The Trump Base One Year Out

Photo by Marc Nozell | CC BY 2.0

Unless the polls are even more off than they were when they predicted a Clinton victory in 2016, distressingly many 2016 Trump voters continue to stand by their man.

There has been some attrition, but the Trump base still comprises slightly more than a third of the electorate.  Consider that — and despair for the human race.

I am not talking about the true “deplorables” (“detestables” would be a more apt description), the hyper-rich blockheads who think that it is cool to party with the Donald at Mar-a-Lago.   Their dollars matter, but their votes not so much – there just aren’t enough dumbass gzillionaires married to trophy brides or jelly-faced women to comprise a voting bloc.

But there are still plenty of the kinds of people Hillary Clinton called “deplorable.” The voting bloc they comprise, though not quite what it used to be, remains formidable.

It turns out that many of the people she had in mind were not deplorable at all; just bamboozled, ill-informed and too pissed off for their own good.  Also, many of them loathed her and her husband and their hangers on, sentiments for which they can hardly be faulted.  But that was a year ago.  Anyone still on Trump’s side no longer has any excuse.

There is reason to think that at least some light is finally getting through to them.  Poling data and anecdotal evidence suggest that many of them would like their man to tweet less or at least to send out less ludicrous tweets.  Many of them also say that they are displeased by the coarseness with which Trump expresses racist and nativist attitudes, even as they praise him for saying what is on his mind and telling it like it is.

No doubt, many of them know that Trump is ignorant, stupid, and unhinged.  How could they not?  Each day brings fresh evidence that even Fox News cannot entirely filter out or explain away.

And how could they not be embarrassed by scandals more unseemly than those that, for example, recently undid the careers of Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner?  The payoff to Stormy Daniels is only the latest in an endless series.

Trump has boasted that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose support.  The Trump base seems, for now, to be proving him right.

It boggles the mind, but, for that third or more of the voting public, Trump seems untouchable.  No other American politician has ever been similarly immune.

Ronald Reagan was “the Teflon president,” his foulest deeds never stuck.  But just as no one can any longer claim that George W. Bush was the worst president ever, no one can any longer say that, for keeping potentially damaging news from sticking, the Gipper was the uncontested champion of the world.  Compared to Trump, Reagan was a joke.

Could it be that Trump’s fans don’t care?  Could they actually be pleased that Trump is as awful as he is?

Voting for Trump was a way to give the middle finger not just to Hillary, but to the kinds of people to whom she appealed, and to policies and institutions identified with her and her party.  Arguably, therefore, being on Trump’s side, though unforgivable, was understandable.  A year out it is simply ridiculous.

That is about the kindest thing one can now say about the third or more of the electorate that has yet to settle accounts with the mistake they made a year ago.

They are an odious lot, but by keeping that mistake alive, they have become a fixture on the political scene – one that will continue to cause profound, possibly irreparable harm, at least until the next presidential election in 2020.

This will be the case even if, between now and then, all goes as well as our Constitution allows – in other words, if Trump is replaced by Vice President Mike Pence.

It need hardly be said that, in this case, as well as can be is awful too.  Where Trump is an opportunistic self-aggrandizer with vile instincts but no guiding ideology and therefore no settled convictions, Pence is a bona fide reactionary with theocratic inclinations.

However, with him in the White House instead of Trump, the likelihood of nuclear war would be diminished, and we could be more confident that institutional constraints on executive branch tyranny will hold.  The other bad stuff will continue; indeed, it could get worse.

How much better it would be if, as in more democratic regimes, we could recall our mistakes and hold new elections sooner rather than later!

The authors of our Constitution were, by the standards of their time, enlightened thinkers.  But whatever those merchants and planters (slave owners) thought they were doing, this is what they stuck us with.

And so, the Trump base has become a force of nature.

With genuinely transformative resistance, much less revolutionary change, off the agenda, there is nothing to do but deal with the problems this creates as best one can.

To that end, it is worth asking what the hell is wrong with all those people; what is their problem?


After Year One of the Donald, the time is past due to rehabilitate “political correctness” – not the sanctimonious kind that sets off the Trump base (and not only them!), but the kind that reflects basic civility.

Nowadays, that fundamental political virtue has become all but extinct on the right, and rare everywhere else.

Remnants of civility do survive, however, in comparatively enlightened circles.  On the whole, this is a good thing; if and when we finally become able to de-Trumpify our politics, it will be a basis upon which to build.

For now, though, insofar as it causes liberals and others to cut Trump supporters slack, it is at best a mixed blessing.  The Trump base benefits too much from political correctness; liberals and others cut it far too much slack.

It is not clear, however, how much of this is due to a principled dedication to civility, and how much from an awareness of the counter-productive consequences of speaking condescendingly of Trump voters.

Obama got burned for casual remarks he made to donors about the appeal of the gun culture and other idiocies to rural Americans; and Hillary is as likely to be remembered for her “basket of deplorables” remark as for her efforts to revive the Cold War or for all the harm she and her co-thinkers did – to Honduras, Egypt, Iraq, Libya (especially Libya), Syria and elsewhere – when she was Secretary of State.

