The Appeal of Trump
What, exactly, do Donald Trump’s supporters see in him? A New York City-based, flamboyant billionaire with an off-the-charts ego would not seem a natural match for the blue collar workers, most of whom do not have a college education, who polls tell us make up the bulk of his support. So how did this match made somewhat south of heaven get made? This is especially puzzling when you consider Trump’s negativity about the country. Since he announced his candidacy Trump has been telling all who will listen how terrible our country is; that the American Dream is dead; that failure to secure our borders means we don’t have a real country etc. This turns conventional wisdom on its head. Aren’t white, blue collar workers the folks we thought were always saying that America is the greatest? Don’t Republicans yearn for the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan? So how do we explain Trump’s gloom-and-doom popularity?
I think there are two related factors driving Trump’s poll numbers among a constituency that, at first glance, wouldn’t seem a natural fit for him. The first is that Trump is telling his supporters that they have been right all along about President Obama, even though the facts show that they couldn’t have been more wrong. Since the election of 2008 conservatives have predicted that this “Muslim Socialist” president would be a disaster for our country. They said he was a “big spending liberal”, who would cause the Federal budget deficit to spiral out of control, but in fact the deficit has gone down. They said he would be a “job killer”, but the country has had 70 consecutive months of private sector job growth. They said inflation would go through the roof, but it has stayed low. The said Obamacare would be a “train wreck”, but the percentage of under 65-year olds lacking health insurance has been cut in half. They said his energy and environmental policies would raise gas prices sky high, but in some places they are now under $2.00 a gallon. And on and on. But human beings like to be right and they like to have their worldviews validated and confirmed. So Trump tells his supporters that the country is a disaster, and they lap it up because it tells them they were right all along when all the evidence tells them they were wrong. Everyone wants to think they were right, especially about beliefs that are held so passionately.
The second point is that even thought the country has made strides in recovering from the great recession, many are still struggling, including the white, blue collar demographic that makes up much of Trump’s support. It is the super wealthy (including Trump himself) who have most benefitted from our recovery while the average worker has not shared in the prosperity. But wouldn’t that make Trump supporters angry at Trump the billionaire as part of the class that has gotten all the gains while the average worker continues to struggle? You would think so, but Trump has been masterful at playing the magician’s classic misdirection trick with his supporters. He’s telling people who got the short end of the stick that the real losers are other people. Mexicans, and Muslims, and Jeb Bush, and the press (even going so low as to mock a reporter’s physical disability) are all the real losers. (One wonders if any of Trump’s blue collar followers, who lack both money and power, realize with what contempt the Donald actually holds people like them). This gives Trump’s people, many of whom have taken real hits to their self-esteem of late, other people to look down on so that they feel better about themselves. This despite the fact that in our current economy Trump’s blue collar supporters really are losing and the people they are losing to are billionaires like Trump. But Trump directs their understandable anger elsewhere even as he and his fellow one-percenters pick their pockets clean. So Trump tells his people that it is someone else, and not them, who are the real losers of the world. And they believe it, because they want so desperately to believe it. As Paul Simon wrote in his classic song “The Boxer”, “All lies and jest, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”. And Trump is telling them what they want to hear.