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A Cri de Coeur Regarding our Present Governance Crisis

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Regular readers of these commentaries are aware that I have been seeking to understand why President Donald Trump’s followers are continuing to support him. That question is critical because that group’s backing has precipitated a major crisis in our nation’s governance tied to the character of our present chief executive and the strategy that has occasioned it. I have previously reported on why evangelicals claim they support him and on why some businesspeople have as well. I have also sought to understand why some residents of Appalachia and other rural areas have embraced Trump. Here, I sketch Trump’s style of governing and thereafter I provide a number of explanations for GOP rank and file espousal of him.

Daily, President Trump seeks to stoke fear or to work to manufacture crises and then “take action” to address the fantasy-issues he has created. So it was with the “refugee caravan” on our nation’s border with Mexico that Trump argued would soon “attack” the United States just prior to the 2018 election. That group was comprised largely of unarmed women and children fleeing violence in their native countries and posed no threat to anyone.[1] Trump, however, suggested the issue was so grave that he had to send American troops to our border against the Pentagon’s counsel. The point of the entire charade was to invoke fear and to send his supporters a message that he would protect them from the threatening “other.” So it was, too, with the purported imminent danger from Iran, a country that was not then violating its treaty concerning nuclear fuels production. Trump abandoned that pact as he lambasted the supposed guile of that nation’s rulers and the alleged stupidity of his predecessor, occasioning, paradoxically, not a “win,” but instead the predictable, very real and dangerous restart of that country’s atomic weapons program.[2]

And so matters have gone throughout his tenure in office. Trump has decried allies for no reason, attacked treaties without cause and scapegoated anyone and anything in order to feed his narcissism and suggest his eminence, while signaling to his supporters that “others” are undoing their lives and that he alone can protect them. This behavior reached an apogee in recent days as Trump explained to Americans that the novel Coronavirus spreading across the world, which has resulted in the deaths of 26 Americans as of this writing, was a hoax perpetrated by the Democratic Party. He then stated that he knew more about this poorly understood virus than qualified epidemiologists and researchers because of his “natural knack” with matters scientific. In so doing, Trump metaphorically placed himself as controller and arbiter of a pandemic for his supporters while blaming innocents for it.[3] A neat trick, if one is willing to suspend all reason and believe it, and one surely in keeping with his behavior throughout his tenure in office.  

GOP “Dear Leader-style” public support of this nonsense notwithstanding, few of that Party’s leaders actually view this rhetoric as anything other than the perilous and pompous silliness it represents. But they continue to endorse it, they say, at least in private, because the GOP rank and file have believed the false fears Trump has stoked and have supported the chief executive to date. These officials have adopted this stance despite the fact that they are obliged not simply to parrot their constituent’s views, but to inform them to ensure deliberation and to preserve the nation’s Constitution. Given that Trump has relentlessly attacked the Rule of Law, Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press while continuously lying to the nation’s citizenry on a daily basis and acting in ways that actively undermine the interests of many of his supporters, I have been very interested in reading all I can concerning what factors motivate their willingness to support him.[4] I share the most reported of the explanations I have studied in order of their increasing complexity and persuasiveness here.

For some Trump supporters, the issue doubtless goes no deeper than, “I am a Republican,” and the President is the standard bearer of their preferred political party. This sort of partisan identification is doubtless real and equally superficial in the present instance, particularly given the obvious gravity of Trump’s corruption and incompetence, and that of his administration.[5] At best, this reason for supporting the president suggests an alarming dearth of deliberation and a near-infinite capacity for rationalization on whatever bases. If this stance is in fact animating millions, our nation must soon confront its serious crisis in civic education and acculturation or risk a death born of its people’s collective ignorance.

A second argument often advanced for Republicans continuing to support Trump is that he is giving them what they want. For some, that prize is his nomination of dogmatists for judicial posts. For others, it is his support for a view of religious liberty that permits its adherents to violate the civil liberties of other citizens in its name. For still others, it is a willingness to maximize short-term profits by eliminating statutory and regulatory obstacles. Examples of the last listed include allowing unfettered mining on public lands or, more broadly, seeking to eliminate any restrictions on development linked to protection of flora or fauna.[6] Some evangelicals and many in the business sector have welcomed this sort of short-term perspective and have rewarded Trump with support for adopting it. Future generations—or all Americans after 2024, should Trump be reelected—will bear the heavy costs of such actions.

