This is not as good as I had hoped it would be, but run out of steam and want to be able to stop thinking about it, so here goes…
Like any other politically observant person, my reaction to the Trump phenomenon has shifted over the last few months from amusement to confusion, and finally to horror. I have some ideas about the mechanics of how Trump has succeeded in the media, but I am largely befuddled by the relatively widespread support that Trump has received in the Republican nomination process. I understand can understand the appeal of Clinton, Bush, and Obama as leaders. I cannot understand how anyone can stand to be in the same room as Trump. Surely part of the secret of his success is that it is almost impossible to take him seriously as a person, so that he is always underestimated. But how could anyone support him?
I confess that Trump produces a feeling of loathing deep within me, hitherto reserved for Nazis and pedophiles. The recent description “everything we teach our children not to be” resonates. And yet he has his supporters, and a substantial portion of the electorate at that—not the entire population, but apparently those who care enough to vote in primaries, whom one would imagine to be the better sort. The idea of anyone supporting Donald Trump produces a range of questions, but I will stick to: Why?
I think it will be uncontroversial to say that nobody is voting for Trump over moral issues. The phrase “unrepentant serial adulterer,” which appeared somewhere in my Facebook feed, seems accurate, given his Wikipedia article and his public statements. Trump claims to be a Christian, but also says he has never asked for God’s forgiveness; this means that no person who understands what it means to be a Christian (much less an evangelical Christian) could take Trump’s claim to faith seriously. I can take him at his word if he is using the word “Christian” as it was used in my elementary school days—as a sort of ethnic label—to mean “not Jewish.” Similarly, I take heart in the polls that show much lower Trump support among churchgoers, rather than just among “evangelicals” (which, in that context at least, appears to have become a proxy term for “white trash”). So I set aside any possible moral or religious appeal.
Trump is an inarticulate person ranting incoherently at the status quo. This is an important point of contact between him and the average American. Most people are not terribly well-informed about political and economic issues. Polls routinely show Americans’ ignorance of basic civics issues (e.g., the identity of our leaders, various constitutional rights, etc.). So, if you’ve got a candidate whose analysis of the American political and economic scene is little more than an inarticulate grunt of frustration, that resonates with a lot of people. I don’t think that the appeal of this should be underestimated.
Still, I believe that economic issues play the biggest role. Various commentators have suggested that the Trump and Sanders candidacies have largely played on working class dissatisfaction with globalization—the increasingly competitive global marketplace, which generates wealth by leveling the economic playing field across nations. American manufacturing has hollowed out; there are studies that indicate that wages have been stagnant in real terms for people without a college degree, since the early 1980s.
Trump has been successful with less-educated people; Sanders has been successful with more-educated people. I don’t think that this is a coincidence. Who do you blame for the world’s problems? Generally not people who occupy vastly different social stations. It’s natural for white collar people to blame “Wall Street” for financial problems, because they are their white-collar peers. If they’re not direct competitors for jobs and resources, they’re at least natural targets for envy. By the same token, it’s natural for less educated people to fault immigrants, who are their competitors in the manufacturing and services sectors.
(This is basic human nature. What prompts envy in the heart of a linguist? A successful surgeon? No, I’m not a surgeon; it’s not even my world. An astronaut? No, they’ve got great jobs, but it’s not my path. One of the elder statesmen of linguistics? No, I reverence them. It’s own peers who generate feelings of envy: those producing the publications that I wish I were producing.)
(Of course, as I’ll note below, blue collar workers at least understand who represents an economic threat. I am amazed at the white collar narrative that America is a country of great, hardworking people, but that the Wall Street thugs are tricking us and stealing our money. It’s a familiar story if you have any experience with the mentally ill: “I used to have it all man, but then this so-and-so tricked me, and I lost it all! Someday I’ll teach him a lesson.”)
The first humility check for me, then, is that I am not in the socioeconomic class that is hit hard by globalization. Computer programming jobs—which would probably be my most lucrative option if I were in the traditional workforce—are not in danger of being sent overseas any time soon. (I’m not actually part of the normal economy, anyway, but that doesn’t matter psychologically: I know that any time I wanted to I could walk away from my current situation and make two or three times as much money. Moreover, I have no reason to fear for the future economic well-being of my sons.) So my desire to welcome immigrants from all over the world carries zero personal cost. They’re not threatening my livelihood, and—at least in the places where I’ve lived in America—their assimilation issues do not really affect my life. Who wouldn’t be generously inclined in my situation? “What credit is it to you? The pagans do as much…”
Nevertheless, the moral argument for globalization is clear. If two people are willing to do the same job, and the first has the lower bid, but I choose the second instead because he is an American and the first is something else, then I find that to be morally unacceptable. I feel that I’m on rock-solid moral ground there. At the same time, I can’t pretend that it is personally costly for me to accept that argument.
