Tag Archives: Trump supporters

Why I Harp On Civic Literacy

In yesterday’s post, I listed elements of necessary political reform, beginning with reinvigorated civics instruction in the public schools.

I would understand if regular readers of this blog shrugged and attributed that particular item in the list to my abiding preoccupation with the importance of what I call “civic literacy.” Civic literacy isn’t civic engagement–important as that is. It is knowledge of America’s history, philosophy and basic legal structure.

When civic ignorance is rampant, Donald Trump can dismiss the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause as “phony” without losing the support of his base. He can repeatedly act in ways that are inconsistent with the Constitution and rule of law, and be defended by Congressmen who are confident that their constituents don’t know any better.

But civic ignorance has consequences that go well beyond Trump. I harp on the importance of basic civic knowledge because I believe it is connected to everything else that ails us–especially the growth of “identity politics,” or tribalism. I addressed that relationship in my recent book; the following paragraphs are what I wrote there, and may explain why I continue to be preoccupied with the issue.

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One of the most overlooked connections, and one that makes sensible reforms so difficult, is between low levels of civic literacy and tribalism.  American citizens do not share a political history, a common religion, or a single race or ethnicity. In some precincts, citizens don’t even speak the same language. In the absence of cultural and linguistic ties, societies require what Robert Bellah called a “civil religion” through which to forge a common civic identity. In the United States, that civil religion has centered upon our constituent documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—and the governing philosophy they embody, what I have elsewhere called “The American Idea.”

The tribalism fed by inequality and social media grows more pronounced in the absence of civic literacy. When Americans are ignorant of the history, philosophy and evolution of their constitutional form of government, they may share a common national geography, but they don’t share a civic identity. The absence of a common “civic religion” translates into widespread neglect of an important civic obligation, the duty to be sufficiently informed to evaluate government’s conduct of the people’s business.

Public accountability requires that those in power be forthright and detailed about laws they have enacted and other actions they have taken; it requires journalists who can adequately and accurately convey that information to the general public; and it requires citizens able to compare those laws and activities to the standards prescribed by the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. The ability to discharge all of these tasks depends upon a basic familiarity with the nation’s history, philosophy and legal framework.

The widespread deficit of civic knowledge is not simply an impediment to personal efficacy and participation in the democratic process; it is evidence of a fundamental failure of public education. Civic ignorance impedes communication between Americans, and between Americans and their policymakers. It facilitates susceptibility to spin and propaganda. The loss of civic literacy is not confined to the voting public; American politicians on all points along the political spectrum constantly genuflect to the Constitution, and just as constantly disclose a lack of genuine (or often, even superficial) familiarity with it, let alone the two hundred plus years of jurisprudence applying its principles to ever-changing “facts on the ground.” The result is a lack of a common frame of reference that makes productive political action impossible.

 

Voting For Chaos

Posted by accident. This is tomorrow’s post. Next one on Thursday. Sorry for cluttering your inboxes.

 

An intriguing–and frustrating– aspect of our current political climate is the persistent search to understand Trump supporters. What accounts for the loyalty of voters to this man who is personally repulsive and officially incompetent?

We’ve had the economic theory, which was pretty thoroughly rebutted by the data; we’ve had the “racial anxiety” theory, which–again, according to the data–clearly does account for a significant percentage of those supporters. We’ve had the “partisan identity” explanation that I shared a few days ago, which seems valid so far as it goes, but doesn’t explain the origins of the partisan divide.

In September, columnist Thomas Edsell shared another explanation, offered by a trio of scholars in a paper given at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting: a “need for chaos.” The efforts of people who display this need have been facilitated by the ease with which social media allows transmittal of “conspiracy theories, fake news, discussions of political scandals and negative campaigns.

The authors describe “chaos incitement” as a “strategy of last resort by marginalized status-seekers,” willing to adopt disruptive tactics. Trump, in turn, has consistently sought to strengthen the perception that America is in chaos, a perception that has enhanced his support while seeming to reinforce his claim that his predecessors, especially President Barack Obama, were failures.