A third argument, at least among a share of evangelicals, is that Trump is a God-anointed leader who has come to protect them from broader cultural currents with which they are uncomfortable or with which they personally disagree.[7] That this is obviously not the case, based on his self-evident corruption and personal history, and that he meets none of the criteria for leadership that these individuals purport to admire, has not prevented such groups from embracing this claim and accepting anything he may do on that basis. I have previously argued that this situation is morally and ethically bankrupt, whatever its perceived short-term advantages for those embracing it. To the extent this group succeeds in aiding Trump in his effort to remain in office, the majority of Americans will bear the material as well as rights-related costs these individuals are willing to impose in the name of their fantasies and fears, a situation tantamount to an especially perverse minority tyranny.

Finally, as I have noted in prior essays, on the basis of the work of several distinguished sociologists and historians, many individuals supporting Trump do so on the basis of a deep story born of the fast and sometimes negative pace of social and economic change at work in their communities that has demoralized and disoriented them.[8] Notably, that narrative both follows and underpins Republican Party arguments that government was the architect of those shifts and that its efforts not only created their unease and concerns, but also that its initiatives have gone further to reward the “indolent” and minorities with their hard-earned tax dollars, even as their communities and/or their personal social and economic positions have declined. The GOP has argued for decades that citizens should cede their political sovereignty to market actors and blame government for their perceived woes while promising the overwhelmingly white voters they have sought to mobilize that such action would ensure their continuing “rightful” place in the social hierarchy by preventing support for those groups seeking to assume a status above their presumed historical station.

The scholars who have offered this argument view Trump as the current acme of a long-lived effort, one that has been a part of our nation’s politics at least since soon after the nation’s founding, by a share of economic elites in this nation to gain control of the political process to serve their interests.[9] Our nation has long sought to reconcile a capitalist economic system and devotion to private property with a similar keenness for popular sovereignty and equality, and those with wealth have long worked to bend the nation’s politics, the workings of its devotion to self-governance, to their perceived economic interests in consequence.

Indeed, in our current era, this class has been able to garner GOP rank-and-file support with appeals to fear of economic and social change as well as arguments that minorities and “others” are eclipsing citizens’ “rightful” roles in their communities. These economic elites have, meanwhile, hobbled government’s capacity to rein in their efforts to garner authority and power in the name of the broader collectivity. Trump’s personal crassness and willingness to descend to constant name calling and lies keeps the idea of woundedness alive and fresh for devotees of the deep story, even as it allows a relatively small number of powerful economic actors to press their ideological claims against government and in favor of an unlimited purview to proceed as they might wish, irrespective of the implications of those actions for others or for posterity.

Clearly, all of these arguments can be true simultaneously and all are doubtless in play to persuade Republican Party voters to support Trump.  The upshot of this concatenation of rationales is a continuing attack on government capacity and a deference to a small number of market elites in the name of assuaging fears of a loss of economic and social status. The GOP has successfully tied responsible governance to support for groups they label as underserving minorities who are seeking to usurp the standing of “hard-working” citizens. In so doing, they have undermined the entire realm of politics in the minds of many. The upshot of these twin forces has been the diminution and delegitimization of governance, growing income and wealth inequality, diminished social capacity for political mobilization to check market actor excesses and a persistent willingness among GOP supporters to legitimate social cruelty and discrimination and the abrogation or outright denial of human and civil rights of targeted groups.

To this array of realities, Trump has added his peculiar brand of demagoguery, which has consistently sought recourse to the false, the recriminatory, the cruel and the self-aggrandizing. Trump has stopped at nothing to feed his ego, including direct attacks on civil liberties and self-governance, and abandonment of all civility. More, he has been willing to take the GOP argument against so called “undeserving others” to dehumanizing lengths previously associated only with fascists during the modern period. For example, he has referred to a share of immigrants as “animals” and in recent days also called the sitting Governor of the state of Washington a “snake” as that leader has sought to lead his government in efforts to address the current epicenter of the novel Coronavirus in the United States.[10]

Such is the state of American governance today as the country approaches a national election in roughly seven months. That event could not be more significant to the future of this nation’s regime. Today’s political crisis suggests how important it is for Americans of all political persuasions to follow closely what the Trump administration does and not simply what the President says. When he does say and do outrageous things, an unfortunately frequent occasion, citizens must protest those statements and actions, and do so vigorously.

