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‘Assumptive Worlds’ and American Democracy’s Greatest Test

In a recent commentary in Commonweal, Yale University historian Timothy Snyder argued that President Donald Trump has telegraphed to his supporters and to the American people that he is prepared to take every action he can to remain in power, irrespective of the vote outcome on November 3.[1] Snyder contended that Trump has taken that stance because of his deep indebtedness and personal corruption and his knowledge that out of office he will be subject to prosecution and expected to repay the debt he has no visible means to recompense.[2] In Snyder’s view, because the president believes he will not win honestly, he has accordingly embraced voter suppression on a wide scale, including attempts to subvert the postal system; has lied repeatedly about virtually nonexistent voter fraud; and has sought to turn his supporters against other Americans who live in so-called Blue States and cities or are minorities.[3] He has also persistently racialized his rhetoric, going so far as twice to label Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, who is African American, a “monster,” in a scurrilous effort to dehumanize her.[4] Combining these factors, Snyder contended that Trump has signaled his willingness to stage a coup d’état in which all who vote for him would be implicated.

I want here to focus on Snyder’s arguments concerning the moral meaning of a vote for Trump in this circumstance:

To vote for Trump is to traduce the meaning of voting, which is a normal part of the transition to authoritarianism. Because the collective effect of votes for Trump is to create background plausibility for a coup, each vote for Trump is participation in a plot to end the American republic. It is to vote for a future in which voting does not matter. It is a choice by Americans to no longer make choices as Americans. … In a moral sense, a Trump voter has much more to lose than a Biden voter, for the stakes in November are not only about what the candidates would do in office, but about who we will be afterward as individuals. The Trump voter is risking something precious: his or her standing as an American to be counted, as a person to be reckoned with. To vote for Trump is to cast away that standing; it is to become, as the president likes to say, a ‘sucker’ and a ‘loser.’ To vote for Trump is to give away something that rightly belongs to others, their future in a democracy, and to lose something of yourself that you can never recover, the dignity of a citizen of our republic.[5]

This argument raises at least two profound questions for American democracy. First, if Snyder is correct and Trump, who now asks his campaign rally participants to chant “12 more years,” fully intends to do all he can to undermine our government by simply refusing to admit defeat and to set Americans against one another and compromise millions morally in so doing, why would any citizen support his actions? And second, why would other GOP officials follow his calamitous course?

The second question appears to be more readily addressed than the first. Republican Party officials have supported Trump’s obvious corruption and incompetence, racism and misogyny for nearly four years in the name of power. They ignored overwhelming evidence of his malfeasance in his impeachment trial and have hypocritically rushed pell-mell to nominate an individual for the current vacancy on the Supreme Court, violating their own arguments in so doing and ignoring overwhelming public opinion not to proceed. Their support of Trump to date appears to be premised on three basic pillars linked to maintaining political power. First, Trump commands near absolute fealty among a share of GOP partisans and these are important to elected leaders in primary elections. Second, many of the most significant GOP donors are willing to support Trump as a means of securing a libertarian or pro-business agenda that essentially allows them to proceed as they may wish in their pursuit of profitability, regardless of the broader consequences of their actions. Where money goes, many officials, dependent upon contributions to campaign for office, are willing to follow.  Finally, many current Republican officeholders apparently do not question their Party’s ideological posture that popular sovereignty should be subservient to capitalism, as that contention has been a key tenet of the GOP’s core values for more than 50 years.

All of this sets up the first issue, or moral dilemma, to which Snyder pointed. With many Republican officials and devotees content to support Trump as he works to undermine U.S. democracy, how are their fellow Americans to regard them if he does not succeed? Trump has maliciously slandered citizens who do not back him, used his office for personal gain and worked assiduously to undermine the human and civil rights of many Americans as well as refugees and immigrants.[6] In so doing, he has attacked the nation’s foundational ideals of equality and of freedom for all. More particularly, his overt racism has signaled that he and his party are willing to undo 160 years of efforts, including a horrific civil war, to secure the rights of all Americans, irrespective of their gender, race, ethnicity or national origin. Most deeply, the moral concern to which Snyder points arises from the contempt Trump and his followers exhibit for the freedom and rights of their fellow Americans who may be different from them or disagree with their perspective.

That fact raises afresh the question of why the president’s followers are content to adopt that stance. In past essays, I have suggested that many rural residents, especially, have accepted the “Deep Story,” which embraces a racialized frame and the scapegoating of government, minorities and refugees on the basis of citizen fears of economic and social change and difference.[7] The GOP has offered variations of these arguments for decades, but never more forthrightly and heinously than Trump has proffered them, with his statements concerning Mexican rapists, **ithole countries and his persistent embrace of white supremacists during his term in office.[8]  But while the Deep Story narrative offers explanatory power at the meta scale, one must also provide a construct that operates explicitly at the individual level to make sense of the many reasons and rationalizations Trump supporters offer to justify their prima facie anti-democratic and immoral stance to sustain him.

