Trump’s Durable Base: Eight Reasons

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Donald Trump’s many critics like to note that he has been struggling with epically low approval ratings – in the middle and high 30s for the most part –  across most of his presidency.  That is hardly surprising, given Boss Tweet’s relentlessly un-presidential behavior, which helps make a laughingstock out of the United States.

The Insane Clown President’s idiotic and offensive conduct has been so bad that one must wonder how he has managed to retain a durable base of support amongst the 33-39% who regularly tell pollsters that they approve of his job performance. The unshakeable durability of the Trump base seems like evidence in support of candidate Trump’s infamous statement that he could go out onto Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and still not lose any of his core supporters.

What’s the resilience and robustness of Trump’s base all about? It’ reflects a combination of at least eight overlapping and interrelated, mutually reinforcing factors.  One is that Trump’s virulent white nationalism resonates with a significant part of the white populace. The Caucasian “heartland” has for many decades been hearing that Black welfare cheats, job-stealing Latino immigrants, and criminal Black and Latino gangbangers have been sucking the nation dry and demoralizing its values and purity with the help of fancy and pampered big city and bi-coastal middle- and upper-class liberals and leftists. It’s nothing new, really. Nativism, racism, and suspicion of posh city folk have rich roots in U.S. and indeed Western history, going back to the birth of the republic and before. They are as White-American as the Know Nothing Party, Lawrence Welk, Rush Limbaugh. apple pie, and gun violence. Russia has nothing to do with it, by the way.

A second factor is that a significant part of the white electorate is every bit as ignorant, stupid, unreflective, selfish, vile, and anti-intellectual as the president.  The relentless stupefying power of the American mass media has combined with the under-funding and dumbing down of public education and brain-wrecking fast-food diets to spawn millions of brutish white U.S.-American dolts who revel in the existence of a POTUS who is as thoughtless, oblivious, ill-informed, uncurious, cruel, and tactless as them. Trump’s presidency shows that you can be an abject moral and intellectual idiot and still succeed.

(Trump reminds me of all the vicious white business and marketing majors whose horrific undergraduate history examinations I used to grade at Northern Illinois University back in the 1990s. They were outraged at the notion that they might have to read a book from beginning to end.  It was a miracle when one or two of them could be persuaded to pay any attention to the experiences of Black slaves tortured in the antebellum South or Indochinese peasants bombed by the U.S. military in the 1960s.   These are the people who fill the seats at the proto-fascistic Jerry Springer show, chanting “Jerry, Jerry” while desperately poor people of color are pitted against each other onstage. Trump, like Jerry Springer, validates their racism, their pride in ignorance and stupidity, and their faith in their own superiority to the disproportionately Black and brown poor.)

Third, Trump symbolizes and expresses many Americans’ often understandable disgust with and disrespect for the professional-class and its meritocratic ideology. So what if Trump is a filthy rich billionaire who was born into a wealthy family and grew up to become a draft-dodging playboy who ruthlessly cheated his workers, customers, and wives – and who mocks his own children in savage terms?  Hey, at least he’s not one of those snotty professional and managerial class know-it-all types who boasts of their multiculturalism, their high-priced natural foods, their vegetarian diets, their hot yoga classes, their advanced mindfulness, their recycling systems, their world travels, their enlightened tolerance, their advanced degrees, and the elite universities their children attend.

Trump is a way for people who hated school to stick it to those nasty, over-educated backstabbing, stuck-up managers, professionals, teachers, and bureaucrats, who regularly lord it over everyday people. Trump hates school, books, professors, intellectuals, scientists, and other boring, candy-ass, know-it-all big shots losers too!  He did it his way and figured out how to make all those fancy fuckers work for him!  Think of the bumper sticker that reads “My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student!”

Fourth, Fox News, right-wing talk radio, Breitbart and other white and right media outlets have become an inbred right-wing media universe that makes it possible for millions of white Americans to go through life with the political information they receive cordoned off from anything does not fit the hard-starboard narrative. Negative Trump stories are reflexively dismissed as “fake news” in FOXNewsWorld.  Throw in so-called social media, where people form “friendship” networks and share news items and opinions limited to their own partisan identity and you have the making of separate informational ecosphere where 2+2=5 and Love is Hate because Big Brothers Trump, Hannity, Bannon, and Limbaugh et al. say so.  (The Democratic and “liberal” wings of the mass media have their own versions of the same thing – don’t get me wrong. You can see this on Russia-obsessed MSNBC/MSDNC, for example).

Fifth, Trump benefits from the underlying, ever-sharpening partisan schism between the Republican and Democratic parties over the last three decades.  The fierce binary polarization of the electorate (which coincides curiously with the related deepening polarization between the entire bipartisan plutocracy on one hand and the needs and values of the broad working-class majority on the other) guaranteed that Republican voters would support Trump, no matter how offensive and idiotic he was, to block the presidential candidate of the hated Democrats. It makes one’s own major party’s candidate or office-holder a no-matter-what preferred alternative to the total evil that is the other capitalist party’s candidates and leaders.  That’s how the noxious evangelical superfreak Roy Moore nearly won election to the U.S. Senate last year.  “Trump went out on Fifth Avenue and shot 20 people?  Well, Hillary would have shot a hundred!  Obama shot more! At least Trump says what he thinks…he’s a straight shooter!”

