Racism, Rage, and Raw Political Power: Revisiting the Motivations of Trump’s Supporters

Posted in: Politics

I recently published a column here on Verdict under the headline: “Republicans’ Blind Support for Trump Is NOT About Judges and Tax Cuts but About Bigotry and Raw Power.” In that September 24 column, I debunked the claim that Republicans are putting up with Donald Trump’s putridity because they think it is unfortunate but necessary. To get the conservative judges and regressive economic policies that they crave, the idea goes, otherwise decent Republicans have to let Trump run wild.

I called this the “slime for judges theory,” an explanation for Trump’s cultish popularity that has gained wide acceptance even among liberal commentators. For example, The New York Times’s decidedly liberal columnist Jamelle Bouie repeatedly bought into that theory in an otherwise quite good column last week about the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett.

The problem, as I explained in my September 24 column, is that this theory makes no sense—or more accurately, it only works if one assumes that the people who support Trump are hoodwinked fools who accept a bad deal even when they are not forced to do so. They could have gotten the judges and the economic policies even without Trump—and they would also be much more competitive in this year’s elections—because Mike Pence would have become President if Trump had been forced out of office before now.

Republicans, then, are not getting anything (at least as far as judges and policies) with Trump in the White House that they could not have gotten with a President Pence.

The question then becomes: If it is not right-wing judges and stroke-the-rich economics that Trump uniquely delivers for them, why are Republicans so slavishly continuing to support him? As the title of my earlier column put it, the answers are “bigotry and raw political power.” Here, I want to explore those explanations a bit further and add one or two additional wrinkles.

The surprising conclusion that I reach is that even my second possible explanation, a lust for power by Republican politicians, turns out to be actually rather implausible. If these guys (and a few women) think that they are going to ride Trump’s coattails into their own turns as President, they are sadly mistaken.

On the other hand, the bigotry explanation holds up quite well, and it can even be expanded to include hatred more generally as the motivation for those who see Trump as their kind of guy. In any event, the explanations for Trump’s continued support by roughly forty percent of the U.S. voting population are still uniformly ugly.

Whose Bigotry Matters?

Trump’s support among an unmovable minority of the population presents a chicken-and-egg problem. Is it that Republican officeholders are the racists, or is it the rank-and-file who force the officeholders to play along with Trump’s racism?

We should first remember that it has hardly been unusual for Republican leaders over the past generation or so to use racist appeals to win elections. The so-called Southern Strategy was all about pulling in racist white voters to the Republican side, and decades of voter suppression efforts aimed at minority voters are of a piece with the big picture of Republicans’ embrace of racial division as political gold.

Even so, one might nonetheless think that Republican leaders in Congress and elsewhere would be uncomfortable with Trump’s shamelessly open racism. One might picture them saying, “Well, I’d like to get rid of Trump and replace him with a quieter kind of racist, but his supporters love him so much that I have to go along.”

If that is the explanation, however, then we have to ask why the rank-and-file supporters of Trump are still on board with him. Yet those people might in turn protest that they are not racists, but because the party’s leaders have all supported Trump, supporting the biggest racist in town is also the only option for those who want to continue to be Republicans.

As is common with chicken-and-egg problems, there is no satisfying answer. What we do know is that the people both at the top of the party and in the base of the party are all in on Trump’s racism. And again, because they are not getting anything unique in return for supporting Trump, we can only conclude that his racism is a draw, not an unpleasant flaw to be justified by some other goal.

But Does It Stop at Racism?

I typically do not pay attention to angry emails, which I occasionally receive from incensed readers. After my September 24 column was published, however, I received emails from two readers who were inadvertently helpful in getting me to think more clearly about what Trump supporters are thinking.

The first message, under the Subject line “An Incorrect Assumption,” reads as follows:

Mr. Buchanan,

With all due respect to your accomplishments…

No, Sir. Not at all. It is about the numbers, and the numbers only. As a statistician, it is always about the numbers. Your assumption of all republican support of President Trump being blind, is opinion and merely that. Labeling does not make it so, he is the president, and therefore has every right in the country to choose a successor to Justice Ginsburg. Name calling and personal judgement does not change the facts. Show me, and the rest of America, hard numbers to support your personal claims, until then is it simply the ranting of a politically bitter lawyer. If there was a socialist sitting in the White House as this nation’s leader, wouldn’t you think they not only had the right but the obligation to fill the seat before leaving office? Sour grapes, my man, and you so educated. Quite tragic really, but because this is still America, you have the right to your opinion, such as it is.

