Trump's supporters don't care about Russia — but they don't want to lose their health care

Almost nothing will sway Trump's most adoring fans — but the threat of losing health insurance just might do it

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published July 17, 2017 7:59AM (EDT)

A man dressed in American flag clothes holds "Make America Great Again" hats before President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a rally at the Ladd–Peebles Stadium, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016, in Mobile, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson) (AP/Brynn Anderson)
A man dressed in American flag clothes holds "Make America Great Again" hats before President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a rally at the Ladd–Peebles Stadium, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016, in Mobile, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson) (AP/Brynn Anderson)

Last month, I published a multimedia feature lamenting the endless parade of stories marveling at the way Donald Trump's voters continue to support him. Decades of research in both psychology and political science predicted that Trump supporters would engage in elaborate rationalization for his corrupt behavior rather than admit they were wrong to support him.

The Russia scandal won't bother Trump supporters. These are folks who love their country so little that they would vote for a malicious reality TV star to run it. There's no way they are going to be bothered by the possibility that the president worked with a hostile foreign adversary that was committing crimes to help elect him. Trump's stupidity and bigotry won't move them. Many of them enjoy how much these qualities anger liberals.

But there was one thing that the experts I interviewed kept returning to when I asked if there was anything that could break the spell that Trump has over his supporters: Health care. It's one thing to make excuses about your choices when the consequences feel abstract and far away. It's another thing entirely when your choices lead to material damage in your own life. Denial is much harder to maintain when your ability to go to the doctor is under threat.

This hypothesis was tested in a CNN segment last week featuring some Trump supporters, which showed, for the first time I've seen anyway, a significant shift away from mindless support for the great orange grifter among his base voters. The stunning words, "I was wrong" actually fell out of the mouth of a Trump voter. Another said she felt he was ushering in "the zombie apocalypse."

As the experts I spoke with predicted, the issue that caused this sudden bout of self-doubt and reflection in Trump voters was health care -- and the threat of losing it.

To be clear, not all the panelists were ready to admit they messed up. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful drug, and at least two other panelists were continuing to chug heartily from it. One blamed Congress, not Trump, if people lost their health insurance, even though Trump has advocated vigorously for the Republican bill and will be the one to sign it into law if it gets out of Congress. The other admitted he is on Obamacare, but still clung to Trump's false claim that there's a way to lower costs without either price controls or reducing coverage.

But getting any Trump supporter to admit he or she was wrong is difficult. Getting one-third of a panel of Trump supporters, on live TV no less, to admit they made a mistake is something close to a miracle. It really shows that material consequences are the only factors that even have a chance of pulling Trump supporters out of the spiral of culture war and bigotry-induced love for Dear Leader and into considering the possibility that who you vote for actually matters.

All of which means that Democrats and liberals generally, if they want to break up the Trump coalition, need to focus on health care.

To be clear, it seems that congressional Democrats are doing just this. The Twitter feeds of most major congressional Democrats are oriented mostly towards health care, which is due in part to the fact that they are working on the issue, but also likely due to an understanding that this, more than the Russia scandal or any of the other Trump corruption scandals, is what will move voters.

Still, breaking through in the media is hard, in part because the Russia scandal is both important and unfolding. As Brian Beutler of the New Republic has argued, the media bias is towards "new news." That the Senate health care bill is terrible and will hurt millions is not new news, not in the same way as every new revelation about how deep the Trump campaign team's connections to Russian oligarchs go. Which is why dramatic activism and protests matter — they snag headlines and keep the health care story from getting buried under Russia headlines.

To be clear, none of this is to say that Russia is, God help us, a distraction. It's not, and the fact that Trump's team has treacherous impulses, even if they haven't met the legal definition of treason (yet), matters quite a bit. But it's not a story that will move those who voted for Trump, because scandals can be rationalized away as partisan noise. That's doubly true after decades of Republicans floating  one fake scandal after another, from "birth certificate" to "Benghazi" to "emails." Republicans have been making up fake scandals for so long that it's no wonder they don't recognize a real one when they see it.

What this does mean, however, is that the health care issue needs to be injected into the discourse at every opportunity. The good news is that there's a way to wedge health care even into the Russia story. The main reason Republicans are all pretending that it's no big deal that the Trump campaign actively courted Russian efforts to commit crimes is because they need him to sign their bill stripping health insurance from millions.

This is something that should be pointed out at every opportunity. Conservative voters may not care if Trump subverts our democracy -- an institution they were suspicious of to begin with -- but they do care if he does so in order to take their health care away.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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