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.