It is clear, however, what nearly everyone outside the Trump base thinks: they think that Trump supporters are cretins.

They are not wrong, but this is not the whole story.

There are other explanations for the Trump base’s durability that should also be taken into account.

Thus at least some of the blame for the moral and intellectual shortcomings of Trump supporters lies with media that normalize the attitudes and instincts that Trump’s campaign and presidency have legitimated.

There are the obvious culprits, of course – from Fox News on down (or is it up?).  But liberal media are culpable too – not just for having given Trump seemingly limitless free publicity during the campaign and, even now, for covering little else, but also for treating Trump’s words and deeds as if they actually were worth taking seriously.

On the plus side, the Trump menace has emboldened them in ways that would have been in the past.  In the pre-Trump era, they would never have dumped on a sitting president the way they do now.

But in their zeal to accommodate the interests of corporate owners and sponsors, and in accord with an ethic that insists on presenting all (two) sides within the narrow spectrum of non-marginalized views, they take the policies and ideas of Trump and his co-dependent Republicans more seriously than they deserve.

This makes what Trump and his minions say (or tweet) and do seem almost reasonable – not on their merits, but by being presented in ways that confer respectability upon them.

(Small-d) democratic politics thrives on free, open, and lively debate.  But it does not follow that all views, no matter how ludicrous, must be taken seriously and given equal consideration. Debating Trumpian views – or, rather, Republican views that Trump latched onto — is like debating promoters of “scientific creationism” or “intelligent design,” except that purveyors of godly flimflam are generally more clever.

To be sure, it can sometimes be instructive to engage Republican jibber jabber.   In general, though, there isn’t world enough and time to waste on their nonsense.

But because Trump’s large bottom and small button are parked in the White House, and because Republicans control both chambers of Congress, what he and they say and do is important – not in its own right, but because, like other forces of nature, it is there, affecting the course of events.

Fox News and other rightwing media treat Trumpian views as if they were worth taking seriously.  But misinforming and dumbing down chronically dumbed down and misinformed audiences is what they do.  Agenda-setting liberal media – The New York Times and Washington Post, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and so on – have no excuse.

Those media outlets and others like them are more palatable to people with decent sensibilities, but the harm they do is, if anything, more insidious – not just for lending prestige to worthless lines of thought, but also for reinforcing the duopoly party system that made the Trump phenomenon possible and arguably even inevitable.

They also help spread the idea that white “identity politics” is the toxin upon which the Trump base feeds.  This may be true of the base’s “alt-right” contingent, but that is only a part of the larger Trump base.

It is worth noting that “white” no longer means what it once did.  In the nineteenth century, the term used to refer just to descendants of English, Scottish, Welsh, and Scotch-Irish (Protestant) settlers.  In due course, attitudes liberalized, however; Germans, Scandinavians and other Northern Europeans made the cut as well.  Eventually, even the Irish and descendants of Southern and Eastern Europeans were added to the mix.

By now “white” includes everyone of European origin – even Catholics, even Jews.

Nearly the entire Trump base seems OK with this – even hardcore “evangelicals.”  They are at peace with Catholics thanks to Rome’s opposition to abortion, and with Jews over support for Israel.

There was a time when Protestants would go at each other for theological reasons or over differing views about church organization and relations with the political authorities of the emerging nation states of early modern Europe.  However, from the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, the principal bones of contention between Protestants and Catholics, and between the various Protestant sects, had mainly to do with issues pertaining to private virtue and morality.

This was especially true of religious groups connected historically to American evangelical movements.  They were among the most puritanical assemblages in all of Christendom.

Not anymore.  When it suits their purpose, white evangelicals nowadays become soft on sin – even to the point of making common cause with Donald Trump, one of the most reprobate sinners on the political scene.  They don’t care what he does so long as he helps them advance their political agendas.

Ironically, what they are after is only tenuously connected to the theological concerns that moved their spiritual forefathers.  Unlike Catholics, most Protestant sects were untroubled by abortion, and their attitudes towards homosexuality were no different from those of everyone else in their time and place.   Yet somehow, these issues, along with support for Israel (in anticipation of the End Time), have become their obsessions.

Their leaders are venal too – to an extent that is extreme even by the standards prevalent in our decadent political culture.

In short, if there actually were a Hell, there would be a particularly horrific corner of it reserved for them.


Trump backers who rally behind the “Make America Great Again’ slogan and who understand those words to mean “Make America White Again” would have their own special corner in Hell too.

Strictly speaking, most of them are neither fascists nor racialists, and most of them would deny being white supremacists, not to be politically correct — anything but that! — but because they truly don’t think they are.

But in their hearts, at some level, they do think that whites are better than browns or blacks; and they do feel viscerally that this land belongs to them.

For them, Trump, a kindred spirit, is a means to that end.  And so, they stand by him, no matter how crude, vile and ridiculous he may be.

