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Why – How – Do They Still Love Trump?

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Photo by Marc Nozell | CC BY 2.0

After all the lies, contradictions, hypocrisy, flip-flops, gaffes, unforced errors, self-pity, insults, provocations, threats, bullying, betrayals, disappointments, scapegoating, exploitation, nepotism, and corruption, why is Trump still beloved by 35% of the country?

The most popular theory in the mainstream media is that Trumpists think that Trump will bring jobs back. The hypothesis here is that their support for Trump derives entirely from economic anxiety over globalization, loss of manufacturing, the supposed failures of Obamacare, wage stagnation, income inequality, trade deficits, and soaring national debt. But economic angst does not really explain Trumpists’ unwavering devotion to Trump, whose cabinet appointments, executive orders, and legislative proposals generally do not help them or even pretend to help them.

Nor is the economic-angst theory borne out by the evidence. As policy analyst Sean McElwee and Prof. Jason McDaniel recently wrote in The Nation, an analysis of “the comprehensive American National Election Studies pre- and post-election survey of over 4,000 respondents . . . [yielded] little evidence to suggest individual economic distress benefited Trump” in the 2016 election. And even though all the economic data indicate both that the unemployment rate is consistently below 5% and that immigrants help to improve the economy, Trumpists are determined to believe just the opposite. Their resistance to the economic facts, then, must be motivated by some deeper, non-economic concern.

The left insists that this deeper concern is cultural: Trumpists love Trump because they share his racism, Islamophobia, anti-semitism, and misogyny. There is much to be said for this hypothesis. Neither Trump nor Trumpists seem to take equality very seriously, even though it is a cardinal principle of the Declaration of Independence and Fourteenth Amendment. Even in 2017, they harbor toxic, hierarchical views of race, ethnicity, nationality, and religion and a pathological need to feel superior to other groups of people. Their worst nightmare was the country’s almost replacing the first black president with the first female president.

In her book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New Press, 2016), Arlie Russell Hochschild paints a slightly more sympathetic picture of conservative Louisianans – and, by extension, Trumpists generally. By Hochschild’s account, Trumpists feels as though the country “broke up” with them during the Obama era. They felt – and still feel – alienated by the left’s identity politics (“political correctness”), disparaged by the left’s opposition to traditional values (anti-gay rights, anti-abortion, anti-feminism, and religious faith), and weirdly threatened by the left’s view of government as an institution designed to solve problems that capitalism either creates or fails to solve.

All of this – plus the anger and hurt that feeling “dumped” generally causes – explains why Trumpists love Trump: he shares their bitterness and resentment. As long as he keeps giving all those self-righteous, contemptuous “elitists” the finger, a gesture that started with his Birtherism, it doesn’t matter what else he says or does, how many lies he tells, how many mistakes he makes, or how many detrimental policies he advocates or enacts. All that matters is that he keep disrupting and subverting the arrogant, oppressive establishment – or “deconstruct[ing] the administrative state,” as Trump’s white nationalist advisor Steve Bannon put it.

Trumpists’ politics, then, are ultimately rooted in raw emotion, not principles or thoughtful ideology. Much credit goes to such macho, anti-intellectual, grievance-stoking propagandists as Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and – until his recent termination by Fox News – Bill O’Reilly. Female commentators like Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, and Sarah Palin have also won their hearts (not minds) by routinely bashing the whiny, controlling, effeminate liberals.

It is not clear that – or how – Democrats can win over these narrow-minded, cultish voters in 2018. They are just not amenable to rational debate about the merits of Obama-era regulations or the dangers of autocratic populism. So Frank Rich is right: Democrats should leave them alone. They should stop feigning empathy or trying to shape their policies around Trumpists’ bigoted worldview. It is a complete waste of candidates’ valuable time and resources.

Yes, Democrats should still advocate progressive policies in all fifty states. But they should also keep in mind that these efforts don’t satisfy Trumpists, don’t alleviate their self-inflicted wounds or quench their thirst for retribution, nearly as effectively as childish insults and petty name-calling. Because Trump will always beat his competitors at these primal diversions, Democrats should concentrate entirely on uniting and motivating the other 65% who are already in their camp. That’s more than enough to win most state and federal elections.

One thing is certain: given recent events, Republicans don’t get to yell and scream about national security – or emails, private servers, or Benghazi – ever again. Nor do they get to yell and scream about pretty much anything else. Their very ignorant, narcissistic, unprincipled, and unpatriotic standard-bearer has cost them whatever moral high ground they pretended to have for at least a generation.

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Ken Levy is the Holt B. Harrison Professor of Law at the Paul M. Hebert Law Center, Louisiana State University.

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