Donald Trump is amazing. At this early point in his tenure, Trump is one of the most unpopular presidents ever. Political scientists and other experts will most certainly rank him among the worst presidents in the history of the United States.
Donald Trump’s “accomplishments” as president are legion. He has surrendered America’s global leadership to China, Germany and Russia. He has also made America much less respected around the world. He is a plutocrat billionaire with fascist leanings who may have allied with Russia and Vladimir Putin to undermine American democracy and steal the 2016 presidential election from Hillary Clinton and her voters.
Trump is boorish, ignorant, bigoted, sexist and violent. He has encouraged such values among the American people. He and the Republican Party want to destroy the country’s already meager social safety net as a means of punishing the “useless eaters.” For example, their “health care” plan will potentially kill tens of thousands of Americans each year and leave millions more sick, in pain, homeless, financially ruined and otherwise miserable. Meanwhile Trump, his family and his closest associates are using the presidency to personally enrich themselves. They view it as a personal ATM and not as a means of serving the public good and the general welfare. Except for what he can force by fiat, Trump has accomplished none of his major campaign promises — and in the case of building his “amazing” wall and “draining the swamp” he has all but admitted such promises were snake oil and outright lies to con the rubes.
Nevertheless, Trump’s voters still enthusiastically support him. According to new polling data from the Economist and YouGov, Trump has an 88 percent approval rating among those people who voted for him last November -- a higher proportion than supported him a few weeks earlier.
How is this possible?
American politics is highly polarized because of the Republican Party and right-wing media’s disregard -- if not utter contempt -- for consensus and compromise. Conservatives are also extremely tribal and authoritarian. Trump is their leader. He is not to be betrayed or abandoned.
The average American is not politically sophisticated. Moreover, Americans in general do not have high levels of engagement with or interest in politics and public policy. The average American also reasons backwards from conclusions he or she has already made about political matters, in essence selectively finding and processing information to justify decisions. Many Americans are also “siloed”: they self-select into groups and communities of like-minded people. This echo-chamber effect is especially pronounced among American conservatives and right-leaning independents.
Donald Trump and the Republican Party have mastered the use of white racism, white victimology and white grievance-mongering to win elections and shape public policy. Trump simply amplified the Republican Party’s “dog whistles” into an air raid siren. Republican voters are trained to follow its beckoning.
There is an additional explanation for the slavish devotion shown by Trump's followers toward their Great Leader that is often overlooked by more traditional types of political analysis. Trump's followers may actually be in love with him.
Sociologist Jeff Shantz explores this troubling dynamic in his recent essay “On the Messy Psychology of Trumpism”:
It has been well remarked that Trump shows a contemptuous regard for truth or facts. He is appealing to the constrained who do not want to be hemmed in or constrained by facts either, as they are by so much else in their lives. This is related to the wish to win that Trump so effectively conjured during his campaign (with his repeated emphasis on America winning again, winning huge, etc.).
Primacy of the wish to win is related to the sense to which one feels dispossessed.
Trump tells an emotional truth for his supporters even if he is widely seen to be lying. This truth is his anger and the affirmation of his followers’ anger. This is the truth that comes to matter, a point rational critics generally overlook or misread. Omnipotent fantasy cannot be told the factual truth. There is a turn to emotional truth. Trust is based not on his truth claims but on the sense that he will do what really needs to be done. His supporters trust his promised power.
There is a libidinal investment of the masses in the leader. They have fallen in love with him. The crowd enjoys vicariously through the leader. Trump, on their behalf will restore the lost narcissistic idea of the nation. He will “Make America Great Again.”
Shantz continues by connecting this one-way love affair between Trump and his followers to the long tradition of anti-intellectualism in American culture:
Critical thinking isolates you and isolation is part of the problem in neoliberal societies. There is a pleasure in feeling free from thinking. It is partly presented as a reaction against the constant thinking through of political correctness (doing what you are supposed to do and thinking through the implications of all utterances, let alone actions). So-called political correctness (simple decency perhaps) is constructed as an artificial strategy that maintains hypocrisy.
Unknowing is derided but critics fail to see the enjoyment it can provide. Ignorance can indeed be bliss. Trump represents a poverty of ideas. He expresses a cathartic change. Trump is a grotesque character type. In the enactment of aggression, Trump is both a fool and a wizard.
Trump speaks the analytic session: be spontaneous; speak the repressed; no emphasis on truth; free association. Trump brings the language and posture of the analytic session. What of the return of the repressed? What is repressed is fear and hatred of the other.
Ultimately, Donald Trump has captured the hearts and minds of his followers. Is there any way for the Democratic Party, or progressives and liberals more generally, to win over these voters?
Trump’s true believers are political dead enders. They are part of the president's cult of personality and will not be torn away from him. Their self-worth and personal identity are intertwined with Trump in a form of mass psychosis.
What about the “white working class,” a group that has become an obsessive fetish object for the pundit classes and news media in the Age of Trump? At this point, it is solidly Republican and has been so for several decades. To chase these voters is a fool's errand. This is especially true if winning over white working-class voters means that the Democratic Party risks alienating its base of support among African-Americans and other people of color.
And what of the fabled “Obama to Trump” voters? Perhaps they can be recovered if the Democratic Party follows cognitive linguist George Lakoff’s advice about crafting powerful stories that leverage values and emotions to win over voters. The Obama-to-Trump subgroup is simply too small, however, to form the basis of an effective long-term political strategy.
In total, the emotions of love and fantasy ideation felt by Trump's voters for their champion points to a serious challenge for the Democratic Party in particular and American society in general. Trump's supporters and Republicans en masse could be described as "post-Enlightenment thinkers" whose political decisions and understanding of the world are driven by delusions that exist outside empirical reality. How does one defeat such forces? The Democratic Party, and all those who oppose Donald Trump and the larger project of the Republican Party, will need to find an answer quickly if they are to recover hope for the future of our country.