Check out the rapturous expressions of these Trump voters. They predict where I am going in this post.
In a post back in August of 2016, I repeated my belief that the real story of the 2016 election was not so much the bullying, blustering Donald Trump but the large segment of the American populace who seemed to revere him. I wrote:
Trump’s lies gain credence partly because of the conference of referential validity - they get repeated constantly in the media and thereby become more firmly believed by Trump’s supporters. The minds of those supporters have been prepared by decades of conservative propaganda created and promoted by the leadership of the Republican party. Trump is a symptom or symbol of that stream of unconsciousness. The real story I continue to claim is not Trump but what he represents - a large proportion of the electorate which is prepared to believe his lies and who seem immune to rational thought. They will still be here after Trump, hopefully, is dumped. They will still vote for the Republican candidates who deliver them nothing but robbery to pay for tax cuts for the rich.
My interest in who voted for Trump continued after the election. In a June, 2017 post, I observed that many of Trump’s supporters were relatively affluent and well educated. But that did not stop them from voting for a man who many others saw as deeply flawed and lacking any kind of moral compass. I concluded:
We have been told that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was flawed in that it did not appeal to the working class voters who supported Trump. I’ve heard Democratic activists say that Dems need to craft messaging to appeal to those working class voters. But data reviewed here suggest that such a strategy will yield minimal returns for two reasons. First, the “working class voters” make up a small percentage of Trump’s base. Second, economic messaging seems unlikely to sway those who are already affluent and still supporting Trump. Those folks are not lacking subsistence needs; they are after tax cuts.
So given my preoccupation with the psychology of Trump supporters I was most interested in this NY Times op-ed by David French, a senior writer at the National Review, who explains why Mueller’s Investigation Won’t Shake Trump’s Base.
COLUMBIA, Tenn. — On Monday, nothing changed. If you live, as I do, in the heart of Trump country, you know there is no chance that the indictment of Donald Trump’s ex-campaign chairman Paul Manafort, or the guilty plea of a former foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, will alter our political dynamics. Mr. Trump’s supporters will stand by their man. After all, they’ve stood by him through worse, through events and allegations that implicate Mr. Trump himself.
It’s an unfortunate truth that the Republican base not only accepts but also often angrily defends conduct from Mr. Trump that they would never, ever accept in a Democratic president. Forget this week’s news for a moment and take a look at the recent past. Would Republicans have stood idly by if Barack Obama fired an F.B.I. director during an investigation of the president’s top aides and then misled Americans about the reason? Would conservatives tolerate a President Hillary Clinton demanding that praying football players keep their religion to themselves, then calling for firings and boycotts if they didn’t comply?
The interesting question isn’t whether so many Republicans are demonstrating a striking degree of hypocrisy, but why.
No modern Republican president or nominee has been perfect, by any means, but no one can fairly compare their conduct and character to Donald Trump. Since Gerald Ford they have been, to varying degrees, good men. They all upheld and defended American constitutional traditions. They fought hard and tried to win, but there were clear lines of civility and propriety they would not cross.
In other words, for 40 years after the fall of Richard Nixon, it was easy to proclaim that character mattered and still pull the lever for a Republican. In 2016, however, a commitment to virtue became costly. In the battle between virtue and politics, virtue lost, and it’s losing still. I’d like to dwell on two reasons.
Factor 1: They hate Democrats
The first is easy to name — negative polarization. The Pew Research Center has outlined the undeniable growth in enmity between left and right. The parties are not only more ideologically extreme, but partisans are now motivated mainly by antipathy toward the other side.
This phenomenon explains why reluctant Republicans would pull the lever for Mr. Trump even if he was their “last choice.” They were voting in perceived self-defense, and he fights hard against the people they dislike the most.
Factor 2: In their eyes, Trump does no wrong
But this doesn’t entirely explain the curious unwillingness to face bad facts or to critique the most baldfaced lies. Talk to folks in Trump country, and you quickly understand that most of them don’t just want to win, they also want to be good. They want to be proud of their movement. They see themselves as good people, and they want to root for a good man.
How the two factors support the Trump base
The desire to think the best of Mr. Trump (2) combined with the deep distaste for Democrats (1) grants extraordinary power to two phrases: “fake news” and “the other side is worse.” “Fake news” erects a shield of disbelief against the worst allegations and allows a person to believe that Mr. Trump is better than he is. For too many Republicans, every single troubling element of the Russia investigation — including multiple administration falsehoods about contacts with Russian officials — represents “fake news.”
This week’s news can be waved away. Mr. Manafort’s conduct had nothing to do with the campaign, they argue, even though the investigation continues and even though Mr. Trump showed terrible judgment in bringing him on the team. Mr. Papadopoulos was a nobody, they say, even as his guilty plea outlines multiple contacts with a “campaign supervisor” who seemed to encourage him.
And the disbelief isn’t limited to Russia. In a recent poll, a mere 8 percent of Trump voters believe sexual assault and sexual harassment claims against him are credible. This even though he was caught on tape bragging about groping women and in spite of more than a dozen allegations of serious misconduct.
But what about when the misconduct is plain for all to see? Then we move to “the other side is worse.” Rage and fear overwhelm, and the desire for goodness recedes. The extreme edge of the #Resistance is the gift that keeps on giving. In some cases, the actions of the president are deemed less significant than the outrages of celebrities and comedians. Sure, Mr. Trump tweeted, but did you see that Kathy Griffin beheading picture?
For Christian conservatives in particular, these double standards are understandable (who isn’t tempted to compromise for the sake of victory, especially now?) but not defensible. Is the rage that accompanies negative polarization consistent with commands to love even our enemies and bless those who persecute us? There is so little humility. There is so much anger. And the Republican character corrodes.
I’m reminded of an encounter at my church. People know that I opposed both Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton. They often ask what I think of the president’s performance. My standard response: I like some things, I dislike others, but I really wish he showed better character. I don’t want him to lie. I said this to a sweet older lady not long ago, and she responded — in all sincerity — “You mean Trump lies?” “Yes,” I replied. “All the time.” She didn’t answer with a defense. She didn’t say “fake news.” We’d known each other for years, and she trusted my words.
For a moment, she seemed troubled. I wanted to talk more — to say that we can appreciate and applaud the good things he does, but we can’t ignore his flaws, we can’t defend his sins, and we can’t let him define the future of the Republican Party.
But just then, her jaw set. I saw a flare of defiance in her eyes. She took a sip of coffee, looked straight at me, and I knew exactly what was coming next:
“Well, the Democrats are worse.”