Donald Trump is a dangerous, authoritarian leader who was elected by appealing to racism and is overtly trying to undermine democracy. He is an embarrassment to the American people and the United States. Despite these facts, or perhaps because of them, Trump remains remarkably popular among Republicans and his other diehard supporters. This is a cause of constant handwringing, confusion, and consternation among many American journalists and other members of the chattering class. As former Salon editor Joan Walsh recently wrote in the Nation, this is a “distracting journalistic exception.” But it does no good waiting for Trump’s flock to abandon him, and the frustration only grows.
This article was originally published at Salon
Ultimately, Donald Trump is a riddle that the fourth estate has intentionally chosen not to decipher. His enduring popularity is not that complicated — for those who choose to see the depth of the political, cultural, and social crisis that goes back decades and spawned Trump’s presidency.
Here are 15 reasons why have Donald Trump’s loyalists have not abandoned him, and likely never will.
- Most Americans are politically disengaged and therefore do not follow current events closely. Except for moments of crisis or national elections, little time is spent thinking about political matters or public policy in a sophisticated or consistent way.
- Donald Trump has control over a vast propaganda machine. Anchored by Fox News, Trump has leveraged a fact-free alternative reality, created over several decades by the right-wing echo chamber. Richard Nixon may have resigned from the presidency with a 24 percent approval rating, but he did not have Fox News to artificially buoy him.
- Republicans and other “conservatives” largely approve of Donald Trump’s policies. While there may be disagreement about his style of governance and behavior, he is doing their bidding.
- White Christian evangelicals overwhelmingly support Donald Trump. To them, he is God’s tool for creating a semi-theocratic Christian state. Trump understands the power and influence of evangelical leaders over their gullible public. On Monday, he hosted a meeting for a group of 100 or so evangelical pastors in the State Dining Room of the White House where he told the attendees that the Democrats and “antifa” “will overturn everything that we’ve done and they’ll do it quickly and violently. And violently. There’s violence.”
- Authoritarianism and other anti-democratic attitudes and values have increased in America over the last two decades. Trump is the logical result of those trends.
- Donald Trump is a political cult leader. Consequently, his supporters will not abandon him because to do so would cause great emotional and spiritual harm to themselves.
- Trump has repeatedly shown that he is a racist who harbors deep animus and hostility towards nonwhites and Muslims. These values and attitudes are shared by his voters and other supporters. As recent research demonstrates, at least 11 million white Americans who possess “white nationalist” beliefs, while many millions more are sympathetic to such politics. Other research suggests that the more Trump’s racist behavior is criticized, the more his supporters are likely to defend him.
- Political parties are now extensions of personal identities. As a result, in America, and other failing democracies, politics is treated as a team-sports event. This is especially true for Republicans and other conservatives who now view those groups most associated with the Democratic Party (women, nonwhites, “liberals”, immigrants, gays and lesbians and others) as being their personal enemies. Democrats do not feel the same animus towards those people (whites, especially white men, and evangelical Christians) most associated with the Republican Party. Political compromise in the interest of the common good is made nearly impossible.
- Racism and authoritarianism (and sexism) are closely related values and behaviors. In combination with a fear that white people are somehow losing power as a group in America — a claim not supported by any substantive and correct evidence — a state of collective narcissism exists for Trump’s voters and other supporters.
- Donald Trump and other right-wing political elites have expertly manipulated the death anxieties of white conservatives. In combination with a political sadism that makes the lives of Trump’s and other Republican voters materially, spiritually and emotionally worse, these fears of death (and/or group obsolescence through the “browning of America”) cannot be countered by rational, factually grounded arguments.
- The image of responsible, managerial governance offered by the Democratic Party, and exemplified by Hillary Clinton, is undeniably boring. In a society where loneliness, existential despair and a culture of distraction have fully taken hold over the vast majority of the public, Donald Trump –a debased product of a debased culture — is a source of constant entertainment for his human deplorables and other lost souls. Donald Trump is an example of cultural critic Neil Postman’s famous warning more than 30 years ago that the American people were “amusing themselves to death.”
- Trump’s apparent incompetence as evaluated by traditional measures of governance such as respect for democracy and the rule of law are viewed as positives by his supporters. Criticism of Trump’s leadership style and other behavior are viewed as the complaints of “elites” who look down on “real Americans”. The anti-intellectualism that has long been a core tenet of American conservatism has fully bloomed, first with Sarah Palin and then with Donald Trump.
- The Republican Party and the conservative media offer an example of what social psychologists have described as the “Dunning-Kruger effect.” Here, those steeped in ignorance imagine themselves to be much more competent and expert than they really are. Alternatively stated, the Dunning-Kruger effect rests on the premise that stupid people don’t know they are stupid. Donald Trump and his movement are a textbook example of that psychological phenomenon.
- For those Trump voters and other supporters who may be persuadable, the Democratic Party has provided few reasons to leave Trump’s camp. Democratic messaging failed in 2016. It continues to fail in 2018. “We are not Donald Trump” will not be sufficient to secure political victory in 2020.
- While the influence of the economy on voters’ decision-making (what is known as “pocketbook voting”) is highly debated by political scientists and others, Donald Trump has benefited from Barack Obama’s economic turnaround. As Larry Bartels demonstrates in his landmark book “Unequal Democracy,” this is part of a long pattern in which Republican presidents benefit from the economic growth created by their Democratic predecessors and then, of course, take credit for it.
As they erred in their assumptions about Donald Trump’s chances of victory in the 2016 presidential election, traditional journalists and other pundits are making many of the same errors again. As a class, journalists and other supposed political experts still cling to the belief that the American people are good, decent and “moderate” — despite all the evidence, including Trump’s victory, suggesting the opposite. There is also a misplaced faith in the enduring health and power of the country’s democracy and the role of citizens in it. Political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels intervene against this worship of “folk democracy” in the concluding paragraphs of their book “Democracy for Realists”:
At this moment, America is a democracy but it is not very democratic. In this book, we have tried to face without flinching the logical consequences of what democracy’s most thoughtful observers have long seen, and what political scientists over the past few decades have demonstrated in meticulous detail. Democratic citizens — all of us — have to think differently. All too often, we bring rose-colored glasses when we look at democracy, glasses handed to us from the dead hands of Enlightenment thinkers. In consequences, we not only propose bad solutions; often enough, we cannot even see the problems. The gross inequalities of political power in contemporary America are the most obvious instance. The daunting challenge of altering a deeply entrenched and powerfully defended status quo that embodies those inequalities is often obscured by simplistic folk-theoretic faith in the responsiveness of the current system to its citizens.
Donald Trump may prove to be a political ironman with feet made of clay. Special counsel Robert Mueller holds a fire hose. If he unleashes a torrent of water, Trump may collapse. That may not be enough to stop Trump from winning re-election, contrary to most current assumptions. His supporters will be there for him in 2020, no matter what.