Petersen, Osmundsen and Arceneaux find that those who meet their definition of having a “need for chaos” express that need by willingly spreading disinformation. Their goal is not to advance their own ideology but to undermine political elites, left and right, and to “mobilize others against politicians in general.” These disrupters do not “share rumors because they believe them to be true. For the core group, hostile political rumors are simply a tool to create havoc.”

We used to have a word for this: nihilism.

The authors of the study surveyed voters in the United States and Denmark, and uncovered disquieting, all-encompassing hostilities. Twenty-four percent of respondents said society should be burned to the ground; 40 percent agreed that “When it comes to our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking ‘just let them all burn’ ”; and 40 percent agreed that “we cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.”

The intense hostility to political establishments of all kinds among what could be called “chaos voters” helps explain what Pew Research and others have found: a growing distrust among Republican voters of higher education as well as empirically based science, both of which are increasingly seen as allied with the liberal establishment.

Trump’s “talent,” according to another scholarly paper,  is his ability to capitalize on the fear of chaos, rather than the desire to trigger it.

“Populist movements,” McDermott and Hatemi write, “rely on inflammatory rhetoric to create a tribal ‘us versus them’ condition — this type of environment instigates neural mechanisms from the evolutionary desire to be part of the group.”

The abrupt rise of social media has played a crucial role, they observe:

In many ways, as we have technologically advanced, we have also regressed to more immediate, emotional, and personal forms of political communication. And it is only in understanding the nature of that personal political psychology that we can begin to grapple seriously with the challenges of today, including the consequences of global populism.

The common element in all of these studies and theories is the extent to which fear–fear of change, fear of the “other,” fear of the unknown–feeds hostility to “the system” and to the  “elites” that supposedly benefit from that system.

There are clearly a lot of disaffected people out there, and the Internet facilitates their expression of rage.

What we can do about it is another matter.

 

 

Psychology And Trump Support

I have had real trouble getting my head around the fact that somewhere between 35 and 40 percent of Americans actually support Donald Trump. Here is a man who demonstrates hourly that he is boorish and crude, none-too-bright, embarrassingly and painfully ignorant, and bereft of anything resembling a coherent policy agenda (or, for that matter, a coherent anything).He routinely embarrasses us on the world stage, his cabinet is a cesspool, and his crazy tariffs are threatening the economy. And that’s just for starters.

What accounts for the support?

I’m clearly not the only person who struggles with this question. What do his rabid supporters in the GOP see in this man who repulses rational, thoughtful people around the world?

Psychology Today had an article attempting to answer that question; it rounded up all of the psychological theories about Trump’s appeal.

Some of the explanations come from a 2017 review paper published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology by the psychologist and UC Santa Cruz professor Thomas Pettigrew. Others have been put forth as far back as 2016, by me, in various articles and blog posts for publications like Psychology Today. A number of these were inspired by insights from psychologists like Sheldon Solomon, who laid the groundwork for the influential Terror Management Theory, and David Dunning, who did the same for the Dunning-Kruger effect.

This list will begin with the more benign reasons for Trump’s intransigent support. As the list goes on, the explanations become increasingly worrisome, and toward the end, border on the pathological. It should be strongly emphasized that not all Trump supporters are racist, mentally vulnerable, or fundamentally bad people. It can be detrimental to society when those with degrees and platforms try to demonize their political opponents or paint them as mentally ill when they are not. That being said, it is just as harmful to pretend that there are not clear psychological and neural factors that underlie much of Trump supporters’ unbridled allegiance.

So what were the theories? The “benign” ones ranged from rich people being willing to support him because they’re making money, to the theory that “showmanship and simple language” engage the brains of some people, to America’s addiction to celebrity.

These are “benign”?

The list also referenced research showing conservatives more responsive to threat: fear, in this theory, keeps his followers energized. And it included the the Dunning-Kruger Effect (Trump followers aren’t simply misinformed;  they’re completely unaware that they are misinformed.) Authoritarian personality disorder was another.

