With the past week’s continued devolution of Donald Trump and everything he represents, one would think at least some portion of his Republican base that had been clinging to him so desperately from one moral and political travesty to the next would finally begin to have their grips loosened. After all, a political party that has built its reputation partly on a fierce anti-communism (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”) and loud patriotism (“Love it or leave it!”) couldn’t possibly abide a president who chums it up with an ex-KGB dictator who is reveling in the U.S. president believing every lying word out of his mouth, all while the president casts aspersions and doubt on the exhaustively rendered findings of his own intelligence agencies and congressional investigators, could it?
Well, if that president had a “Dem” after his name, the Republican base would most certainly be expressing their disgust and reprising the “Lock (him) up” refrain that so enchanted the party faithful during the 2016 campaign.
President Donald Trump is doing exactly what Candidate Trump said he was going to do when he was on the campaign trail. We must give him that: the man laid out his basic themes early and repeated them often…
But in the Donald Trump era, ignited by a fuse that has included incendiary materials of rapid social, cultural and technological change, middle class economic doldrums, globalized commerce, continuous refugee crises and the sometimes loud rise and advancement of long oppressed classes (women, blacks, LGBTQs), so many strange bedfellows have woken up next to each other that it seems the old order is at best scrambled and at worst an untamable, disparate, cross-currented mess. (Deeply devout conservative Christians embracing a serial adulterer-groper and rapacious, foul-mouthed capitalist who is proud of never admitting error and therefore never asking for forgiveness, since, well, he never makes an error? Say it ain’t so…)
So after our president, in the view of many commentators including this one, sold his own country down the river in an all-too-indelicate, hapless gesture of reconciliation with a longtime devious adversary, how did his professed flag-waving, America-loving base react?
With, yawn, a solid 68% approval rating—not of his presidency, which hovers closer to 90%—but of his behavior at the “Surrender Summit,” which everyone this side of Rand Paul, including John McCain and many other Republican Senate and House members, denounced as unwise and ill-advised.
Even Fox News commentators described Trump’s genuflection to Putin as “disgusting and wrong” (anchor Neil Cavuto), “lame” (anchor Brit Hume) and “threw the United States under the bus” (reporter John Roberts).
And still, the president’s base has hardly wavered.
How to account for this undying devotion from a vast majority of Republican voters despite actions and words that surely have Ronald Reagan groaning in his grave? What is going on here?
This is the question of our age, and the bulk of the commentary on it over the past two years has revolved around the issue of the white, college degree-less working class feeling left behind by a globalized economy that has richly rewarded high tech and finance workers in “knowledge centers” of the country’s urban core (San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, New York) while the traditional manufacturing base of the Rust Belt (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin) has gone to seed.
There seems little doubt it was frustrated, angry voters in those pivotal heartland states that gave Donald Trump the presidency. We have heard and read about it in countless reports and books with titles such as “The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America,” “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker,” and “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.”
All these books and more take a largely sympathetic, “listening tour” view of the roots of rural white disenchantment with the status quo that led to the astonishing result of the 2016 election.
To review and amplify just how astonishing it was, let’s look at the voting results of four key states that pushed Trump over the top on that fateful night not even two years ago. (Yes, if it seems to you like the Hundred Years War already, you have a lot of company…)
Here were the results of the races in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, all carried handily by Barack Obama in 2012 and turned narrowly to Trump four years later (with the exception of Ohio, where Trump won easily).
The numbers below show the Trump victory margin in percentage terms, followed by Obama’s margin in 2012, and then the state’s electoral vote totals.
Wisconsin: 47.2 to 46.5 (Obama won by 6.9) 10 electoral votes
Michigan: 47.5 to 47.27 (Obama by 9.5) 16 electoral votes
Ohio: 51.3 to 43.2 (Obama by 3.0) 18 electoral votes
Pennsylvania: 48.2 to 47.5 (Obama by 5.4) 20 electoral votes
These are remarkable numbers for many reasons, not the least of them being how precariously thin Trump’s victory margin was in three of the four states.
Also highly worthy of note: how substantial Obama’s margins were just four years earlier.
Really, an 11-point swing in Ohio, nearly 10 points in Michigan? Obama’s relative cruises in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania turning to shipwreck with Hillary Clinton, an ideological if not temperamental soulmate of his, smack in the mainstream of modern technocratic liberal thought?
Those 64 electoral votes noted above, most of which the Clinton campaign expected to win, would have given her 291 electoral votes to Trump’s 240, a result that would not now have us, among countless other head-shaking matters, be discussing her cozying up to a dictator actively involved in trying to destroy our country.
But that was then, and this is now, after not quite two years of the most tempestuous, visibly chaotic presidential administration in history.
Trump detractors would almost en masse, I am convinced, acknowledge that although they expected it to be bad, they badly underestimated how bad things would actually be, and how destabilizing Donald Trump would be not only to our country, but to the larger world, for which we have historically been the shining light of a functional, give-and-take democracy.
Meanwhile: 90% overall approval from the faithful and 68% for this most recent episode of outright appeasement. Why?
It’s simple, really.
President Donald Trump is doing exactly what Candidate Trump said he was going to do when he was on the campaign trail. We must give him that: the man laid out his basic themes early and repeated them often, and he has worked tirelessly—in that fragmented, chaotic, bellicose way he so loves—to bring them to bear.
Let’s go back now to two most telling paragraphs in the Washington Post on the morning of November 9, 2016 by reporter Jim Tankersley. The article was entitled: “How Trump Won: The Revenge of Working Class Whites.”
“Trump courted working class whites by promising a restoration of the old industrial economy—through renegotiated trade deals and tariffs on imports; by pledging to deport immigrants, which he said would reduce competition for native-born workers; and by promising rapid economic growth from tax cuts, deregulation and more drilling.
“Many economists, including several conservative ones, warn Trump’s plans will not deliver the relief those workers are seeking. Some say tariffs won’t bring back jobs and could actually lead to recession. Others say Trump’s plans ignore more critical issues for the working class, such as the need for improved worker training or measures to encourage workers to migrate to higher-opportunity regions.”
Whatever one thinks of all the grievances nursed and expressed by Trump supporters the past few years, this much is clear: His voters responded vociferously to the positions he mapped out throughout the 2016 campaign, voted for him based on those positions, and he has tried very hard to fulfill every last one of them, almost to the proverbial “T” that begins his name.
No wonder his people remain so enamored of him—his was the true “Straight Talk Express” (John McCain’s slogan in his first ill-fated presidential campaign in 2000), inasmuch as Trump laid out very specifically what he stood for and what he was going to do and, unlike most every politician and most certainly Republican presidents of recent times, did exactly that.
Now, will all those promises eventually backfire as the second paragraph in the article cited above suggests? Will Trump ultimately sell out his working class supporters by giving them small tax cut-driven bumps in their paychecks (dwarfed exponentially by the huge income bumps enjoyed by the wealthy) while tariffs ruin the economy and a war on the environment stunts where the jobs will actually come from in an energy future that will decidedly not involve coal?
I would say yes, emphatically. But the workability of Trump’s agenda is not in front of us here.
The question of the day is instead, “How can Trump supporters possibly live in such a state of denial that they still support him after all that has befallen the country in the past 19 months?”
And the answer is: “Because this is what they responded to and wanted in 2016.”
And now they are getting it—the near complete fulfillment of their dreams, in a president who has, for better and in my estimation very much worse, done exactly what he said he was going to do.
May God now help them.
John Gorka, a modern voice for the working class, at his songwriting best…
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