This also suggests that young people, who did not vote in proportion to their numbers in 2016, must do so in 2020 in order to ensure that their voices are heard, as their futures are being written by today’s political leaders. More generally, and in light of Trump’s very slim Electoral College victory in 2016, our present crisis suggests the critical significance of every American’s vote in the coming election. In my lifetime, at least, careful attention, deliberation and a willingness to express one’s voice have never been more important than this electoral cycle. We appear, as historian Eric Foner has suggested was true of Reconstruction, to have entered a moment when the future direction of our nation now hangs in the balance.

Notes 

[1] Cohen Zachary, Nicole Gaouette and Ryan Brown, “Veterans Slam Trump for Border ‘Stunt,’” CNN News, October 31, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/30/politics/trump-troops-border-criticisms/index.html. Accessed March 8, 2020.

[2] Rizzo, Salvador and Meg Kelly, “Fact Checking President Trump’s Reasons for Leaving Iran Nuclear Deal,” The Washington Post, May 9, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2018/05/09/fact-checking-president-trumps-reasons-for-leaving-the-iran-nuclear-deal/, Accessed March 8, 2020.

[3] Egan, Lauren, “Trump Calls Coronavirus Democrats’ ‘New Hoax,’” NBC News, February 28, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/trump-calls-coronavirus-democrats-new-hoax-n1145721, Accessed March 8, 2020; Nakamura, David, ‘Maybe I Have a Natural Ability’: Trump Plays Medical Expert on Coronavirus by second-guessing the professionals,” The Washington Post, March 6, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/maybe-i-have-a-natural-ability-trump-plays-medical-expert-on-coronavirus-by-second-guessing-the-professionals/2020/03/06/3ee0574c-5ffb-11ea-9055-5fa12981bbbf_story.html, Accessed March 8, 2020.

[4] Allsop, Jon, “After 10,000 ‘False or Misleading Claims,’ Are We Any Better at Calling Out Trump’s Lies?,” Columbia Journalism Review, April 30, 2019, https://www.cjr.org/the_media_today/trump_fact-check_washington_post.php. Accessed March 8, 2020; Samuels, Brett, “Trump Declares New York Times ‘Enemy of the People,’” The Hill, February 20, 2019,  https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/430716-trump-declares-new-york-times-enemy-of-the-people, Accessed March 8, 2020; Conway, Michael, “Trump’s Twitter Attacks on Judge Amy Berman Jackson Show his Disrespect for the Rule of Law,” NBC News, February 19, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/trump-s-twitter-attacks-judge-amy-berman-jackson-show-his-ncna1138406 , Accessed March 8, 2020; Shafer, Jack, “How Trump Twists ‘Free Speech,’” Politico, May 16, 2019, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/05/16/how-trump-twists-free-speech-226924, Accessed March 7, 2020.

[5] Sargent, Greg, “The Scope of Trump’s Corruption is Mind-Boggling. New Developments Show How,” The Washington Post, November 5, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/11/05/scope-trumps-corruption-is-mind-boggling-new-developments-show-how/, Accessed March 8, 2020. 

[6] Friedman, Lisa, “ Trump’s Move Against Landmark Environmental Law Caps A Relentless Agenda,” The New York Times, January 13, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/09/climate/trump-nepa-environment.html, Accessed March 7, 2020.

[7] Posner, Sarah, “That Christianity Today Editorial Won’t Change Anything,” The New York Times, December 22, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/22/opinion/christianity-today-trump.html, Accessed March 7, 2020.

[8] Hochschild, Arlie Russell, Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, New York: The New Press, 2018; Wuthnow, Robert, The Left behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018; Richardson, Heather Cox, “Letters from an American,” March 7, 2020, heathercoxrichardson@substack.com, Accessed March 8, 2020; Foner, Eric, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution, New York: Norton and Company, 2019.

[9] Foner, Eric. The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution, New York: Norton and Company, 2019.

[10] Davis, Julie Hirschfield, “Trump Calls Some Unauthorized Immigrants ‘Animals’ in Rant,” The New York Times, May 16, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/16/us/politics/trump-undocumented-immigrants-animals.html, Accessed March 7, 2020; Parker, Mario and John Harney, “Trump Calls Washington State Governor Jay Inslee ‘A Snake,’” Bloomberg, March 6, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-06/trump-calls-washington-state-governor-jay-inslee-a-snake, Accessed March 6, 2020.

Publication Date

March 16, 2020

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