Why They Turned to a Demagogue

Commentary on why some Trump followers won’t listen to reality:

These are the same people that have been voting to gut the social safety net for a solid three decades. When they had great-paying jobs in manufacturing and what-not, then social programs were just the government taking their money to give to lazy (brown) people in these Dickensian inner cities. So they kept electing politicians whose campaigns were designed to one-up the austerity of the one before. But since they were hardworking people, they would never be looking for some kind of government welfare or handout. I mean, they might collect unemployment from time to time, but that’s different, since their taxes paid for that.

“Now that the rich “job creators” have won their propaganda victories and completely upended the economy, suddenly those same folks don’t have jobs like they used to. And now all those social programs and “welfare” and all that aren’t there. But rather than recognize their own short-sightedness, they did what most of us do rather than admit mistake and heard what they wanted to hear. So after getting hosed by the economic elite and corporations while simultaneously voting in droves to undermine the only possible checks on the Greed Class, they’ve now turned to a demagogue from that same Class who suddenly tells them that the government is going to help them. Sure, it’ll “help” them by poisoning the environment, giving even more of their tax dollars to wealthy businesses, and raising taxes on consumer goods (through tariffs).

But he does one thing that’s even more important: he makes it not their fault. It’s not their fault they (and their parents and grandparents) torpedoed their own school systems, so there was no way for them to adapt to changes in the economy. It’s not their fault they voted time and again to reduce or outright kill social programs, so that when they fell on hard times there’d be nothing there to help. It’s not their fault that they put all their eggs in one economic basket. It’s not their fault that they turned to politicians who, rather than spend taxpayer dollars on re-training them once it became clear that manufacturing was on its way out, decided to give themselves and their fellow rich more tax cuts (and blow a few more hundred billion on military spending). Don’t forget too that the government that’s going to save them also licenses drug dealers, while the corporation that sells narcan has been free to jack the price up through the roof. Instead, our demagogue made it someone else’s fault, namely immigrants. Never mind that this isn’t remotely true, but it fits in with long-established narratives and, again, makes it someone else’s fault. Better to be victims than responsible.

“This mentality, in addition to being poisonous for the communities where it prevails, also makes it hard for other narratives to take hold. The left has done an abysmal job of framing the debate, and explaining why e.g. environmental regulations are not only good for public health, but actually save money. For some reason, though, Democrats are unwilling to talk in these terms, and so it’s easy to paint them as effete and out of touch. When they do address economic issues, it tends to be in ways that don’t really address what folks in the middle part of the country actually see on a day-to-day basis. During the last presidential campaign, Clinton wasn’t able to do much more than give vague platitudes that boiled down to “trust your coastal masters, we know what’s best for you.” Our demagogue, meanwhile, gave these people something they could chew. Never mind that it had little connection to reality, but it made sense in the gut. (The “why”s of Trump’s victory have been done to death, so I won’t belabor that point.)

“At the end of the day, virtue is a hard sell. I’m reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, and a line from one of Hamilton’s letters has stuck with me. John Laurens, a close friend of Hamilton, had proposed that black regiments be raised to fight in the Continental Army in exchange for their freedom. The plan met stiff resistance in Congress, however. Hamilton shared his pessimism with his friend in a letter, saying:
Prejudice and private interest will be antagonists too powerful for public spirit and public good.

“So with all that schadenfreude (and catharsis) out of the way, the more important question is what to do now. I’ve seen plenty of comments from the left that amount to letting these folks reap what they’ve sowed. I get the instinct, but I think that’s both morally wrong in itself and frightfully hypocritical.

“But this is as far as I’ve gotten. I recognize that just sitting here from my educated, East-Coast perch and yelling at people isn’t really productive, however satisfying it may be in the short term. On the one hand I do think we have to try to understand what motivates Trump supporters, but at the same time we shouldn’t make excuses for them either. Maybe all we can do is try to insulate ourselves, but I’m not sure how possible that is. More significantly, I’m not sure it’s possible to do that without torpedoing the country (and I’ll admit to sometimes wondering if this is what the beginning of the decline looks like).

“The usual tools simply don’t work here. I don’t know how you talk someone around when their entire approach to the world is to ignore facts that they dislike. I’m more and more convinced that all we can do is wait for the Fall and hope people will be willing to admit their mistake. I don’t know how the rest of us make that possible in the future while at the same time resisting and fighting against Trump’s harmful policies. Perhaps there is no right answer, and we’re back to trying to insulate ourselves as much as we can from the inevitable collapse. If that’s really the only option, I’m glad I’m a gun owner.”

Full discussion in context.

Photo from The Economist.






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