That said, I am not prepared to conclude that anyone who is opposed to immigration, or who is in favor of trade protectionism, is personally motivated by racial animus. It may just be economic self-interest. If I dig ditches for $20/hour and someone comes into the country willing to do it for $10/hour, then that person is a threat to my livelihood, whether the person is English, Irish, Italian, Chinese, African American, Mexican, or whatever. This, I think, is why America has a history of short-lived animus against recent immigrants. It’s always been clear who the competitors are, and the racial/ethnic labels are laid over the economic concerns.
(Given that nowadays American racial issues tend to break across skin color, it is funny to imagine discrimination among rival European immigrants. Still, a friend of mine is from a Portuguese family who changed their name long ago to avoid discrimination. It’s similarly difficult for me to take seriously the insistence of my British friends that English, Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, Irish, etc. are all different groups. And it took five years at least before I could begin to pick out the differences in facial features that distinguish the similarly-hued ethnic groups here in my adoptive country, and I’m still not very good at it.)
Another nasty thing about Trump is the anti-Muslim animus—the call to ban Muslims from entering the United States, for instance. I can’t really find a perspective from which this makes sense. I have this in my favor personally: that I’ve met hundreds of Muslims, and never one terrorist. Still, it’s not as if I had to meet those people before concluding that not all Muslims are terrorists.
I’m then left with what, morally, feels like accepting the null hypothesis: these yahoos all just believe whatever they see on television. As I’ve previously written, I’m not really comfortable assigning people the category of moral cipher—people whose moral judgments are simply a result of sociological conditioning rather than reasoned reflection. But I’m not really sure how I can reconcile that discomfort with the facts before me.
“These yahoos all just believe whatever they see on television.” Of course, it’s at least a little more complicated than that. There are competing narratives in the media as well, and there is profit to be made in pushing false dichotomies. It’s how they get attention, how they get advertising revenue. (Who doesn’t enjoy controversy? Who doesn’t enjoy criticizing people of the other camp?) That’s not all the news that’s available, but it’s not hard to find a news diet that features nothing but invented controversies. I think that in historical perspective it will certainly become clear the damage that this has done to our national discourse. It pushes people away from subtlety and common sense.
I think for instance of the controversy, I believe now six years old, over the “Ground Zero Mosque.” One didn’t so much become aware of the plans for building a cultural center, as of the controversy over people’s reactions to it. Some were affronted at the idea; others called those people anti-Muslim bigots. That was the story, and those were the only two positions. “These people are gloating over the destruction of the World Trade Center.” “We have to repudiate the claim that there is any association between Islam and terrorism.” It was the equivalent of the old joke: have you stopped beating your wife? There dichotomy contains an implicit assertion, which is somehow not available for analysis. There were secondary controversies as well. “It’s not even a mosque, it’s a cultural center with a prayer space”—irrelevant non-arguments produced for the benefit of people who wanted to feel better informed than the other side. I followed the coverage fairly closely, and it was some time before I read what seemed to be the only sane opinion about the matter (I believe from Charles Krauthammer): no one holds present-day Germans responsible for the Holocaust, but you still don’t build a German cultural center right outside of Auschwitz. Good taste alone provides the middle ground. No surprise, the common-sense observation was barely discussed.
Repeated controversy. Repeated false dichotomies. Tribal affiliations based on loyalty to opinion leaders. It sounds like Fox News vs. MSNBC, but these forces have been around for a while. There’s a reason the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times cater to different audiences.
I am aware that this brings me back to the narrative that I mocked earlier: the American people are decent and generously inclined, but the cable news executives manipulate them into being prejudiced!
It’s the same narrative, and yet different. People generally consume media to be reinforced in their existing opinions rather than to discover new facts and arguments. That may be human nature, but it is not morally neutral. I believe that there is an intellectual responsibility to consider different points of view, to gather a variety of perspectives, and—shocking, I know—to discard analyses that presuppose false dichotomies. I’m not saying that everyone need possess the intellectual capacity to absorb the entirety of a complex situation and then look at it from different angles. But wisdom doesn’t require that we be able to compute all the possibilities, because it’s always possible to listen to other people.
The fault in being a Trump supporter, then, isn’t so much the decision to support Trump, as the meta-decision, made years ago and perhaps unconsciously, to be formed by certain types of sources: which can mean specifically alarmist and controversialist news media, but can mean more generally a limited intellectual diet. It could also mean past decisions to engage with one’s own cultural and linguistic group, when others were available. (Different parts of the country enable that to different degrees, I suppose.) Those far-off decisions have begotten present-day Trump support. Wisdom is known by her children, indeed.
It’s far easier for me to identify with weakness along this intellectual access. I’ve got a better record in maintaining intellectual diversity in politics, for instance, than in theology and biblical studies. So then, what are my blind spots? In what areas of my life am I content not to be challenged? Those are the areas that might, in now-unforeseeable circumstances, lead me to embrace morally reprehensible positions.
It would be nice if I could make a short checklist and then mop up the extra bits. I expect that the reality is that I’ll be repenting of some things in eternity—not Trump, but then I doubt that will be the most decision I make in life.