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Why did white voters support Trump? Writer Clifford Thompson has an answer

In this painting, a man sits in front of a notebook and looks at a record player. Apartment buildings with lit-up windows are visible through the window behind him.
Photo provided
Clifford Thompson
Clifford Thompson is also a visual artist. This is his painting, "How?"

Donald Trump has been called a racist, a sexist, a philanderer, a prolific liar, a thief. Clifford Thompson can add to that: Trump is a literary inspiration.

This book cover depicts a painting of a man writing on a typewriter
Photo provided
Clifford Thompson
In "What It Is," author Clifford Thompson explores race and family.

“This threw me into a quandary,” Thompson says of the effect the former president had on our American values. “And I began to question some long-held assumptions of mine and try to get an idea of what was behind the vote for Trump, the white vote for Trump.”

Thompson’s book, “What It Is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues,” was one of Time magazine’s “Most Anticipated Books” of 2019. A book, Thompson says, “prompted by Trump’s election.” Thompson will do a reading, and answer your questions, at a Writers Forum at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the McCue Auditorium in SUNY Brockport’s Liberal Arts Building.

Thompson grew up in what he calls “the Black area” of Washington, D.C. But over time, he was moving in “integrated and largely white circles”: The artsy Oberlin College in Ohio, and now the literary world of New York City, living in Brooklyn. He writes essays on jazz, books, films and race and reviews books for a handful of publications. Right now, he’s reviewing Paul Harding’s “This Other Eden,” a novel about race in the early 20th century.

Thompson’s own novel, “Signifying Nothing,” is set in Washington, D.C., in the late 1970s. It’s about a 19-year-old child who has never spoken a word until he starts rapping at the top of his lungs about random things. Thompson calls the rapper “a personal metaphor,” inspired by his grandmother, who couldn’t hear. He says as such, she was unaware of much that was happening in the world. But she could see and, born in 1894, she was 106 years old when she died. So “she saw a lot of change,” Thompson says. From Jim Crow laws — the Southern states’ legalization of segregation — to the civil rights marches.


Thompson is an artist as well, with a solo show of his paintings set for February at the Blue Mountain Gallery in Manhattan. His new book, released last week, is a graphic novel that he illustrated, “Big Man and the Little Men.” Thompson says it’s about a reporter embedded with the campaign of a Democratic presidential nominee. The reporter is approached by a woman who is accusing the candidate of sexual assault.

“The Democrat’s opponent is this Trump-like figure, so that the writer faces a dilemma,” Thompson says. “Does she do her job and report on this, and potentially help the Republican candidate? Or does she sit on it?”

So “Big Man and the Little Men” flips the current political landscape. Trump is the topic that just keeps giving these days.

Likewise, “What It Is” is where we’re at. Studies are showing that racist attacks are on the rise. Earlier this year, it hit close to home, when a white supremacist shot 13 people, almost all of them Black, at a Buffalo grocery store. Ten were killed. And prejudice against LGBTQ+ people is alive and not well, as we read about earlier this month in Colorado Springs, where five people were murdered and another two-dozen wounded in an attack at a gay nightclub.

Can we pin America’s raging vitriol on one man?

“In part, yes,” Thompson says. “I think Trump has made it OK to express your racist views and act on your racist impulses.”

It’s not hidden, you can read all about it: A newspaper associated with the Ku Klux Klan endorsed Trump’s 2016 presidential run. Of course, this is not news to Thompson. As a Black man, he has lived with racism. “I’ve been followed out of stores,” he says: suspected shoplifter. He’s been chased down the street by a police car: Black man running. “I have definitely been a recipient of biased behavior,” he says.

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Clifford Thompson
Clifford Thompson.

Is there an answer? Thompson answers the question with a big laugh. This won’t be easy. Thompson interviewed a handful of Trump voters for “What It Is,” looking under the hood, seeing what made them tick.

“Part of finding an answer is understanding the problem, you know,” he says. “One conclusion I came to – aside from pure, straight-up racism – a lot of what’s going on, I think, is attributable to something that is inherent in all human beings, which is a certain amount of indifference to others.”

Yes, yes, but the answer?

“I guess if I have an answer at all, it’s to try to make people understand what’s in it for them, to actually care about this stuff.”

Thompson sees the fruits of division at work here, “a society composed of factions that can’t see eye to eye on anything.” Election deniers looked a fact in the eye and dismissed it, he says, an action that “threatened the very bedrock of our democracy.”

That idea was largely rejected in the midterm elections, Thompson says, “but it’s still a threat.”

Democracy, he says, is understanding someone else’s point of view. And something’s happened over time that the 59-year-old Thompson sees. He points out that when he was a boy, there were only three television channels.

“Even if we didn’t agree on the meaning of the news, we got the same news,” he says. The war in Vietnam was perhaps the biggest news of the day. “Some of us were radically against it, some of us supported it.”

But now, we’re not all getting the same news. Any point of view can find some scrap of legitimization in today’s tsunami of media.

“You don’t want to silence voices,” Thompson says. “But we need an agreed-upon set of values, to find things that we can all agree on, that we all need.”

He calls them building blocks for more unity in society. All with the same goal: A stronger nation.

“We’re like people who speak different languages, yelling at each other, we just can’t understand each other,” Thompson says. “And the more we yell, the worse it gets."

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.