Understanding Bullshit: Trump Supporters
The greatest philosopher of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, once argued, persuasively, that we only need to engage people in argument if they actually believe what they are saying. His example was determinism, but it is an easily generalizable principle. If you are making an argument for the importance of some principle; say, some activity makes you a bad person that shouldn’t be elected, in a particular case, usually one’s political opponents, I only need to actually answer the argument if I think you hold that view as a principle. If, however, you wouldn’t apply the same rule to someone who shares your political views, then you don’t actually hold the view you claim to hold. (And so I have two words for those who think it’s possible to “reason” with a Trumper: You first).
One of the most bizarre elements among the ranks of Trump supporters, is their willingness to die for him, (electorally for now), but you never know when he’s going to demand they strap on a political bomb and martyr themselves for MAGA. (Does the gullibility of Trump supporters count as a pre-existing condition?).
Yet, it’s still an article of faith for many that the Trump phenomenon was born out of fiscal insecurity, the primal scream of working people left behind by a changing economy. But I don’t think I’ve ever, not once, seen an email, received a text message, or had a conversation where a Trump supporter explained him or herself, in terms of the factory or the coal mine shutting down. It’s only ever been some nationalistic, imperialistic, racist, and misogynistic nonsense.
I have, however, heard from hundreds of people who worry about “immigrants” and who think people of color have an “alliance” against them. Such people validate the verdict of a growing body of scholarship that says, in the words of a study by University of Kansas professors David N. Smith and Eric Hanley: “The decisive reason that white, male, older and less educated voters were disproportionately pro-Trump is that they shared his prejudices and wanted domineering, aggressive leaders …” (No, it’s not the economy, stupid. Trump supporters fear a black and brown America!) But Jonathan Chait has a far more concise theory about why Trump’s success took him and other pundits by surprise: “The Republican Party turns out to be filled with idiots. Far more of them than anybody expected.”
Nonetheless, this idea is singularly unhelpful. It actually helps absolve Trumpkins of responsibility. (Idiots after all are not usually held accountable for their actions). It’s also very hard to overstate the social pressures to conform that exists in every small-town across America.
When a childhood friend posted a hoax story about mail-in-voting on Facebook recently, I directed him (without comment) to a Snopes article debunking it. His response: “You’ve forgotten where you came from.” Then he unfriended me. For many in rural America, it’s downright logical to deny objective reality on any particular issue. Supporting a Democrat might mean a better standard of living in some ways. But, it could also come at great personal cost.
And so, Trump’s attitudes really aren’t any different from the actual feelings of many rural Americans. How can they condemn him for it? Even if they don’t agree, they can identify him with people they love, in spite of those attitudes. He is their father, their uncle, their boss — and his re-election slogan may just as well be: “I don’t see what’s so racist about this or that.” Racism, to Trumpists, is a Klansman in a movie. It isn’t a contemporary power structure, or an implicit bias that gets black teenagers killed. They don’t see that. They can, on the other hand, see themselves struggling. They just very earnestly do not get it. The minorities they do know are — like that little girl in my third grade class — pressured to fit in, to stay quiet. They’re not talking about racism.
Larry Womack has written: “Rural America supports Trump because they believe that urban elites hate him — and they believe that urban elites hate them, too. And I don’t think they’ll turn on him in significant numbers until they stop seeing him as one of their own.” (Trump has basically trolled the shit out of them for votes). But they aren’t being fooled by Trump. They know exactly what he’s selling and they like it.
Because, you know who looks nothing like Trump — or rural America? Every politician and media figure who criticizes, fact-checks, or objectively speaks about Trump. Those people look like the smart aleck who grew up and left town, or like the woman from corporate who laid their poor racist uncle off. They think they’re better than them. Those people, to rural America, are Liberals, with a capital “L.” (And in this very piece I insulted them, oops). Many of these rubes (sorry: voters) will even see a story in the newspaper now as less trustworthy than the meme or obvious hoax site shared by someone they know. Therefore I see no real point in trying to reason with Trump voters. (They seem to be incapable of it anyway).
