How, liberals and progressives ask with shocked amazement, can President Trump’s supporters continue to back him? They persist even as one piece of evidence after another emerges of his epic and pathological gaslighting, his shameless immorality, his abject criminality, his wild stupidity and his corruption. Then there’s his chilling authoritarianism, his tendency toward fascism, his ugly sexism, his textbook malignant narcissism and his nasty racism.
Yes, the evidence is clear as day—to people who pay serious attention to evidence. Nine of every 10 Americans—and certainly a larger share of Republicans and Trump backers—believe in the existence of God. Ask most Americans what exactly one is supposed to believe in when it comes to “God,” and they will say little or nothing in the way of empirical proof. It’s never quite clear what the concept and word mean. It’s about faith, not evidence.
Evidence is easily devalued in a faith-based nation in which magical thinking(a critical component of authoritarianism and hardly limited to religious and metaphysical matters) is rife.
“Cognitive dissonance,” a mental pattern first identified by the psychologist Leon Festinger, doesn’t help. People confronted with evidence that contradicts their convictions don’t typically correct their beliefs, Festinger found. Instead, they more commonly double down on their mistaken idea rather than face the mental and egoic pain associated with admitting erroneous thinking. The more they have invested in and even lost from false beliefs, the more they will respond to contrary evidence by actually intensifying their attachment to those untrue notions. (This may help explain how Trump often seems to gain support after talking heads, reporters and politicos call him out for saying or tweeting something particularly absurd.)
Right-wing media worsens the problem. A potent network of counterfactual white Republican news and opinion outlets regularly amplify and reinforce fact-trumping feelings and cognitively dissonant reactions. Watch Fox News and listen to noxiously racist, nationalist and neo-McCarthyite talk-radio hate-mongers like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin. Nothing is clear as day across the soulless landscape of radically conservative media, where 2+2=5; war is peace; love is hate; corporate Democrats are Marxists; antifa is a giant mass movement created by the Democratic Party; black football players who take knees during the national anthem are traitors; the billionaire rentier Donald Trump is a friend of the working man; anthropogenic global warming is a “hoax”; and “God” wants us to burn every last fossil fuel on earth. As Trump’s wacky post-modernist lawyer Rudolph Giuliani put it recently, “truth isn’t truth.”
Feelings trump facts all the time in the U.S. This is true on both sides of the major-party aisle. Talking in 2007 and 2008 to highly educated campus-town liberal Democrats, including plenty of doctorate holders and religious skeptics, I consistently found that facts were of little use in trying to dent their deeply entrenched and utterly false view that Barack Obama was a people’s champion of peace, democracy and social justice. To paraphrase the Beatles, they had “a feeling [about Obama]–a feeling deep inside, oh yeah.”
The so-called mainstream liberal media is itself no great champion of truth. It perversely purveyed George W. Bush’s Orwellian nonsense about Iraq’s supposed “weapons of mass destruction.” As I was first writing this paragraph (last Friday), moreover, Trump’s cable-news bêtes noires CNN and MSNBC were immersed in a seemingly endless and totally absurd memorialization of the war criminal, lifelong imperial war hawk and corporate neoliberal John McCain as a Christ-like embodiment of transcendent human decency.
There’s also the selective and partisan use and interpretation of evidence. Trumpsters know some facts very well. Tell them their president lies, cheats and commits crimes, and some of them will remind you that Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have done the same. They’re right about that (Obama’s apparent observance of his marriage vows notwithstanding), even if they often get their facts wrong on how and why those corporate Democrats (absurdly seen as Left by Republicans) transgressed. And it’s never clear how the readily documentable fact that Democrats do nasty things makes Trump’s epic awfulness any less awful.
Trump’s backers also cite undeniable facts of economic expansion, the stock market explosion and a falling official unemployment rate during Trump’s anti-presidency. But Trump boosters leave out and often deny the fact that the expansion started under Obama. They ignore the considerable downsides of the Obama-Trump “boom”: over-stagnant wages, savage economic and related racial inequality, environmental destruction, massive public and private debt, the over-concentration of stock ownership and profits in the hands of a small minority, and the reckless overvaluation of stocks and other financial assets—harbingers of a coming crash encouraged by Trump’s heedless deregulation of finance.
