Why Trump’s such an A — hole
One question that has been absolutely perplexing to most political observers who have not bought into the Trump cult is why his supporters are so loyal. As the man himself stated, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” But why him?
Trump, after all, is an incompetent boob. It is hard to imagine a time since World War II when the United States was in worse shape than it is today, and most of these problems can be laid squarely at Trump’s feet. His stupidity is laughable, and indeed Sarah Cooper has made a career out of illustrating just how idiotic he is. With his spray tan and his pathetic comb-over, he is an easy target for cartoonists. His speeches are actually long and boring. With his multiple divorces, p — — y grabbing, and friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, his personal life is an easy target. And his supposed business acumen has been exposed for what it was: a fraud perpetrated upon us by the producers of The Apprentice. So this is salvation of the right?
I may not like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, but at least I will acknowledge that they are intelligent, and that their personal lives are above reproach. The thought of another Bush in the White House makes my skin crawl, but at least Jeb Bush was a competent administrator as governor of Florida. Same for Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee. Carly Fiorina is actually a successful business-person, although that may be also debatable. So all these people have legitimate claims to leadership. And yet Donald Trump destroyed them all in the 2016 Republican primaries.
The primary explanation for this phenomenon has suggested that Trump’s bald-faced racism may explain his popularity among certain segments of the population. But that was not enough to elect George Wallace, and Richard Nixon’s racially-driven “southern strategy” did not sustain his popularity after Watergate. People ran away from Nixon, who was at least competent and whose personal life was without reproach, while they stuck with Trump through impeachment, indictments, and too many scandals to count.
Similarly, Adam Serwer in The Atlantic argued that “the cruelty is the point.” Again, that is at least part of the answer, but it can’t fully explain the Trump phenomenon. After all, the victims of much of Trump’s cruelty, whether it be his tax cuts for the rich or his assault on health care or his trade wars, are often his biggest supporters. And yet they remain loyal.
These two arguments, and others as well, however, only tell parts of the story. Certainly, racism is a big part of Trump’s appeal. If you doubt this fact, listen to the podcast produced by WNYC for the show Radiolab called The Flag and the Fury. In that episode, public radio reporters explore the process required to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state flag of Mississippi. Compare the angry rhetoric used by the defenders of Mississippi’s Confederate flag with that of Trump supporters. It is almost indistinguishable. Certainly, racism is central to Trumpism.
This reality is so sad. After the election of Barack Obama, many of us thought, or perhaps hoped, that the United States was on its way to a “post-racial” society. Instead, it appears that Obama’s success only energized the racist elements of America’s white population.
And that is part of the answer. Obama’s electoral success, particularly his 2012 re-election despite a desperate effort to stop him with Mitt Romney, only demonstrated to America’s white population that they are on the brink of a precipice. No longer can white people assume that we control America. Change is afoot, and it threatens our historically privileged status.
So that is what generates the passion among Trump supporters. His timing was impeccable. White Americans have come to the realization that their unearned status as America’s de facto rulers is coming to an end. The future is California, with its diverse population and Democratic majority.
I remember the days California was the center of American Republicanism. Ronald Reagan was governor there. In the 1988 campaign, the first George Bush visited California praising its then-Republican governor George Deukmejian as “the good Duke.” In 1994, California voters approved proposition 187, a virulently anti-immigrant policy. Until 2018, Orange County was dominated by right-wing Republicans.
What we didn’t realize at the time, however, were that these actions were the dying gasps of a white power structure seeking to hold onto the privilege that was slipping through its fingers. They could see that the demographic of the state was changing. And now, whites are a minority. With 36.5 percent of the population, white non-Hispanic citizens are outnumbered by Latinx people, with 39.4 percent. Asians are the third largest demographic with 15.5 percent.
That is our nation’s future too. By 2045, in just 25 years, whites will no longer be the majority. Right now, white children are already outnumbered by those of other races. According to the Pew Research Center, millennials are the first generation in which a majority view racial discrimination as the main barrier to progress by Black people, and nearly 8 out of ten of them believe immigrants strengthen our country. And for the first time, millennials, gen z-ers and gen x-ers, with their more progressive views on race, outvoted older generations. This is our future, white people know it and they are afraid of what it will mean to them.