Sixth, there’s the dismal financial corporatism of the deplorable, dollar-drenched Democrats. “Just because you’re paranoid,” the old saying goes, “doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” In a similar vein we might say that just because the increasingly insane and paranoid-style Republicans hate the Democrats on a flatly tribal basis doesn’t mean the neoliberal Democrats aren’t richly deserving of widespread popular hatred. The Inauthentic Opposition Party has spent the last three decades aligned with absurdly rich Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood executives while pretending to be a party of ordinary and poor people. Under Wall Street presidents like the NAFTA champion Bill Clinton and the Trans-Pacific Partnership advocate and rich guy bailout king Barack Obama, historian Nancy Fraser noted last year, the neoliberal Democrats have joined outwardly progressive forces like feminism, antiracism, multiculturalism, and LGBTQ rights to “financial capitalism,” imparting liberal “charisma” and “gloss” to “policies that have devastated manufacturing and what were once middle-class lives.” While trumpeting outwardly progressive ideals like diversity and empowerment, the Clinton-Obama Democrats “bear…heavy responsibility for the weakening of unions, the decline of real wages, the increasing precarity of work, and the rise of the two-earner family in the place of the defunct family wage.”

They have added salt to the wounds inflicted by their alliance with a globalist investor class that has de-developed the rural and manufacturing heartland.  The neoliberal Democrats, Fraser wrote, “compounded” the “injury of deindustrialization” with “the insult of progressive moralism,” which rips “heartland” whites as culturally retrograde (many are but it is impolitic to say so). Here I would add that metropolitan liberals and leftists have aggravated the gash further by arguing that middle- and working-class whites are privileged by their skin color and – in the case of white middle- and working-class males – their gender. It’s been an ugly message to send to people who have been struggling (their technical whiteness notwithstanding) across the long regressive neoliberal era and the current New Gilded Age with technical displacement, factory closings, globalization, business failures, reduced salaries and benefits, bankruptcies, family farm collapse, opiate addiction, unaffordable health care premiums, declining physical and mental health, unpaid back taxes, chronic pain, and insane levels of college and credit card debt: “Hey, you are privileged, so your declining net worth, income, free-time, health, autonomy, and security really must be your own damn fault.”

With his seductive and deceptive promise to “make American great [white] again” by bringing back long lost American industry and closing the border to allegedly criminal and job-stealing Latino immigrants, Trump has been a way for many in the white ex-industrial Rustbelt and upper Midwestern farm belt to join much of the white South and rural West in giving arrogant, lecturing. Cosmopolitan, and bi-coastal professional-class Democratic Party know-it-all elites and their snooty Wall Street, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley friends a great big raised middle finger.

A seventh factor is the unpleasant lockstep workings of the mental flaw called “cognitive dissonance”. The more time and energy they’ve invested in the preposterous notion of the malignantly narcissistic plutocrat and billionaire Donald Trump as middle-class and working people’s champion (on par with the idea of a great white shark as a hero of small fish and sea mammals), the less likely Trump’s base is to abandon it. The ego pain involved in admitting the stupidity of the idea gets greater with each passing news cycle.

An eighth factor is the currently expanding U.S. economy. When U.S. capitalism is in one of its recurrent cyclical upswings, creating jobs, the sitting U.S. president and his or her party get to take credit for it, as if the economy were run out of the White House.  It isn’t run that way, but so what?  Trump is enjoying a lucky sweet spot in the timeworn dance between the capitalist business cycle and the U.S. election cycle. And that helps the Trump base continue to avoid the painful cognitive dissonance involved in acknowledging that the “populist” Trump is a capitalist ruling-class slime-ball who could give a flying fuck whether ordinary people live or die.

Will the Trump base’s loyalty to the orange-tinted beast break when the widening and wild chasm between stock prices and real values brings its standard “market correction” and filthy rich parasites like Trump and his billionaire friends stay protected while millions suffer devastating job and asset losses? Hard to say.  Lunatics who believe that space aliens will land on earth on a given day tend to double down on their fantastic beliefs when the projected date arrives and no beings from outer space arrived. Cargo cults are surprisingly durable.

In my next essay, I will move beyond the question of Trump’s durable base to examine how Trump manages to keep his job his job despite his still epic overall unpopularity and his obvious lack of qualification for any position beyond Village Idiot.  Part of the answer, we shall see, resides in our enduring captivity to the intentionally anti-democratic and wildly anachronistic Constitution the nation’s slave-owning Founders put in place to protect the propertied “elite” from the property-less and property-poor majority at the end of the Eighteenth Century. Another part, I’ll show, has to do with the nation’s reigning capitalist oligarchy – what it gets from Trump and how it cares less and less about happens to and inside the United States anymore.

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Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).