And of course, a significant number of recent studies have correlated support for Trump with “racial anxiety,” a polite word for racism. (This one has been my “go to” explanation; they support Trump because he hates the same people they do.)

I’m no psychologist, and I don’t play one on TV, so I can’t evaluate the relative merits of these theories. But I want to add one. Bear with me…

Recently, I was listening to “Fiddler on the Roof.” Tevya was singing “If I were a rich man,” and I was struck by the passage where he sings that, if he were rich, all the men in town would come ask him difficult questions.  “And it wouldn’t matter if I answered right or wrong; when you’re rich, they think you really know.”

It was an “aha” moment. The line made me think of a Guardian report quoting Steve Bannon.

According to an upcoming book obtained by The Guardian, Bannon predicts Trump will be abandoned by his base following various investigations into his family’s secretive finances.

“This is where it isn’t a witch hunt — even for the hard core, this is where he turns into just a crooked business guy, and one worth $50 [million] instead of $10 [billion]. Not the billionaire he said he was, just another scumbag,” Bannon tells Michael Wolff in Siege: Trump Under Fire, according to an advance copy seen by The Guardian.

Is a significant portion of the American public really that superficial?

Maybe I should ask a Kardashian….

Facing Up To The Evidence

There is a robust argument among pundits and scholars over the comparative contributions of economic insecurity and racial anxiety to Donald Trump’s election. It is an argument that rests on an ahistorical “either-or” approach to voter motivation (anyone who has studied German attitudes in the period after the first World War understands that economic fears fed the not-so-latent anti-Semitism.)

That said, we make a mistake–as I have argued previously–if we minimize the role racism played and continues to play in America’s electoral politics. One aspect of the uncomfortable discussion we need to have focuses on the history and persistence of racism in Evangelical Christianity.

It is a discussion that self-aware Evangelicals are now having. As Nancy Wadsworth recently wrote in Vox,

I spent the first 15 years of my career as a scholar studying American evangelicals and race, and in my view, the failure to consider motivations rooted in anxieties about race and gender as an explanation of evangelical Trump support represents a striking omission. The history of American evangelicalism is intensely racially charged. The persistent approval for Trump among white evangelicals ought to prompt far more critical self-reflection within the evangelical community than we’ve seen so far.

Evangelicals’ tenacious affection for Donald Trump is not a bug driven by expediency. Instead, it reflects defining features of American evangelicalism that become clearer when we examine the historical record. Doing so reveals that when white conservative evangelicals feel threatened by cultural change, the old demons of racism and misogyny, which lurk at the heart of the American evangelical tradition, return with a vengeance.

Wadsworth recounts–and dismisses–analyses by Evangelicals who find the support for Trump to be “transactional.” She also takes issue with aspects of Michael Gerson’s more nuanced and widely-read critique of Evangelical Trump supporters.

Michael Gerson lays out a particularly condemnatory, yet nuanced, version of the Christian anti-Trump lament in a lengthy, elegant essay in the April issue of the Atlantic. He frames Trump loyalty as “the last temptation” that could forfeit evangelicalism’s future and despoil a long legacy of positive contributions to American culture.

Cheerleading by second-generation Christian right figures like Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham, Gerson writes, is “not mere gullibility; it is utter corruption.” Allowing hatred of their political enemies to “blind” them to Trump’s attacks on people of color and women is a tragic mistake, he suggests.

Gerson offers a 150-year summary of evangelicals’ positive work in the public sphere to make the case that, despite some missteps along the way, white evangelicals have mostly been on the right side of moral and social issues, historically. But his history is strikingly lopsided, reflecting a characteristic amnesia among evangelicalism’s boosters.

Wadsworth reminds readers that Europeans considered the indigenous people they encountered when they came to America to be uncivilized “heathens”–a belief anchored in a white Christian worldview employed to justify various forms of missionary conquest.

