Who’s a greater fool: the fool, or the fool who follows him?
I’m taking a break from Africa posts to ask this question, which has become quite timely in the last couple of days.
I’m the only American at my office in Kigali. The rest are all Europeans or East Africans. Several months ago, the day after Donald Trump announced his intention to bar all Muslims from entering the United States, there was not a single person who did NOT greet me by asking about Donald Trump.
“Man, did you hear what Trump said this time?”
“Could he really win the Presidency?”
“But could he even be the Republican nominee?”
Then a pause.
“…Who ARE these people who would vote for Trump anyway?”
I’m glad you asked. Because by forcing us to answer this question—who ARE these Trump voters?—Trump’s apparent nomination, far from tearing our democracy apart, is actually performing a valuable public service: revealing the modern GOP’s true colors.
Now, I’m not scared of Trump. At least not THAT scared. For a couple of reasons:
- Trump is still highly unlikely to win the presidency. As numerous writers have already noted, the electoral map would not have been easy for any Republican, much less one that has made the comments Trump has about growing constituencies like women and Hispanics. Come November, this should be a landslide for Hillary.
- Even if he were to win, I don’t think a Trump presidency would be as bad as people fear, because the US’s “engineered-to-prevent-radical-change” political system would probably block most of Trump’s extreme proposals. Barring Muslims from entering the United States, building a wall with Mexico, etc. would all have to pass Congress—and even if they got through, each would be swiftly challenged and ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The American system of checks and balances is designed exactly for this possibility we’re facing of an insane demagogue being elected president: to prevent someone from “shaking things up” too much. As much as gridlock has often prevented good governments from doing good things, we will be thankful for this same gridlock in the case of a President Trump.
So I’m not scared of Trump.
But I am scared of his voters. 11 million and counting.
Everyone is hurling criticism at Trump the person. “Trump is a racist.” “Trump is a bigot.” “Trump must be condemned.”
But a candidate can only be as crazy as the people voting for him. The ominous reality of this campaign is not that there’s a candidate spewing xenophobic and misogynist nonsense—it’s that this candidate’s support has actually grown stronger as he’s spewed more and more of it. Trump’s campaign kicked off with his calling Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers, which immediately catapulted him into the lead in national GOP polls. That should have told us something. But that turned out to be just the beginning. After each new comment that supposedly should have turned people off—we should increase the use of torture, Muslims should be barred from entering the US, John McCain is a fraud—his lead in polls has increased. Indeed, exit polls showed that Trump did best among voters whose top candidate quality was “tells it like it is.”
Pundits are offering all sorts of explanations for how Trump pulled it off in spite of his inflammatory rhetoric and questionable credentials:
“The primary calendar favored him.”
“Party elites waited too long to rebuke him.”
“There was a crowded field that split donors and prevented rivals from mounting a strong campaign.”
But I’m going to offer a simpler, more fundamental—and far scarier—explanation for why Trump won: Republican voters agree with the things Trump says (a significant plurality at least, if not a majority). It’s not Trump’s fault that he’s winning. He’s just a savvy businessman giving the customer what he wants. And what the customer wants is terrifying.
Let’s let that reality sink in. A significant plurality, if not majority, of Republican voters believe all Muslims should be barred from entering the US. A significant plurality, if not majority, of Republican voters believe its fine to deride female journalists for being on their period. A significant plurality, if not majority, of Republican voters believe we should build a wall between the US and Mexico.
This isn’t just me making wild assertions: the data backs this up. For example, an overwhelming majority of Republicans supports what is probably Trump’s most extreme proposal, to temporarily ban all Muslims entering the US: 66%, 65%, and 59% according to polls by Rasmussen, Bloomberg, and ABC News-Washington Post, respectively. In fact, more than twice as many Republicans said Trump’s proposal made it more likely they would vote for him (37%) than less likely (16%), according to the Bloomberg poll. Similarly, 67% of Republicans support the idea of building a wall with Mexico, according to a recent Pew poll. And beyond these specific examples, political scientists in multiple separate studies on voters’ general temperament have consistently found an almost perfect correlation between support for Trump and various measures of racial hostility, white racial identity, and opposition to women’s rights.
And those issues are just the headline grabbers. The truly terrifying issues are the ones on which Trump’s positions are in line with the other former candidates’.
The issues that have animated this campaign are not ones that will matter on a centuries-timescale—they’ve mainly been about identity politics, terrorism, and inequality. But ISIS is not going to destroy the US, and decisions about who can enter bathrooms and cross borders will not end human civilization. There are only two events within a government’s ability to control that could really do that: nuclear war and climate change.
And on these issues, Trump pretty much speaks the party line.
