Tag Archives: Trump voters

Computational Propaganda, Part Two

After each new Trump travesty, my friends and family have taken to asking each other the same question: “Who the hell could still support this buffoon? How stupid would someone have to be to drink this particular Kool-aid?”

A recent study conducted by Oxford University apparently answers that (not-so-rhetorical) question.

Low-quality, extremist, sensationalist and conspiratorial news published in the US was overwhelmingly consumed and shared by rightwing social network users, according to a new study from the University of Oxford.

The study, from the university’s “computational propaganda project”, looked at the most significant sources of “junk news” shared in the three months leading up to Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address this January, and tried to find out who was sharing them and why.

“On Twitter, a network of Trump supporters consumes the largest volume of junk news, and junk news is the largest proportion of news links they share,” the researchers concluded. On Facebook, the skew was even greater. There, “extreme hard right pages – distinct from Republican pages – share more junk news than all the other audiences put together.”

The researchers monitored 13,500 politically-active US Twitter users, and a separate group of 48,000 public Facebook pages, and looked at the external websites that they were sharing.

The findings speak to the level of polarisation common across the US political divide. “The two main political parties, Democrats and Republicans, prefer different sources of political news, with limited overlap,” the researchers write.

The study did not find a high percentage of social media penetration by the Russians, but it did identify clear political preferences of those who consumed junk news.

But there was a clear skew in who shared links from the 91 sites the researchers had manually coded as “junk news” (based on breaching at least three of five quality standards including “professionalism”, “bias” and “credibility”). “The Trump Support group consumes the highest volume of junk news sources on Twitter, and spreads more junk news sources, than all the other groups put together. This pattern is repeated on Facebook, where the Hard Conservatives group consumed the highest proportion of junk news.”

There has always been a credulous segment of the American public; given our embarrassingly low levels of civic literacy, it shouldn’t surprise us that a percentage of voters unhappy with their position in the polity would “choose the news” that confirmed their biases. As a colleague of mine recently wrote (citations omitted),

The flourishing of scientific polling and the increased sophistication of social science research methods have provided scholars with an opportunity to put these concerns to the test, and the results have largely confirmed the worst fears of political philosophers. Foundational studies of voters and elections published in the mid-20th Century documented voters’ ignorance, wishful thinking, and reliance on simple cues like partisanship, and nearly 8 decades of subsequent research has largely confirmed those conclusions.The democratic polity is not now and has never been made up of highly knowledgeable, informed and engaged civic citizens.

And there are plenty of charlatans, would-be power-brokers and snake-oil salesmen ready to lead the willing down the garden path…..

The Puzzle of Trump Support

Americans have spent the past four plus months watching a profoundly unfit and erratic man do significant damage to America’s interests while debasing the highest office in the land, and they are increasingly asking each other how this could have happened. How could anyone have voted for a man who flaunted his ignorance of  government and the world, who demonstrated emotional instability virtually every day, and who repeatedly and publicly violated the most basic norms of civility?

For that matter, given his performance to date, how is it possible that a majority of those who voted for Trump still support him?

A number of columnists and social scientists have attributed Trump’s support to economic distress. I’m not buying it. Economic concerns, Hillary hatred and similar motives may have coexisted with other characteristics of Trump voters, but on closer look, they lack explanatory power.

Two paragraphs from a recent article in Politico come much closer to the mark:

Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement was not really about the climate. And despite his overheated rhetoric about the “tremendous” and “draconian” burdens the deal would impose on the U.S. economy, Trump’s decision wasn’t really about that, either. America’s commitments under the Paris deal, like those of the other 194 cooperating nations, were voluntary. So those burdens were imaginary.

No, Trump’s abrupt withdrawal from this carefully crafted multilateral compromise was a diplomatic and political slap: It was about extending a middle finger to the world, while reminding his base that he shares its resentments of fancy-pants elites and smarty-pants scientists and tree-hugging squishes who look down on real Americans who drill for oil and dig for coal. (Emphasis mine.)