Trump backers seem to think the U.S. capitalist economy is micromanaged in the Oval Office, as if Trump—who can’t even read a basic balance sheet—is personally responsible for the business cycle he’s been fortunate to ride. That’s a pretty stupid thing to believe.
Speaking of stupidity, what about Trump’s real or alleged idiocy? The “mentally deranged dotard” (North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s colorful description of Trump last summer) would probably outscore George W. Bush (more on that dolt below) but come in below the Clintons and Obama on standard intelligence measures. Whatever his brainpower, however, Trump is an inexhaustible font of fatuous and inane political assertion. Take, as one example, his frequent go-to: climate change denial. Then there’s his claim that thousands of Muslims danced on the roofs of apartment complexes watching the World Trade Center towers collapse on 9/11, as well as the ridiculous assertion the U.S. is being flooded by immigrant rapists and murderers.
These would also make the list: the preposterous charge Trump was denied a popular victory over Hillary Clinton by immigrant voter fraud; the ludicrous allegation Google has “rigged” its search engine against him, and the wild-eyed contention that a small leftist anti-fascist group (antifa) will drown the nation in violence if Democrats take over Congress in the 2018 midterm elections. Finally, there’s Trump’s openly and insanely false claim that NBC doctored (“fudged”) an interview he did with Lester Holt in May of 2017—an interview in which he clearly tells Holt that he fired FBI Director James Comey because Comey was investigating the president’s connections to Russia. Every day seems to bring a new ludicrous and patently false tweet or comment from “President Dunce Cap.”
Sadly enough, however, stupidity is not necessarily a big problem for much of the population. Ten years ago, historian Rick Shenkman wrote a book titled “Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter.”
The book was filled with depressing statistics like the following:
● A majority of Americans didn’t know which party was in control of Congress.
● A majority couldn’t name the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
● A majority didn’t know the U.S. had three branches of government.
● A majority of Americans told pollsters in 2003 they believed George W. Bush’s argument the United States should invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein had attacked America on 9/11.
George W. “Is Our Kids Learning?” Bush, Number 43, was an abject moron who thought “God” wanted him to invade Iraq. The depressing fact that a majority of Americans believed Dubya’s bold-faced lie about Saddam Hussein’s culpability in the 2001 jetliner attacks on U.S. soil was striking evidence for Shenkman’s assertion that “ignorance of basic facts” reflects a “level of inattentiveness that is unhealthy in a society that purports to be free and democratic.”
The problem didn’t go away just because the electorate responded to the Iraq fiasco and the meltdown of the economy by putting enough of its longstanding racism aside to place a former editor of the Harvard Law Review—an epitome of the professional class’ education-based meritocratic worldview who happened to be black—in the White House for eight years. The silver-tongued and deeply conservative Ivy League creation and arch-neoliberal imperialist Obama did facts and truth no favors by pretending to be something he wasn’t—a progressive friend of social justice, democracy and peace—while he dutifully helped preserve Wall Street’s control of the nation’s domestic and foreign policies. (Orwell noted that form of pretense, too.)
Reflecting on the Trump phenomenon in early 2016, Shenkmanrecognized the underlying U.S.-American disease of mass stupidity (though in truth the real problem he was discussing was ignorance) was alive and well in Obama’s final year:
[M]illions of [U.S.] people take sheer nonsense seriously. Their ignorance is making them sitting ducks for politicians like Donald ‘I love the poorly educated’ Trump. Election 2016 is turning into a civics teacher’s case study from hell. … From the moment he rode down the escalator at Trump Tower … Trump has been offering simplistic solutions. … Each proposal has been eviscerated in the media based on the critiques of experts who have pointed out that his proposed solutions barely withstand cursory analysis. … But his voters haven’t cared. Nor have they worried when the media have caught him in one lie after another. Politifact has called him out for lying more than any of the other candidates, but to little effect. … It appears he can get away with saying anything.