One anguished question a Trump supporter recently sent to me asked: “Why is it that liberals think Trump supporters are so stupid?” My response: For a number of reasons, some of which I will now list below:
1. They saw a man who owned a fraudulent University, intent on scamming poor people, and they said: “That’s fine.”
2. They saw a man who had made it his business practice to stiff his creditors, and they said: “Okay.”
3. When they heard him proudly brag about his own history of sexual abuse, they said: “No problem.”
4. When he made up stories about seeing Muslim-Americans in the thousands cheering the destruction of the World Trade Center, they said: “Not an issue.”
5. When they saw him brag that he could shoot a man on Fifth Avenue and that they wouldn’t care, they exclaimed: “He sure knows me!”
6. When they heard him relating a story of an elderly guest of his country club, an 80-year old man, who fell off a stage and hit his head, Trump replied: “‘Oh my God, that’s disgusting,’ and I turned away. I couldn’t—you know, he was right in front of me, and I turned away. I didn’t want to touch him. He was bleeding all over the place. And I felt terrible, because it was a beautiful white marble floor, and now it had changed color. Became very red.” They said: “That’s cool. I think old people are gross too.”
7. When they saw him mock the disabled, they thought it was the funniest thing they ever saw.
8. When they heard him brag that he doesn’t read books, they said: “Neither do I. Books are for nerds!”
9. When the Central Park Five were compensated as innocent men convicted of a crime they didn’t commit, and he angrily said that they should still be in prison, they said: “That makes sense.”
10. When they heard him tell his supporters to beat up protesters and that he would hire attorneys, they thought: “Hell yeah!”
11. When they heard him tell one rally to confiscate a man’s coat before throwing him out into the freezing cold, they said: “What a great guy!”
12. They watched the parade of neo-Nazis and white supremacists with whom he curries favor, while refusing to condemn outright Nazis, they said: “Thumbs up!”
13. They hear him unable to talk to foreign dignitaries without insulting their countries and demanding that they praise his electoral win, they say: “That’s the way I want my President to be.”
14. They have watched him remove expertise from all levels of government in favor of people who make money off of eliminating protections in the industries they’re supposed to be regulating, and they have said: “What a genius!”
15. They have heard him continue to profit from his businesses, in part by leveraging his position as President, to the point of overcharging the Secret Service for space in the properties he owns, and they said: “That’s smart!”
16. They heard him say that it was difficult to help Puerto Rico because it was in the middle of water and they said: “That makes sense.”
17. They have seen him start fights with every country from Canada to New Zealand, all the while praising Russia, and I quote: “falling in love” with the dictator of North Korea, and they said: “That’s statesmanship baby!”
18. Trump has separated children from their families, putting them in cages, even managing to lose track of 1500 kids, and has opened a tent city incarceration camp in the desert in Texas – and he explains that they’re just “animals” – and they say: “They sure are!”
19. They have witnessed all the thousand and one other manifestations of corruption and low moral character and outright animalistic rudeness and contempt for them, the working American voter, and they still show up grinning and wearing their stupid MAGA hats and threatening to beat up anybody who says otherwise....(I could go on but it would require a level of weed I can no longer afford).
Author Umair Haque has acknowledged that most Trump’s supporters are simply, a lost cause: “They’re so mentally broken, regressed to an infantile state where they need a Daddy to protect them. … It would take years of therapy to even begin to approach reality with anything but violence and tantrums.” Adding that they: all look like bean bag chairs short on beans. (Ok, maybe I added that last part).
What you don’t get, Trumpets, is that our succumbing to frustration and shaking our heads, thinking of you as stupid, may very well be wrong and unhelpful, but it’s also…hear me out…charitable. Because if you’re not stupid, we must turn to other explanations and most of them are less flattering.