Liberals love to explain Donald Trump to liberals.
Thomas Frank in The Guardian. Ezra Klein in a dozen articles and videos at Vox. Matthew MacWilliams in Politico. The big data crunchers at FiveThirtyEight, and just about every columnist for The New York Times. Non-liberals, too, have gotten into the game, like David Frum in The Atlantic and Ross Douthat in the Times.
It’s easy to understand the consternation. Not only has Trump seemingly come out of nowhere (he hasn’t), he is, as Ezra Klein has informed us in detail, a vindictive, sexist, narcissistic, gullible, defensive, bigoted, lazy, incompetent, lying conspiracy theorist and bully who admires authoritarians, surrounds himself with sycophants, and incites violence among his supporters.
And that’s just in one piece.
Besides, we all know his “plans” won’t work. You can’t deport 11 million people without concentration camps and a massive police state. You can’t desert our allies in Europe and the Middle East without risking global destabilization. You can’t bring back protectionism without wrecking the economy. And you can’t make America white again without turning back time.
So how is it that 40 percent of Americans support him? It’s like that old Saturday Night Live sketch, when Jon Lovitz’s Michael Dukakis said of George Bush, “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to explanations, the professionals can’t quite agree on any.
Maybe it’s the economy. Thomas Frank reminds us blue-collar workers (his term) are sincerely concerned about the harms caused by free trade. There are even some pundits who point out that, gosh, these under-educated white men may even be right about the economic effects of immigration and globalization, even if Trump’s policies would make them worse.
Or maybe it’s about race. Republican David Frum says it’s about the new white male minority living in a world in which everything is broken. Philip Klinkner at Vox says that the best predictor of someone being a Trump supporter is if they believe Obama is a Muslim. Various writers in the Times suggest that his supporters are “sick and tired of tolerance.” This astonishingly articulate video by Princeton professor Nell Irvin Painter makes the convincing case that the white supremacist Trump is a backlash to the nation’s first black president.
This, too, has its basis in fact: hegemonic Christianity is in decline, multiculturalism is real, terrorism is awful, and even though Trump’s policies won’t change those phenomena, at least he yells about them.
Maybe it’s a psychological thing. Maybe Trump supporters have innately authoritarian personalities. Jonathan Haidt thinks so, and he gave a great TED Talk. So does a bevy of political scientists. So do the results of some provocative studies aligning Trump support with parenting style. That’s an appealing explanation, particularly since it reaffirms the sense that people like me are smarter than other people. Admittedly, I’ve offered this explanation myself.
Then again, they could just be dumb, products of a starved educational system, or worse, home-schooling.
Maybe we’ve seen this all before. Trump is just the latest populist to capture America’s anti-intellectual, anti-elitist imagination. Ross Perot with weirder hair, Pat Buchanan with a bank account, Bernie Sanders with worse politics. Richard Hofstadter wrote about this in 1963. Spiro Agnew (helped by William Safire and Pat Buchanan) condemned the “effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals” in 1968.
Perhaps Trump, Brexit, and the rise of the alt-right in Europe are part of some cyclical shift in the zeitgeist. Cross of Gold, anyone? Andrew Jackson?
I can sympathize with my colleagues’ profusion of punditry. I thought of writing a “Why People Support Trump” column myself, but it seemed like all the good ideas were taken. And if there’s one thing you can’t do in my business, it’s agree with someone else.
And really, what good is a column that says that everybody is partially right? That the Trump base is a messy amalgam of disaffected whites who are angry about their declining situation, all-too-typically blaming the “Other” for their problems, and open to a strong leader who at least yells and cusses like they do?
Oh, and yeah, with daddy issues, too.
Worst of all for pundits, the boring truth is partly that Trump became the Republican nominee because the GOP couldn’t unite between any of its mainstream candidates, and so a candidate of 35-40 percent of the party became the last man standing. And in the general election, he’s up against one of the least popular politicians in America.
We’ve made the Trump phenomenon into a gut check of the American soul, but only around 12 percent of Americans agree with most of his core message—the same percentage that has voted for nativist populists in other countries, and ours, for generations. (By comparison, twice that percentage believes the world is about to end.) This one just happened to be a reality television star in a weak field.
This is not to say that the Trump candidacy isn’t important, terrifying, fascinating, and historic in nature. It is all of the above. It reflects very real racial and economic anxieties among a significant chunk of the American populace, tensions that go back to the Founding but which are exacerbated by a perfect storm of trends.
But the chattering class’s rush to “explain” Donald Trump to itself says more about us than about him. In fact, we are every bit as afraid as Trump’s white, working class base—and we, like they, have good reason to be. And while they seek solace in a tough-talking leader who pisses off the intelligentsia, we seek comfort in the intelligentsia—even if they contradict themselves as often as The Donald.