I’m well aware that the plural of anecdote isn’t data, but the few people I know who voted for Donald Trump fit this analysis perfectly. They harbor profound racial and (especially) cultural resentments. Support for a buffoon despised by knowledgable, thoughtful people was their way of sticking it to the “elitists,” those snobs who read books and newspapers, support the arts, drive hybrids and recycle their trash.

Post-election research tells us that Trump voters weren’t poor, but they were disproportionately uneducated, white and rural, and deeply resentful of urban Americans, African-Americans and brown immigrants. (Pale Brits and Canadians are okay.) They share a conviction that the “smarty pants” are looking down on them, and if we are honest, there’s a fair amount of evidence supporting that conviction: today’s America is extremely economically segregated, and just as racial segregation fosters racial distrust and stereotyping, economic segregation reinforces tribalism and disdain for the “Other.” That disdain goes both ways.

This is not to deny the economic contribution to those resentments. If economic policy could help rural communities flourish again, the cultural hostility (although probably not the racial animus) would abate somewhat. Right now, however, the more evidence of Trump’s incompetence and volatility that emerges, the more his core supporters deny administration wrongdoing and buy into improbable apologetics and wild conspiracy theories.

They’re adult versions of the kids on the playground who stuck their fingers in their ears and said nah nah I can’t hear you.

When this bizarre episode in our country’s history has run its course, and government has (hopefully) returned the policy-making apparatus to mature adults who respect data and evidence, who understand cause and effect and the scientific method, we will need to address the concerns of people left behind by social change, people who feel adrift in a brave new world that they find utterly inhospitable.

We need to do something, because “I’ll show you!” is a really bad reason to hand the nuclear codes over to a dangerously incompetent clown.

America the Divided

A new Brookings Institution report shows that a substantial majority of Americans live in counties that did not vote for Donald Trump.

The contentious political back and forth seen daily in the media, cable TV, and polls should come as no surprise in a nation where Donald Trump won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote by 2.9 million votes. Newly released Census population estimates for 2016 provide further evidence of just why the nation’s politics are split demographically. These data show that 31 million fewer Americans live in counties that voted for Trump than in those carried by Hillary Clinton…

While it is true that Clinton took less than one sixth of the nation’s 3,100+ counties, she won most of the largest ones, including 111 of the 137 counties with over 500,000 people. Trump won the Electoral College by successfully navigating rural-urban balances in key swing states, taking small areas by large vote margins.

The report–replete with multi-colored graphs– is well worth studying. It also describes the demographics of those Trump and Clinton counties, noting that when they are classified by income,  the least well-off households are over represented in Trump counties and the most well-off households are underrepresented.

Generally, Trump counties are least likely to be home to those with “urban” attributes. Only about one in five foreign-born residents live in these counties, compared with a much larger share of the United States’ native-born population (49 percent) that calls these places home. Fewer single than married persons are Trump county residents. Especially sharp divides are seen by race and ethnicity. Less than one fifth of all Asians and less than one third of all Hispanics and blacks live in counties carried by Trump.

I have written previously about the increasing urban/rural divide, and the Brookings research adds considerable data confirming that divide.

Still more confirmation is contained in an article from the Atlantic, titled “Red State, Blue City.”

The article begins by underscoring the decidedly progressive politics of cities, and the growing numbers of people choosing to live in them, but it also makes an often-overlooked point:

If liberal advocates are clinging to the hope that federalism will allow them to create progressive havens, they’re overlooking a big problem: Power may be decentralized in the American system, but it devolves to the state, not the city.