Good day to you and yours.

I was amused, of course, to learn that my opinion column expresses my opinion, and somehow that is a bad thing. The misuse of the sour grapes metaphor, along with the defensive references to my accomplishments and education, were poignant in their own way. And of course, the emailer focused on justifying the Supreme Court nomination, which was not the focus of my column.

But setting those meta-issues aside, note that the emailer was eager to tell me that I was wrong to say that Trump’s support is largely based on bigotry. There is another explanation, but what is it? Apparently, it is “statistics.” As an economist with extensive training in econometrics, I was intrigued. What statistics? The number of children kept in cages at the border? The weakening of job growth under Trump even before the pandemic? The hundreds of thousands of lives lost to COVID-19? Those are some pretty compelling statistics, but they are hardly arguments for supporting Trump.

But maybe the claim is that I did not provide statistical evidence that Trump’s supporters are driven by bigotry. As fortune would have it, this has already been well established in statistical analyses running back to the beginning of Trump’s presidency: “Three previous studies found a link between cultural anxiety and Trump voters. Now a fourth, from the Voter Study Group, finds the same connections.” (“Cultural anxiety” is academic-speak for bigotry.) And one of those earlier studies concludes: “We find that racism and sexism attitudes were strongly associated with vote choice in 2016, even after accounting for partisanship, ideology, and other standard factors.”

So the emailer did not like my explanation of Trumpists’ continued support of their man as based on bigotry but offered no alternative explanation, and he/she was unaware that this is hardly a matter of opinion—that it is, in fact, well supported by statistics.

Then, another equally logic-challenged reader angrily sent me a more revealing screed:

I read the articles put forth by Justia Law primarily because it is so obvious that it is merely a propaganda arm for the liberal & DNC agenda to destroy America.

Good to keep an eye on the enemies of freedom.

Your article today gave a good chuckle as it is so clear that Trump’s certain re-election is giving you and other liberal idiots total fits.

Loving every minute of it!

Notice here that the emailer does not even bother to deny that racism is motivating him and his compatriots. This is confession by omission, not self-defense. He simply parrots insults that are repeated inside his tribal bubble, only to reveal that he is in it simply to enjoy making people like me angry. (Sorry to disappoint.)

Beyond the bigotry that I had previously identified, this emailer reminded me that a big part of Trump’s appeal is grievance-based. People like me are presumed to be “enemies of freedom” (apparently for wanting not just older white people to be able to vote?), and it gives the writer some kind of low-level sadistic pleasure to try to make people like me uncomfortable.

I should state clearly here that I am not using these two anecdotes to prove any broader trends. I am instead noting that two people who went to the effort to send hate mail in my direction revealed that they were incapable or uninterested in proving (or even bothering to assert) that racism is not the basis of Trump’s support.

Except, that is, inasmuch as a more generalized hatred of “the other” might more fully explain their motivations.

This is hardly a new observation, of course. Right-wing trolls have bragged about “owning the libs” for years. Indeed, some of Trump’s children apparently think that this is some kind of clever pastime. Inflicting what they imagine to be great discomfort on liberals for the sheer pleasure of it is part of the game. “Make liberals cry again” is apparently a favorite T-shirt among Trump’s fans.

I am, therefore, led to amend my previous theory that bigotry is the explanation of Trump’s supporters’ fervor. An us-versus-them worldview that makes inflicting psychic harm on one’s opponents the end rather than the means is, I suppose, something that a non-racist could adopt for non-racist reasons. Given that all of the “thems” at whom the hatred is directed are either minorities or those who support equal rights for minorities, however, it is rather difficult to believe that “I just hate liberals and like to make them unhappy” is mutually exclusive with “I’m a racist, and I like how Trump makes me feel.”

What About the “Raw Power” Explanation?

