Even though I deplore him.
In a recent piece, I wondered about the people behind Trump’s 40% approval rating, questioning how they could continue to back someone so obviously unfit for the office he holds. This is perhaps the toughest question to discuss with strangers today, both because many Trump backers are surprisingly reluctant to admit it and because their position is so alien to mine that empathy and common ground are elusive. Nonetheless, I have persisted in my efforts to better understand what makes people stick with Trump. The conversations and answers I’ve pursued do reveal some of the imbalance to be understandable. [and offers hope…?]
There seem to be three kinds of Trump people. The first are largely beyond reach – the misfits motivated by nationalism, racism, misogyny, and other societal ills. I make no assertion as to the size of this group, but their existence is beyond dispute.
Next up are people all around the country — largely beyond middle age — who resent the fact that they had not gotten what they hoped/expected was their fair share of what life dealt to other people they see and know. This “resentful class” is generally undereducated (by contemporary if not historical standards) and view many of our institutions as catering to elites. They see in the disdain those elites hold for Trump parallels to their own experience, and they relate comfortably to him because they feel he understands and shares their frustrations.
The other group are what we might call the “left-behinds” – people in rural, agricultural areas or declining industrial regions who feel ‘stuck’ and powerless to protect themselves against global economic forces. Trump promised them help, and keeps claiming they’re “winning”, and this group keeps having faith that these victories will trickle down. Few seem to grasp that they are, in fact, hostages to Trump’s incompetence and ignorance; most of his policies cannot really help them in the long term and actively harm them in the short! They are surprisingly, confoundingly, patient with the President. They believe the voices on Fox News and they keep on believing that Trump’s help is just around the corner.
Much like the President himself, these groups have never really taken much interest in foreign policy matters. And they evince a tendency to take a simplistic view of most things in their lives. They either win or lose. And economic trends are measured by what people can buy with their next paycheck.
Because the Obama recovery from 2008 was so fundamental, balanced and grounded on sound economic theory that it carried the country well beyond the 2016 election (despite Trump’s tax cuts for the rich) and has so far withstood his assaults on our main trading partners in Europe, Asia and North America.
When explicitly asked if they want to see Trump reelected, many supporters I’ve spoken to are quick to say that they are often disgusted by his personal behavior. But they still believe he favors their interests over the Democratic socialists, and they feel he still is on the right track.
When asked about his style as President compared to Obama, their reaction is cautious. Some contrast Obama’s careful, methodical style unfavorably to Trump’s decisive persona. There is no doubt in my mind that part of that is the result of bias; to consider Obama inexperienced and lacking confidence, while applying the opposite attributes to Trump, requires both fanciful leaps of logic and a willingness to ignore the fact that Trump’s bold strokes are frequently ill-informed, ill-advised, and, ultimately, unsuccessful.
Whether we like it or not, those of us who believe Trump a danger to the nation must acknowledge his ability to convince his base that he is brilliant and successful, notwithstanding mountains of evidence to the contrary on both counts.
What can we take away from this analysis?
First, ‘we’ only need to lop off about 10 percent of Trump’s base to easily elect the Democrat nominee. Therefore, we should not get tangled up in dealing with this whole base.
Second, policies will matter less than both character and competence in the election of the next President. Policies are important, but they are far less important to Trump’s base than to the Democrat base. Trump supporters are not weighing 10-point policy papers against one another; they are looking for someone to stand up for them against forces beyond their control. A populist Democrat can make inroads here, but the “socialist” label is hugely problematic in Trump’s portion of America.
The last thing is we should not look down our noses at great bumper sticker slogans, whether “Make America Great Again,” or “No Collusion, No Obstruction.” Trump came to office by accident. He was able to navigate a big field of Republican contenders and had the good fortune to run against Hillary Clinton –whom history may prove to have been the most inept Democratic candidate ever.
To succeed in 2020, Democrats must be able to counter ‘no collusion; no obstruction; no impeachment’ with appeals to grassroots sensibilities – attacks on crony capitalism, coddling dictators, and tax cheats, along with economic proposals that don’t neglect even those industries we believe to be dying.
The next election is really all about a particular group of about 5,000,000 people. The geniuses who plan and run campaigns should begin to identify those people and start to dig into what really matters to them. The 50 percent of the country that abhors Trump will be there, regardless of who the Democratic nominee ends up being. But the peculiarities of the Electoral College mean the election might turn on the 10 percent who don’t already fall into either camp.
We must stay VERY focused.