City folks in Indiana are painfully aware of that reality; Indianapolis is the economic generator in a state that barely  pretends to allow municipalities any self-determination. There’s no meaningful “home rule” in Indiana. The article also points out that most state-level policymaking is conservative:

That’s partly because Republicans enjoy unprecedented control in state capitals—they hold 33 governorships and majorities in 32 state legislatures. The trend also reflects a broader shift: Americans are in the midst of what’s been called “the Big Sort,” as they flock together with people who share similar socioeconomic profiles and politics. In general, that means rural areas are becoming more conservative, and cities more liberal. Even the reddest states contain liberal cities: Half of the U.S. metro areas with the biggest recent population gains are in the South, and they are Democratic. Texas alone is home to four such cities; Clinton carried each of them. Increasingly, the most important political and cultural divisions are not between red and blue states but between red states and the blue cities within.

There is no love lost between these progressive cities and the rural areas surrounding them.

In most states, agriculture is no longer king. Rural areas are struggling, while densely packed areas with highly educated workforces and socially liberal lifestyles flourish. In turn, rural voters harbor growing resentment toward those in cities, from Austin to Atlanta, from Birmingham to Chicago….

By and large, though, cities hold the weaker hand. It makes sense that these areas, finding themselves economically vital, increasingly progressive, and politically disempowered, would want to use local ordinances as a bulwark against conservative state and federal policies. But this gambit is likely to backfire. Insofar as states have sometimes granted cities leeway to enact policy in the past, that forbearance has been the result of political norms, not legal structures. Once those norms crumble, and state legislatures decide to assert their authority, cities will have very little recourse.

An important lesson of last year’s presidential election is that American political norms are much weaker than they had appeared, allowing a scandal-plagued, unpopular candidate to triumph—in part because voters outside of cities objected to the pace of cultural change. Another lesson is that the United States is coming to resemble two separate countries, one rural and one urban.

Only one of them, at present, appears entitled to self-determination.

Tearing Down the Bastille

This blog has a lot of very perceptive readers. The fact that my “day job” precludes my weighing in on conversations among commenters doesn’t mean I don’t read what is posted, and I was particularly struck by the following observation, in a comment to last Tuesday’s post on the politics of resentment:

I would describe the executive orders and Congress’ legislative “agenda” (such as it is) so far as governing by revenge. Nothing done or proposed has any constructive elements in it. You’d think they were tearing down the Bastille.

As another commenter remarked, the mob won, and they’re cheering every brick that comes down, even when it lands on them.

I’m certainly aware–as the old academic adage has it–that the plural of anecdote is not data. But the image of “tearing down the Bastille” is eerily consistent with the attitudes of the Trump people I have encountered.

Most of the Trump voters I know personally ( I’m happy to report that I don’t know many–but then, I live in one of those diverse urban bubbles) nurse attitudes that I can only characterize as racist and misogynist. In at least two cases, both older white men, their bigotries were on  display long before Trump emerged. They both were among the fringe crazies who appeared to “lose it” when Obama was elected; it was obvious that they experienced the ascension of a black man to the White House as incomprehensible and deeply disturbing, not to mention a personal affront. (In an email, one of them recently characterized President Obama as a “Fabian socialist progressive.”  I have no idea what that terminology is supposed to mean, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t either; he just knows that the black guy must be a commie.)

I have also been made aware, however, of Trump voters who seemed less motivated by racial animus or sexist attitudes than by a general hostility to “the system,” and a desire to tear it down. For these voters, Trump’s intellectual and emotional deficits and general buffoonery were assets–his lack of experience, his ignorance of government, his recklessness, volatility and especially his eruptions of uncontrolled anger–all promised chaos, and chaos was precisely what they wanted.

I am unable to fathom a fury that reckless. I can only assume that it is the result of a life experienced as deeply unsatisfying coupled with a conviction that things will not or cannot improve, and that the only satisfying course of action is therefore a destructive one.

If the destruction hurts a lot of innocent people, well, those are the breaks.

Whatever the motives of the 26% of (disproportionately white and elderly) eligible voters who cast ballots for Trump, the rest of us are left with a choice: man (or woman) the barricades and try to minimize the harm being done, especially to the powerless and  disadvantaged; or sit on the sidelines and watch the bricks fall.