In my September 24 column, however, I did offer a not-necessarily-racist explanation for Republican politicians’ decisions not to challenge Trump. Even if those officeholders wish that their supporters were not completely smitten with Trump, they might still think that sticking with Trump is the only way to remain viable as a Republican politician with ambitions for higher office.

As I put it in that previous column: “If there is a quid pro quo for Republicans, then, the very best that could be said is that some number of them are not turned on by Trump’s racism but are willing to trade that for absolute power.” Setting aside the bigoted uses to which these Republicans put their political power, what does it mean for someone to stake his or her political career on supporting Trump?

In my deconstruction of the slime-for-judges theory, I noted that some people could actually believe that they had no choice but to support Trump, but only if they simply do not understand the terms of the arrangement. Presumably, however, Republican senators and others with presidential ambitions are at a minimum capable of seeing through a bad political deal.

Even so, they might have a different deal in mind: I’ll tolerate Trump, and in return, I’ll be President someday. How would that work?

The best guess is that these people—the Ted Cruzes, the Nikki Haleys, and the other usual suspects who populate the “frontrunners for 2024” musings among political pundits—are picturing a world in which Trump stays in office into a second term, either by winning the election or—with the assistance of these same Republicans—finding a way to defy the will of the electorate.

Starting on January 21, 2021, a traditional nominating scrum will play out, with these Republicans going to Iowa and New Hampshire, raising money from SuperPACs, attacking each others’ conservative bona fides, and so on. Then, whoever is the nominee will win the general election in 2024 easily, as Republicans will have spent the post-2020 period disenfranchising even more Democratic voters.

This, however, assumes that Trump will leave the presidency in 2024, even though he has said again and again that he thinks he deserves another term. While some Republicans offer the weak defense that Trump is simply trolling liberals when he says such things (yet another example of gratuitous infliction of discomfort on those who oppose him), that is at best speculative. Trump certainly does not appear to be joking, and he has reason to worry about his criminal liability after leaving office. He has steamrolled them up until now. Why would they grow a spine later, given that opposing Trump’s third (or fourth, or fifth) term would simply result in their eviction from the party?

And even if Trump does agree to leave after two terms, it is not as if he will simply sit back and allow the career politicians to retake the party that he wrested from them in 2016. Trump’s dictatorial tendencies extend to treating his family as the only people who deserve anything resembling loyalty from him, and at least one son and one daughter could be obvious heirs apparent (literally) to Trump’s throne.

Maybe this will never happen, but it is hardly impossible. Certainly, if I were a Republican with presidential ambitions, I would have reason to worry that everything I had done to make myself viable as a national candidate would mean nothing when it was all said and done.

In short, I was probably wrong about the “power” quid pro quo, that is, that Republican officeholders could rationally (and maybe even without racist intent) continue to support Trump because that is the best way to become President themselves someday. Keeping Trump in the presidency radically reduces the possibility that there will even be meaningful nominating processes (or elections themselves) in the future. “I want to be President some day” and “I’m keeping Donald Trump in office” are as mutually exclusive as one could imagine.

On the other hand, politicians of that ilk tend to think that they are truly special, meaning that they are especially good at convincing themselves that ridiculously long odds are surmountable. Just like their lower- and middle-class constituents who imagine that they, too, will one day be as rich as Trump falsely claims to be (and who thus oppose taxing the rich as a perverse matter of optimistic self-interest), Republican presidential wannabes are more than capable of wishful thinking.

Assuming that these political leaders will make decisions rationally might, therefore, not be a good bet. (Seriously, what made Lindsey Graham or Bobby Jindal think they were viable in 2016? What were Bill de Blasio or John Delaney thinking in 2020?) It honestly is plausible that these people believed that they would be President someday. More is the pity.

In the end, we have a complicated interaction between party elites and rank-and-file voters, all of whom enthusiastically support an openly bigoted President. Well meaning political analysts have spent years trying not to say that bigotry is what attracts Trump’s supporters at all levels. If that is not the explanation, however, the alternatives are hardly more reassuring, given that they rely on either a broader level of hatred or (among party elites) an almost toxic level of self-delusion. Of course, it could be all of the above.

Posted in: Politics

Tags: bigotry, Racism

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