The rest, as they say, is history. With no small help from the horrific and uninspiring candidacy of the ultimate establishment politico Hillary Clinton (Yale Law, one notch above Harvard Law), the Orwellian falsehood machine and lower-brain atavist Trump swept the Electoral College. The president has continued his relentless war on reality with a remarkably durable approval rate in the low to mid-40s, largely undented even by his former longtime lawyer Michael Cohen’s recent identification of Trump as a co-conspirator in the illegal payment of funds for the purpose of silencing two women with whom Trump had had extramarital affairs.
What about Trump’s authoritarianism? It is evident in his cold disregard for the rule of law and the power of Congress and his Cabinet, as well as his recurrent habit of praising strongman leaders around the world.
Most liberals and progressives I know are stunned that Trump’s clear despotism and taste for tyranny do not bother his base. But there’s no basis for their astonishment about this. Leaving aside the fact Trump is more showman than strongman, nobody who pays serious attention to the relevant survey data should think that the president’s authoritarian inclinations would be a problem for his supporters.
In December 2015, the political scientist Matthew MacWilliams surveyed 1,800 registered voters across the country and the political spectrum. Employing standard statistical survey analysis, McMillan found education, income, gender and age had no significant bearing on a Republican voter’s preferred candidate. “Only two of the variables I looked at,” MacWilliams reported in January of 2016, “were statistically significant: authoritarianism, followed by fear of terrorism, though the former was far more significant than the latter.”
Trump, MacWilliams found, was the only candidate in either party with statistically significant support from authoritarians. “Those who say a Trump presidency ‘can’t happen here,’ ” MacWilliams wrote in Politico, “should check their conventional wisdom at the door. … Conditions are ripe for an authoritarian leader to emerge. Trump is seizing the opportunity.”
A year and a half later, a poll conducted by political scientists Ariel Malka and Yphtach Lelkes found that 56 percent of Republicans support postponing the 2020 presidential election if Trump and congressional Republicans advocate this to “make sure that only eligible American citizens can vote.”
This brings us to Trump’s racism, evident from numerous statements of his before and during his presidency. Is it a problem for Trump backers?
Know any other good jokes? Trump’s disproportionately Caucasian base is fused by an embattled white racial identity. This Trumpian “make America white again” heart- and mind-set holds that whites are becoming a minority targeted by discrimination and “politically correct” liberal and leftists have been turning the nation’s politics and policies against white values, culture, needs, rights and prerogatives.
This curious “reverse discrimination” victim whiteness (devoid of evidence for its claims) informs the Trump base’s understanding of the meaning of the word “corruption” in ways the liberal writer Peter Beinart recently captured in the Atlantic. For Trump’s base, Beinart writes, the idea of corruption isn’t so much about politics and the law as it is about racial and gender purity:
Trump supporters appear largely unfazed by the mounting evidence that Trump is the least ethical president in modern American history. … Once you grasp that for Trump and many of his supporters,corruption means less the violation of law than the violation of established hierarchies [of race and gender], their behavior makes more sense. … Why were Trump’s supporters so convinced that [Hillary] Clinton was the more corrupt candidate even as reporters uncovered far more damning evidence about Trump’s foundation than they did about Clinton’s? Likely because Clinton’s candidacy threatened traditional gender roles. For many Americans, female ambition—especially in service of a feminist agenda—in and of itself represents a form of corruption.
Cohen’s admission makes it harder for Republicans to claim that Trump didn’t violate the law. But it doesn’t really matter. For many Republicans, Trump remains uncorrupt—indeed, anti-corrupt—because what they fear most isn’t the corruption of American law; it’sthe corruption of America’s traditional identity. And in the struggle against that form of corruption—the kind embodied by Cristhian Rivera [the “illegal immigrant” accused of murdering the young white woman Mollie Tibbetts in rural Iowa two weeks ago]—Trump isn’t the problem. He’s the solution. [Emphasis added.]
But, of course, it’s not about racism, nativism, sexism, or authoritarianism when it comes to understanding Trump’s base. White racial and gender identity and authoritarianism have long merged with and cross-fertilized each other. Last May, political scientists Steven V. Miller and Nicholas T. Davis released a working paper titled “White Outgroup Intolerance and Declining Support for American Democracy.” Their study found a strong correlation between white Americans’ racial intolerance and support for authoritarian rule. “When racially intolerant white people fear democracy may benefit marginalized people of color,” NBC News reported, citing the Miller and Davis paper, “they abandon their commitment to democracy.”