Yes, Trump says he would not take the use of nuclear weapons “off the table” even in Europe. But other candidates have been equally extreme. Ted Cruz advocated “carpet bombing” the Middle East, and Scott Walker—a supposed moderate—said he’d be willing to go to war with Iran “on day one”.
Yes, Trump says climate change is a hoax. But so does the Republican Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, 4-term Senator Jim Inhofe. And it’s not Trump travelling the world trying to undercut the Paris climate agreement, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
So Trump’s positions on many issues are actually pretty much in line with where the Republican mainstream has moved in recent years, to the chagrin of many. The question is, why are so many people who have held positions nearly identical to Trump’s now reacting so vehemently against him?
It all comes down to the power of language, I think.
When I was researching my senior thesis in 2006, I would always ask interviewees what they thought was the biggest issue facing the country. I’ll never forget the response one housewife told me: “Immigration,” she said. “I’ve been reading that with birthrates the way they are, pretty soon white people are going to be a minority in this country. And I’m pretty uncomfortable with that.” Then she paused and thought a moment. “You know, now that I say that out loud, it actually sounds kindof racist!” And she reconsidered her position.
What I think had happened is, it was not until she heard the words spoken out loud, in stark terms, that she was forced to confront the fact that some of her beliefs about right and wrong—“racism is bad”—conflicted with other beliefs about certain policies—“we should restrict immigration because otherwise white people will become a minority.” She’d always held these two contradictory positions, but it was only upon hearing them spoken side by side that she was forced to reexamine some of her views to resolve the contradiction.
I don’t know for sure, but I think a lot of moderate Republicans and conservative intellectuals are perhaps in a similar position: being faced for the first time with the contradictions between positions they have accepted in solidarity with the base, and what they actually believe is right and wrong.
Trump has not actually changed what the Republican base believes. The truth is, they’ve always wanted to deport Mexicans, bomb Muslims, and have women stay home from work 5 days a month (which is why, of course, they are voting for a candidate who advocates these sorts of things). But before Trump no one was willing to say these things out loud. Few honest politicians could actually want to build a wall with Mexico, or actually believe that climate change is a vast conspiracy, but they needed the votes of people who do. So they couched their positions in euphemism: the proverbial “dog whistle” politics. And as long as extreme words were never spoken, politicians and thought leaders could pretend that extreme positions were never taken. Maybe they were even convinced by their own words. Likewise, the media could pretend that both sides were equally wrong: if one of the two major parties took an extreme position, by definition it had to be mainstream.
Well, the words have now been spoken, and Trump has broken the seal to let reality out into the open. It’s plain now for all to see that the Republican Party has for several years now been hijacked by a base whose views are dangerous and extreme by any measure, and need to be treated as such. Certainly I can sympathize with the underlying reasons for the fears of Trump’s voters—the working and middle classes really have been hollowed out, economic elites really do have too much money and power, and poor whites really are falling behind—but it’s no excuse for accepting or encouraging the more extreme fruits of these fears. I can also sympathize with those Trump supporters who don’t agree with his more racist and misogynist comments but who want to “shake things up”—the Washington establishment really is dysfunctional—but let’s sit down first and think about how much shaking we want to do. The US government is, after all, a pretty big thing, and would crash hard if it came down too fast.
Trump is not winning in spite of his extreme statements, he’s winning because of them. He’s not some charismatic aberration who, once gone, will enable agitated Republican voters to settle down and go back to voting for reasonable moderates—he’s the new normal. After all, the #2 vote getter was Ted Cruz, whose views are even more right-wing than Trump’s.
For moderate Republicans, conservative intellectuals, and the mainstream media, Trump should be a wakeup call that the GOP has changed for good and should perhaps no longer be taken seriously as a mainstream party—on par with fringe groups like Britain’s UKIP or France’s National Front. As the conservative Federalist notes, “What Trump represents is the potential for a significant shift in the Republican Party toward white identity politics for the American right, and toward a coalition more in keeping with the European right than with the American.”
I’m not saying you need to join the Democrats. America needs a third party. Most people I talk to in my generation (admittedly a limited and unrepresentative subset) seem to want someone who’s socially liberal but economically moderate, who believes in markets more than handouts and trade more than aid, but also knows that government is needed to regulate externalities, support infrastructure and research, and provide a basic safety net. The Dems are moving in that direction, but there’s probably still time to outflank us.
Whatever the outcome, the important thing is that we do not individualize the Trump phenomenon. We shouldn’t be scared of the fact that one of our presidential candidates says crazy, racist things. We should be scared of the fact that there are millions of people who actually agree with him.
And we should all thank Donald Trump for finally revealing that.