Last week, I asserted that the traditional tools of political analysis are not adequate for this year’s presidential election. I want to elaborate on that point because I believe it leads to a significant observation about the 2016 campaign that has not received sufficient attention.
Many observers, including me, have been mystified that Donald Trump’s supporters seem so unfazed by his lack of knowledge and understanding of world affairs, his constant lies and his lack of presidential temperament. A variety of explanations have been offered.
One is that his backers have been left behind by the economy and are swayed by his promises to bring back coal, manufacturing and a 1950s way of life. While this may explain some of his support, numerous studies suggest that many of his supporters are not really suffering economically.
Another interpretation is that his anti-immigrant stance, his racist “dog whistles” and his more recent allusions to an international conspiracy of bankers and elites resonate with citizens who feel threatened by a rapidly changing country in which they will no longer be the majority. Overt racist signs and language at some of his rallies reinforce this perception as does Trump’s long history of denying that Barack Obama was born in the United States.
Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate short-hand reference to this group as “deplorable” may overshadow the basic truth that some Trump supporters are motivated by factors such as these. For them, the important issue is not Trump’s qualifications for office, but that he identifies the cause of their problems, the reason America is not great right now.
A third explanation is that Trump has tapped into a strong anti-government, anti-Washington sentiment in the country. Polls have for years shown a declining confidence in the basic institutions of this country, not just government. That Republicans have willfully created a state of gridlock at the federal level only reinforces the frustration.
When Trump promises “to drain the swamp in Washington,” that’s music to the ears of many of his followers. Those who believe “government doesn’t work” may mean different things by that expression, but they are united in their wish for change, however undefined.
Yet, the polls, a growing number of Republican leaders and most media commentators other than on Fox and the extreme right view the election moving away from Trump and decisively toward Hillary Clinton. States that have voted Republican for years are either toss-ups or starting to lean toward the Democrats.
How can that possibly be if Trump has all the answers? Why can’t everyone see what they see so clearly?
In a world view which Trump has articulated in a way never before seen in this country’s national politics, the only explanation for his losing the election must be a conspiracy of massive proportions. Democracy isn’t working if their man doesn’t become president. For people with as much anger and frustration as I’ve described, the logical conclusion offered by their candidate is that the election is rigged.
This circular reasoning as well as all the contradictions underlying Trump’s support can be explained by a simple, but frightening, proposition. Trump is not running for president; he is running to become dictator–and some of his followers are fine with that. The thread that unites these disparate groups of aggrieved supporters is an openness to undemocratic remedies.
We’ve had statements from him throughout the campaign that demonstrate an autocratic approach. If newspapers are critical of him, they need to be shut down or sued. Or they need to be threatened by Trump supporters.
If the national debt is getting too large, he’ll default, declare bankruptcy in the same way he did as a businessman and leave other stuck with the bills. If international treaties and agreements aren’t sufficiently advantageous, Trump will “renegotiate” or just walk away from them.
Laws against torture? The Geneva Convention? No problem. He’ll make America great again by wringing confessions out of prisoners, going after the families of terrorists and obliterating parts of the Middle East that oppose us. Nuclear weapons? If we have them, why shouldn’t we use them?
Yet, none of these statements have convinced Trump’s supporters to abandon him. Indeed, it may well be that assertions like these are exactly what define his appeal.
Some, although certainly not all, of Trump’s legions, are really looking for a dictator, not a president. They may pretend to revere the constitution, but, like Trump, they neither understand it nor is it likely that they’ve ever read it. In addition to believing that Christianity is enshrined as the official religion of the United States, they see the 2nd Amendment as the only important part of the document.
Unfortunately, there is a historical precedent for a dictator being popularly elected. Without extending the comparison beyond that one point, it is true that Adolf Hitler initially took power through a democratic election even as he talked of wanting to establish a dictatorship, restore Germany to greatness, and deal with the country’s “Jewish problem.”
Hitler references are always perilous and invariably provoke backlash. On the other hand, the naivety as well as unwillingness to stand up to him in the early 1930s bear a striking resemblance to how the Republican Party has responded to Trump. Whether or not you’re comfortable with the historical analogy, Donald Trump is a risk no democracy can afford to take.