The Trump base’s bigotry and its leanings toward authoritarianism are not separate problems. They are inseparably linked. When Trump calls Mexicans murderers and rapists, when he rails about the need for building a wall, when he denounces the media as “fake news,” when he disses judges and the rule of law and juries, and when he praises authoritarian leaders, he is appealing to the same voters.
The most sophisticated and statistically astute analysis of the 2016 Trump electorate produced so far has been crafted by political sociologists David Norman Smith and Eric Hanley. In an article published in Critical Sociology last March, Smith and Hanley found the white Trump base was differentiated from white non-Trump voters not by class or other “demographic” factors (including income, age, gender and the alleged class identifier of education) but by eight key attitudes and values: identification as “conservative”; support for “domineering leaders”; Christian fundamentalism; prejudice against immigrants; prejudice against blacks; prejudice against Muslims; prejudice against women, and a sense of pessimism about the economy.
Strong Trump supporters scored particularly high on support for domineering leaders, fundamentalism, opposition to immigrants and economic pessimism. They were particularly prone to support authoritarian leaders who promised to respond punitively to minorities perceived as “line-cutters”—“undeserving” others who were allegedly getting ahead of traditional white Americans in the procurement of jobs and government benefits—and to the supposed liberal “rotten apples” who were purportedly allowing these “line-cutters” to advance ahead of traditional white American males.
Support for politically authoritarian leaders and a sense of intolerance regarding racial, ethnic and gender differences are two sides of the same Trumpian coin. The basic desire animating Trump’s base was “the defiant wish for a domineering and impolitic leader” linked to “the wish for a reversal of what his base perceives as an inverted moral and racial order.”
Is Trump’s narcissism a problem for his backers? Not really. As psychologist Elizabeth Mika noted last year in an essay titled “Who Goes Trump? Tyranny as a Triumph of Narcissism”:
The tyrant’s narcissism is the main attractor to his followers, who project their hopes and dreams. The more grandiose his own sense of self and his promises to his fans, the greater their attraction and the stronger their support. … Through the process of identification, the tyrant’s followers absorb his omnipotence and glory and imagine themselves winners in the game of life. This identification heals the followers’ narcissistic wounds, but also tends to shut down their reason and conscience.
If that sounds anything like “creeping fascism,” that’s because it is. As political scientist Anthony DiMaggio recently observed:
There are too many red flags in public sentiment to ignore the threat of creeping fascism. Ominously, one of the strongest statistical predictors of support for Trump is the desire for a strong leader who will ‘crush evil’ and ‘get rid of the rotten apples’ who ‘disturb the status quo.’ Half of Republicans say they trust Donald Trump as a more reliable source of information than the news media—more reliable even than conservative media outlets.
Nearly half of Republicans think media outlets should be ‘shut down’ if they are ‘broadcasting stories that are biased or inaccurate,’ raising ominous possibilities regarding precisely who will act on such allegations. … The cult of Trump is not an abstract phenomenon, but one that has real implications. … The danger of fascist creep is also seen in the support from most Republican Americans for shutting down the 2020 election, so long as Trump declares it necessary to combat fictitious voter fraud. Conservatives’ acceptance of this conspiracy theory continues, unfortunately, despite the president’s own ‘voter fraud commission’ being disbanded after failing to find any evidence of it.
Is Trump’s “creeping fascism” a problem for his backers? Leaving aside the interesting debate among liberal and left commentators about whether Trump is a real or creeping fascist, it is unlikely that more than a small number of Americans could provide even the remotest outlines of a working definition of what classic European fascism was or what fascism more broadly defined is in the world today. It’s hard for people to reject something they know little or nothing about regarding its existence and nature (even as they are thinking and acting in accord with some of the phenomenon’s key characteristics).
As the dangerously declining superpower that is the United States moves at an accelerating pace, under Trump, into a period that deserves to be called at least pre-fascism, it is an even better time than usual to heed George Santyana’s warning: “Those who cannot learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”