On the question of chattel slavery, evangelicals do not just appear as the abolitionists Gerson cites approvingly. The institution had millions of champions among conservative Christians who drew on Scripture and Curse of Ham theology to defend white supremacy and black subordination. Gerson fails to mention that every major evangelical denomination split along regional lines based on divisions over the slavery question. In fact, the vast bulk of Southern white evangelicals defended slavery, clung to the Lost Cause, fought Reconstruction, and designed and defended Jim Crow.

As the Kentucky General Baptist Association put it in 1860:

Among the white race in the Southern States there is no difference of opinion upon this subject: all are united in the opinion in reference to the political, intellectual, and social inequality between the colored people and the white races. And the people of our Commonwealth generally feel that the present condition of the colored race in this country accords both with the Word and the providence of God.

The entire article is eye-opening for those of us previously unaware of this history. Racism truly is America’s original sin. We will not eradicate it–from Evangelical Christianity or from any of the other constituencies in which it holds sway–until we confront the major role it has occupied, and continues to occupy, in our common life.

 

We’ve Heard This Song Before

Trump’s bigoted diatribes against Latinos, Muslims and (nonwhite) immigrants received a considerable amount of attention during the campaign, as did his reprehensible attitudes  about and behavior toward women.

The torrents of anti-Semitism he unleashed received less coverage by mainstream media sources, but not because that anti-Semitism was less pronounced. Anti-Semitic posts surged on Twitter; and as the Atlantic reported,

This was the year that anti-Semitism went mainstream again. On Tuesday, American Jews will have a chance to register their vote about a presidential candidate whose campaign has trafficked in anti-Semitic rhetoric, symbols, and organizations unlike any other seen in recent years.

Reporters who are Jewish–or who just have Jewish-sounding names–were subjected to vile diatribes employing words that weren’t part of public conversations back in “political correctness” days.

Those of us who are Jewish tend to be sensitive to eruptions of this sort, and the extent of ancient “Jew hatred” tropes and the emergence of old anti-Semitic stereotypes was chilling.

This ugly reality is one reason I get so annoyed when naive and disappointed progressives insist that Bernie Sanders would have beaten Trump. They point to polls taken during the primaries, which any pollster will concede are so early as to be meaningless. (Actually, polls taken during the campaign weren’t so meaningful either–just ask Hillary Clinton.) Had Bernie emerged as the nominee, he would have been subjected to the full ferocity of Republican campaign attacks, and as a commenter on this blog previously noted, there was plenty to work with. (That’s not a slam on Bernie; most people who have been in public positions a long time, and actually done things, have baggage or a history that can be twisted and made to look like baggage.) Given his attacks on the 1%, and his economic positions, there would have been enormous amounts of money pouring in from the Koch brothers and their ilk to fuel those attacks.

But that’s not the only reason Bernie couldn’t have won, no matter how much his message might have resonated with voters who actually wanted change. And let’s be honest. The ugly truth is that the majority of Trump voters weren’t voting for change–at least, not in the sense most people mean.

They were voting to repudiate social change and (especially) a black President.

They were voting to take America back to the way things were when no one spoke Spanish, gays were in the closet, Muslim-Americans were rare or non-existent, Jews and blacks were just barely second-class citizens, and women knew their place. And in the pantheon of their hatreds, Jews rank high.

Bernie Sanders is Jewish. The voters who thrilled to Trump’s nativism and White nationalism were never, ever going to vote for Bernie.

There’s a lot of debate over whether Donald Trump is anti-Semitic himself, or whether he was simply willing to pander to David Duke and the rest of the KKK and Nazis who endorsed him, but it really doesn’t matter. He did pander to them, he did encourage their virulent anti-Semitism, and if he ever effectively disavowed the Klan’s support, they (and I) didn’t notice.

Instead of wasting time with fantasies of what might have been, all of us who oppose Trump need to resist his agenda as forcefully as we can; we also need to begin looking now for progressive candidates who can run for the House and Senate in 2018, and for a transformative candidate who is electable in 2020. (Assuming the country is still here and in one piece in 2020. But that’s a blog for another day…)