Such a concept, conceived by psychotherapist Jerome Frank, is the assumptive world, or

the unique perspective each person brings to life assumptions.  [The] assumptive world is the story you have personally gleaned from living; your personal account of what life means and your role within it. That story is the meaning you give the events of your life, birthplace, schooling, vocation, etc. … Each person’s story makes possible and yet limits his understanding and interpretation of events.[9]

In short, each Trump supporter brings a unique story and set of assumptions to justify why they choose to accept, rationalize or simply set aside his corruption and lies. Each brings experiences that allow them to accept or discount his false claims that any criticism of his incompetence is partisan and malignant and so on. The point, according to Frank, is that while there may be a dominant story or narrative animating many people, individuals will have very specific reasons and experiences for adopting it or, more broadly, for accepting the claims of its primary progenitor. Some Trump supporters may be racists. Others may fear economic and social change and desire someone to blame for those fears. Still others may loathe governance on the basis of fatuous claims that all it does is “give” money to minorities and believe that their sovereignty should be sacrificed to business elites for that reason. There are likely as many motives as assumptive worlds for why Trump and the GOP have continued to attract a substantial minority of Americans as they have attacked United States institutions and values wholesale.

This fact, in turn, leads one to recall Snyder’s most important point: that those who vote for Trump, whatever their basis for doing so, are not merely engaged in a partisan choice, but an immoral assault on the American polity and democratic self-governance. The choice in the November 3 national election is not simply one of differences about how much government spending we shall have or what programs to pursue, but whether we shall have self-governance at all.

Even if the nation casts out Trump and many GOP office holders in the coming election and he and his party and supporters accept that outcome, rather than follow the script Trump has outlined publicly to seek to undermine it, the citizenry at large will still have to address the many challenges Trump has created in virtually every area of government responsibility. And, vitally, they will have to do so aware of the central fact that a share of their fellow citizens embraced a leader willing to undermine and sacrifice the civil and human rights of entire groups of Americans to maintain power. That is, those citizens who did not support Trump will then confront the continuing challenge of dignifying the democratic standing and humanity of fellow Americans who accorded them no such status. Assuming a negative outcome for Trump and the GOP on November 3, whether that aspiration can be realized will depend mightily on the majority’s continued willingness to extend its hand in the name of pluralism and freedom to a minority that refused to embrace that same possibility on its behalf. Like the election itself, this will be a democratic challenge of the highest order.

Notes 

[1] Snyder, Timothy. “Not a Normal Election: The Ethical Meaning of a Vote for Donald Trump,” Commonweal, October 8, 2020, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/not-normal-election, Accessed October 8, 2020. 

[2] Buettner, Russ, Susanne Craig and Mike McIntire, “Long Concealed Records Show Trump’s Chronic Losses and years of Tax Avoidance,” The New York Times, September 27, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/09/27/us/donald-trump-taxes.html, Accessed September 27, 2020; Confessore, Nicholas, Karen Yourish, Steve Eder, Ben Protess, Maggie Haberman, Grace Ashford, Michael LaForgia, Kenneth P. Vogel, Michael Rothfeld and Larry Buchanan, “The Swamp That Trump Built,” The New York Times, October 10, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/10/10/us/trump-properties-swamp.html, Accessed October 10, 2020. 

[3] Baker, Peter, “For Trump, It’s Not the United States, It’s Red and Blue States,” The New York Times, September 24, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/17/us/politics/trump-america.html, Accessed October 18, 2020.

[4] Chalfant, Morgan, “Trump Calls Harris a “Monster,’” The Hill, October 8, 2020, https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/520163-trump-calls-harris-a-monster, Accessed October 18, 2020. 

[5] Snyder, “Not a Normal Election.”

[6]  Kanno-Youngs, Zolan and Michael D. Shear, “Trump Virtually Cuts Off Refugees as he Unleashes a Tirade on Immigrants,” October 1, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/01/us/politics/trump-refugees.html, Accessed October 18, 2020; Thrush, Glenn, “Trump Attacks a Suburban Housing Program. Critics See A Play for White Votes,” The New York Times, July 10, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/01/us/politics/trump-obama-housing-discrimination.html, Accessed October 18, 2020. 

[7] Hochschild, Arlie Russell, Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, New York: The New Press, 2018.

[8] Jacobs, Ben, “Trump defends Mexican rapists claim during conspiracy-laden speech,” The Guardian, April 5, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/apr/05/trump-mexico-caravan-voter-claims-speech-west-virginia, Accessed October 18, 2020; Yee, Vivian, “In Trump’s Immigration Remarks, Echoes of a Century-Old Racial Ranking, The New York Times, January 13, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/13/us/trump-immigration-history.html, Accessed October 18, 2020; Abbruzzese, Jason, “Trump Balks at Denouncing White Supremacy,”  NBC News September 30, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2020-election/live-blog/first-presidential-debate-trump-biden-n1241282/ncrd1241493#blogHeader, Accessed October 18, 2020. 

[9] As referenced in McQuellon, Richard and Michael Cowan, The Art of Conversation Through Serious Illness, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 16-17

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