Can they hold the line enough to keep Republican majorities in the House and Senate, when some two-thirds of the electorate is revolted by everything they stand for?

With our gerrymandered Congressional districts and with many state governments controlled by Republicans determined to suppress the votes of black and brown people, and of segments of the white population that are unlikely to vote for them, the short answer is probably yes — unless the economy turns south or unless the Democratic Party transforms itself.

For most working people, including those in the Trump base, the economy never stopped turning south.  But most economic indicators are good, unemployment is low (if you count low wage workers in precarious situations without job or income security as employed), and the stock market is booming.  Corporate media are hard at work spreading the news.

When people in the Trump base hear that, they assume that, if all is not well in their own case (as it very likely is not), it must be their fault; not Trump’s.

Meanwhile Trump takes credit for the economy doing well in the ways that it is, ways that matter to him and his class brothers and sisters.  Liberal media outlets promote a similar line.

What they ought to do is point out that capitalist economies go through cycles of boom and bust, and that what presidents and their administrations do seldom affect the underlying dynamic that regulates this process except in minor ways.  Bad economic policies can make downturns worse, but when things are going well, it is seldom for reasons for which government can reasonably take credit.

It is widely believed that Trump’s tax cuts for corporations and the rich, and his administration’s attacks on regulations that capitalist firms in some industries, especially the energy sector, decry, account for some of the short-terms improvements in overall economic performance that we are now experiencing, even if they will harm the economy in the long run.

There probably is something to this, but the main reason why the economy is now doing well – for investors and financiers — is that it is still bouncing back from the Great Recession.

How long this will last, is anybody’s guess, but it is sure as can be that, at some point, the economy will again take a turn for the worse.  The question is — when?   Will it happen in time to affect the midterm elections?

Meanwhile, workers’ incomes remain stagnant, there is less job security than there used to be, and more precarious employment.  The rich are getting (much) richer, while everyone else is, at best, barely staying afloat.

And yet, within the Trump base, this doesn’t seem to matter.  It defies credulity to think that voters would acquiesce to a status quo that disadvantages them, provided only that the richest of the rich make out like the bandits they are.

It defies credulity even more to credit Trump for the economic “miracle” we are now living through, when all he did was catch a lucky break.

Anyone who thinks that all is well with the economy and that Trump is the reason why deserves all the opprobrium they now are getting, and the far greater opprobrium that they would be getting were they not benefiting from residual, pre-Trump era political correctness.

Indeed, it is not clear what Trump could do, that he hasn’t already done, that would cause their delusions to fade away.  That they haven’t faded away already only corroborates the idea that people in the Trump base are “fucking morons” – like Trump himself, according to his Secretary of State.

There is something that the gods or the laws of capitalist development or both could do, however: they could make the economy bad again, sooner rather than later — not just in the ways it never stopped being bad, but in ways that even Fox News pundits would be unable to deny.

It is either that or the Democratic Party will have to stop being the joke that it now is.

To that end, the first step is for Democrats to disabuse themselves of the notion that the way to win elections is to occupy “the moderate middle.”

That has always been the Clintons’ view.  They didn’t think of it all by themselves, of course; like poverty and pestilence, it has always been with us.   But Bill and Hillary made that view their own; and it was under their aegis that it became an article of faith in Democratic electoral and media circles.

How many times must this strategy fail before its futility finally penetrates thick Democratic skulls?

That could take some doing; Democratic politicians and liberal media pundits are heavily invested in the idea.

This is why so many of them urged “moderation” during last weekend’s government shutdown; they claimed that holding out for an agreement on DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) would harm the Democratic Party in “red” states.  They argued too that the problem would be solved eventually because Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, and Trump, being outer borough guys, should be able to see eye to eye and therefore to make a deal.

The former contention is a variant of the “centrist” strategy that keeps bringing the party down.   The outer borough argument is too ridiculous to take seriously.

The fact is that Schumer and Trump have little in common.  One grew up in a lower middle class, generally progressive family, the other was the son of a racist, sleazeball, real estate developer and landlord; one is book smart, while there is some question as to whether the other even reads.

But Trump does know a thing or two that Schumer evidently does not.  He knows how to hoodwink easy marks, how to play chicken, and how to call a bluff.  Schumer is a complete zero in comparison: he doesn’t even have a clue about how to be, or seem to be, intransigent.  Evidently, he missed the class on non-negotiable demands.

Thus, at least for now, it looks like he, along with many other Democratic Senators, lost the last round, betraying the DACA kids in the process.  The Trump base got its way, and Trump won by doing nothing at all.   Pathetic, but true!

With a Democratic Party led by and comprised of people like Schumer, expect Republicans to be calling the shots long after 2018.

It is still possible, of course, that radical, independent, uncoopted, and uncooptable newcomers will steal the Democratic Party away from the Clintonites who now run the show.  I wouldn’t hold my breath, however

Therefore, unless events overtake him, thanks to the gods perhaps or, more likely, to Robert Mueller, this will probably not be the last time that Trump waddles away gloating.

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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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