Friday, 5 August 2016

A Taxonomy of Trumpists

More and more, Trump's campaign looks like some mad piece of performance art. Exactly how bad can he get? How ignorant and hateful can he sound before he is abandoned by the American public?

Just in the last two weeks, Trump has insulted the parents of a dead Muslim American soldier, celebrated the use of torture, and claimed the Presidential election would be rigged. He reportedly asked a foreign policy expert why the USA had nuclear weapons if it didn't use them. In what I think is an unprecedented step for a sitting President, Obama said Trump was unfit to hold the office.

Obama is absolutely right. It's not simply that I disagree with Trump. He is unable to handle the responsibility of being President.

Image source: Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

It is not so shocking Trump has said and done what he has. We always knew he was an ignorant bully; those who thought otherwise were deluding themselves. The shocking thing is that his popular support remains so high. The RCP polling average currently has Clinton 47.4%, Trump 40.6%. That should translate into a comfortable victory for Clinton, but it still means four in ten Americans prefer Trump.

A close precedent occurred in France in 2002. Due to quirks of the electoral system, the final round of the presidential election was fought between Jacques Chirac, cynical centre-right machine politician; and Jean-Marie Le Pen, open fascist. Chirac won a crushing victory with 82% of the vote.

I don't believe the French are inherently more kind or enlightened than the Americans. Both countries have a long, ugly history of racism and brutality. So does the UK, or most other countries if you look hard enough. If it comes down to a two-candidate contest, I suspect about fifteen to twenty percent of any Western electorate would be happy to vote for fascism.

So, let's say twenty percent of Americans are hardline bigots and haters. That still leaves half of Trump's support unexplained. What could be motivating them? Why could they continue to support someone so manifestly unqualified?

I will make no attempt to be diplomatic, because frankly I think anyone supporting Trump deserves some blunt criticism. Here are some possible reasons:

  1. Party loyalty. They're voting Republican because they've always voted Republican, and Trump is the duly elected Republican nominee. On a more practical level, Trump is unlikely to veto any bills passed by a Republican Congress, and will probably appoint Supreme Court justices more amenable to Republican priorities. I think this group contains most Republican elected officials.
  2. Sexism. Whether they admit it to themselves or not, some people just cannot countenance the idea of a woman President. This was not an issue that troubled Jacques Chirac in 2002.
  3. Hillary hating. As distinct from generic sexism, Hillary Clinton has personally been vilified for the past twenty-five years. Probably no figure in American public life has ever been subject to such a sustained campaign of abuse. The reality is much less lurid; but the witch hunt against Clinton has left its mark.
  4. Gullibility. Trump is horrifying and vulgar, but he knows showmanship. He projects the image of a swaggering businessman who Gets Things Done. It's a cheap carnival trick, devoid of substance; but it's more than the bitter, shrivelled leaders of the European far right can manage.
  5. Desperation. Clinton is the candidate of the status quo; Trump is promising drastic, radical change. It matters not that Trump cannot deliver on his vague and grandiose promises. If your own personal circumstances are hopeless enough, you might be tempted to roll the dice and take a chance on Trump.
  6. Nihilism. The desperate have convinced themselves Trump just might make things better. The nihilists know he won't, but don't care. For some, it may be enough that Trump annoys those know-it-alls and big shots.
  7. Bigotry. As previously noted, at least half of Trump's support consists of stone-cold fascists. But bigotry is not a simple binary state; as Avenue Q has it, everyone's a little bit racist, and Trump is adept at speaking to that racism.
Of course, two or more of these reasons may overlap in any individual Trump supporter.

The first group is the most rational, and perhaps the most amenable to persuasion. The Clinton campaign has not been slow to recognise this, and is doing its best to reach out to disaffected Republicans.

For myself, I have to wonder just how far Trump must go before he can alienate the party loyalists. People like Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, face a choice. If they choose to support Trump, maybe they will help him get elected, and then get a few more tax cuts or another hard-right Supreme Court Justice to replace Antonin Scalia.

What price are they willing to pay to achieve that? What consequences will they accept, by giving the power of the Presidency to Donald Trump? At what point does concern for their country, and the survival of American democracy itself, outweigh narrow partisan advantage?

I don't expect many Republican elected officials to change their minds and denounce Trump. Most of them sold their souls long ago. But I hope the American electorate wakes up to Trump's character, and ensures he is not only defeated, but crushed in a historic landslide.

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