun (1995) as a co-deliberative social virtue.

[16] I am grateful to those who offered thoughtful feedback and criticism on early drafts of this paper, especially Gerald Mara, Terry Pinkard, and the referees of Georgetown University’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, as well as its Editor-in-Chief, Rebecca Kukla, for her helpful guidance.

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