When understood within this context, the irrational fear Trump supporters have of immigrants makes sense. After all, with each new non-white American, whites become one step closer to minority status. Even stopping immigration isn’t enough, however. The white population has a lower birthrate than that of all other ethnicities, with the exception of Asians. Thus, as if it were compounding interest, it is only a matter of time before people of color outnumber whites. So the white population understands that reducing immigration isn’t enough. Instead, it must oppress the looming majority through fear and the power of the law in order to maintain its privileged status.
The template for such a society has already been designed here in the United States: Jim Crow. For all intents and purposes, Jim Crow was a totalitarian regime that used state-sponsored terrorism to maintain the power and privilege of white populations that would otherwise be outvoted by the states’ larger black population. Maintaining such a society required resources and government policy. Implementing such a policy is the desire of racist thought-leaders like Steven Miller and Steve Bannon.
I acknowledge that most attendees of a Trump rally, and perhaps even Trump himself can’t articulate this ideology. However, they know it viscerally. They know that their privileged status is in the process of being replaced with a power-sharing arrangement, in which people of color have an equal say in government policy. This fear is the first driving force that informs passionate Trump supporters.
But that anxiety by itself is not enough to generate the passion Trump supporters demonstrate. Such strong feelings only come about when the fear of being replaced in their privileged position is combined with their second fundamental belief: that their former leaders have failed them.
Trump, after all, is not the first Republican to win the presidency riding upon white anxiety over their declining status. Nixon built upon Barry Goldwater’s “Operation Dixie” in crafting a strategy that would play upon white fears in the face of passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and more importantly, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, otherwise known as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act. When Trump appealed to “suburban housewives” that “your home will go down in value, and crime rates will rapidly rise,” he was explicitly referring back to the language Nixon used during the era of white flight to the suburbs.
Similarly, Ronald Reagan told stories about “welfare queens,” and George H.W. Bush used the story of Willie Horton, a Black Massachusetts convict who tragically, while released on a furlough program, raped a white woman and stabbed her boyfriend. And George W. Bush staved off a strong challenge from John McCain in 2000 with a campaign implying that McCain’s adopted daughter from Bangladesh was really “a Negro child” he fathered out of wedlock. Even the Clintons’ comments regarding “ending welfare as we know it” and “superpredators” were racism only imperceptibly coded.
In each case, white Americans heard the message, and they voted for candidates who they believed would deliver them from their impending status reduction. But in each case, the candidates not only failed to deliver upon their implicit promises, they actually turned around and betrayed the voters who relied upon this message. Once elected, they all rejected racist appeals.
George W. Bush, for example, pointed out that we should not punish all Muslims for the acts of a few psychotic criminals on 9–11. His father argued that the Rodney King beating was “revolting” and he denounced former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, who at the time was running for governor of Louisiana. And one Supreme Court after another stocked with Republican appointees disappointed conservatives as they failed to end legal abortion or affirmative action.
With Trump, though, they have no such fear. Each time he says or does something that outrages liberals, his supporters celebrate. It’s not just the satisfaction of “owning the libs” that excites them. It’s the fact that he has so alienated people of color, members of the establishment, moderates and liberals that he will be unwelcome in their circles. Trump’s alienation from civil society makes it clear to his supporters that he has nowhere else to go. And each time he insults anyone outside his hardcore base, he makes it clear that he will not abandon them the way all their prior leaders have.
I might be accused of clickbait with my headline since I have not explained why Trump is such an A — hole. Such an analysis would require a psychological assessment of his pathology, and his niece Mary L. Trump Ph.D has done a good job starting that process. From the perspective of a political observer, however, the more interesting question is why Trump’s bad behavior does not turn off his supporters. Indeed, his supporters relish his A — hole-ness. And the reason for this is that as Trump burns his bridges to civil society, he makes it clear to his supporters that he will not abandon them as have their prior leaders.