The Big Lie(s)

With every announcement of a cabinet nominee, the news gets more depressing and surreal. Trump is deliberately naming agency heads who oppose the missions of the agencies they will control–nominees who can be expected to eviscerate efforts to address climate change, undermine public education and favor saber-rattling over diplomacy, among other disasters.

All of them are contemptuous–or ignorant–of demonstrable facts.

Case in point: Andrew F. Puzder, the fast-food chief executive Trump has chosen to be his secretary of labor. As The New York Times has reported, Puzder has a “passionate disdain” for both the Affordable Care Act and efforts to raise the minimum wage.

He says the law has led to rising health insurance premiums, “reducing consumer spending, resulting in a reduction in restaurant visits.”

He has also argued that the act has given businesses an incentive to cut back on full-time workers to avoid the costs of providing them with insurance, as the act frequently requires.

The problem is that the available data largely disagree.

Fast food sales are actually up since the ACA took effect, and there is no correlation between employment growth in the industry and health insurance premiums. States where premiums increased more did not tend to have lower employment, and the percentage of people who are forced to work part-time even though they prefer to work full-time has fallen dramatically since the Affordable Care Act was enacted.

He is similarly wrong about the effects of raising the minimum wage; employment has actually increased in the wake of most such raises.

Puzzler doesn’t know what he is talking about, so he will fit right in with the other cabinet nominees, and with Trump and his voters.

It turns out that most of those voters inhabit our new “post-fact” society. A survey fielded after the election may illuminate the gap between those voters and reality.

* Unemployment: Under President Obama, job growth has been quite strong, and the unemployment rate has improved dramatically. PPP, however, found that 67% of Trump voters believe the unemployment rate went up under Obama – which is the exact opposite of reality.

* Stock Market: Since the president was elected, the stock market has soared, nearly tripling since the height of the Great Recession. PPP found that 39% of Trump voters believe the market has gone down under Obama – which is also the exact opposite of reality.

* Popular Vote: As of this morning, Hillary Clinton received roughly 2.7 million more votes than Donald Trump, but PPP nevertheless found that 40% of Trump voters believe he won the popular vote – which is, once again, the exact opposite of reality.

* Voter Fraud: Even Trump’s lawyers concede there was no voter fraud in the presidential election, but PPP found that 60% of Trump voters apparently believe “millions” of illegal ballots were cast for Clinton in 2016 – which isn’t even close to resembling reality.

Soros Conspiracy Theory: A whopping 73% of Trump voters believe George Soros is paying anti-Trump protesters – though in reality, George Soros is not paying anti-Trump protesters.

The survey goes a long way toward answering the question repeatedly asked by so many anguished Americans: why on earth would anyone vote for this monumentally unfit, unethical buffoon?

Americans live in the age of confirmation bias, where you can find sources on the Internet supporting your preferred worldview, no matter how ridiculous or flat-out insane. Propagating the Big Lie has never been easier.

The strategy of the Big Lie comes to us courtesy of the Third Reich; as Joseph Goebbels helpfully explained it,

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

Joe Nocera wrote a column a few years ago in The New York Times, explaining our more sophisticated modern Big Lie techniques,

You begin with a hypothesis that has a certain surface plausibility. You find an ally whose background suggests that he’s an “expert”; out of thin air, he devises “data.” You write articles in sympathetic publications, repeating the data endlessly; in time, some of these publications make your cause their own. Like-minded congressmen pick up your mantra and invite you to testify at hearings.

You’re chosen for an investigative panel related to your topic. When other panel members, after inspecting your evidence, reject your thesis, you claim that they did so for ideological reasons. This, too, is repeated by your allies. Soon, the echo chamber you created drowns out dissenting views; even presidential candidates begin repeating the Big Lie.

Thanks to fake news and the Internet, Big Lies have become much easier to sustain.

Thanks to uncritical, uneducated citizens who lack both civic and media literacy, facts, credibility and reality no longer matter.

The rest of us are screwed.