Trump’s Support

I mostly quit blogging after last year’s election, because I realized that all I was going to do was fulminate. In the nine months since, I’ve tried to listen carefully to Trump supporters, and to read anything I could find explaining their motives. I don’t want to moan, I want to understand.

I haven’t heard anybody claim that our president is a good man. Not even his most ardent defenders say they want their children to grow up like him. They voted for him knowing his character, since he makes no attempt to hide it.

They don’t necessarily approve of his character, but other powerful forces motivate them to support him. I’ve tried to understand what those forces are. I’ve been particularly interested in evangelical Christians, the heart of his support. They have always been very interested in morality—passionately so–but suddenly they don’t care about morality at all. What is driving that?

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Certain issues are very potent for Trump supporters. Most of them are non-economic. They are more emotional and cultural. Among these issues are:

–immigration and the ethnic and religious makeup of America

–gun control

–LGBTQ and their rights

–abortion

–land regulations

–minorities getting “special treatment”

These are all significant issues. If we were simply discussing policy choices, we could probably find room for discussion and compromise on most of these. But as they have all become highly emotive cultural symbols, they easily become litmus tests. (This is as true on the left as the right, of course.)

Emotions are fueled by a deep distrust and dislike of Democrats. It’s not just the what, it’s the who. Hilary Clinton became the epitome of this mistrust: she was deeply and viscerally disliked. Some of this was no doubt because she had been targeted by relentless Republican propaganda for 30 years. But some of it was because she lacked the charisma to escape the generic dislike of her party. Among a large share of the American public—30%? 40%?—it’s axiomatic. Democrats are faceless, careless, lying politicians. Everything they say should be regarded with deep suspicion. The party is owned by gays, minorities, feminists—that’s all they care about, not you. (Many people have similar feelings about Republicans. For “gays, minorities, feminists,” substitute “rich people.”)

Nostalgia and resentment are fueled by the pace of change. Conservatism has always featured a measure of the old-fogey complaint that the world is going to the dogs. That’s been ramped up by a world in which change has accelerated. Who could believe how quickly gay marriage triumphed, and marijuana was legalized? Churches are shrinking, whites are becoming a minority, America can’t impose its will on the world. Rural whites have become the leading victims (and perpetrators) of drug addiction; who saw this coming? Naturally many people are unsettled by such change. They don’t believe all this change is inevitable progress, and they want somebody to stand up and say so. If that person says it rudely, good. Maybe somebody will listen.

Condescension turns resentment into rage. One friend described the feeling of being lectured about gay rights by people who less than five years ago publicly opposed gay marriage. Ah, the convictions of the newly converted! Look at the list of issues I listed. Can you hear the scornful and lecturing tone often employed by liberals when discussing these? Of course, I’d say an even more hostile tone is employed by the right wing, but that’s not what I’m discussing here. I’m trying to probe why people support Trump. One reason is that they want to give the middle finger to people who condescend to them.

The book Hillbilly Elegy paints a portrait of an ethno-cultural group that is a mainstay of Trump support: an Appalachian Scots-Irish heritage that is closely bound to family and clan, but frequently unable to sustain family values like marriage and sobriety. They are proud people. Their lives may be deeply troubled, but they won’t stand for anything that sounds like criticism. I’d say Trump has been a champion for such people, as for lots of others who can’t stand being told what they can think and what they can say.

If my description is accurate, it’s not going to be easy to undo our current polarization. Most people say they want our politicians to work together and compromise to get things done, but these issues and the emotions that accompany them dominate our politics. Based on what I’ve heard, there’s no substance to the argument that Democrats only have to offer some clear economic appeal to regain the allegiance of the middle class/rural white/working man (pick one). Nor do I think that Trump himself is the key issue. Once he goes away or loses sway, these powerful feelings will remain. Trump is a catalyst, but the emotional chemicals that drove the reaction will remain.

That’s what I worry about most: that we get through the next four years but find ourselves unable to escape the dynamics that elected Trump. I think we need—all of us, on all sides—to rediscover how to talk about ourselves as Americans. We need to find a way of thinking and acting that can name our common and distinctive identity. Call it patriotism. Both sides have been complicit in losing sight of this. Republicans have been strong on waving the flag, but often with the aim of casting anyone who doesn’t agree with them as un-American. Democrats have fallen right into this trap. I was struck by the critique of the choice of speakers at the women’s march, right after the election. How many police or military veterans spoke? How many fire chiefs? How many clergy? How many school board presidents? In our local event, the speakers were all liberal politicians and activists fighting for some group. Fine, but did anybody speak for all Americans? Did we sing the national anthem?

What binds us all together?—gays, hillbillies, immigrants, software whizzes, school teachers, farmers, Hollywood producers, disabled veterans, opioid addicts, Christians, Jews, Muslims. Surely if we read the Constitution very carefully we can rediscover some ideas of what a remarkable nation “we the people” hoped to make. We won’t all agree on the issues. Our forefathers didn’t. But at least we would be arguing toward common ground, not toward cutting off “the takers” or “the deplorables,” as though they were a diseased limb.

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One Response to “Trump’s Support”

  1. Dave Says:

    Your hiatus was noticed. I will send a friend a link to the blog. He is appalled and mystified that such a proportion of voters could make this choice.

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