David Axelrod, the respected former strategist for Barack Obama, heartily endorsed a recent Washington Post op-ed piece about the Donald Trump phenomenon.
“This may be the single smartest piece on Trump and Trumpism I’ve read,” Axelrod tweeted. “It is a must read for elites who are bewildered by his durability.”
Its author, economist Andres Miguel Rondon, is a native of Venezuela who resides in Madrid. “To beat President Trump, you have to learn to think like his supporters,” suggests the headline, adding this subhead: “Scandals will never defeat a populist.”
“Normal politicians collapse in the face of scandal because the scandals show them dozing on the job or falling back on their promises,” Rondon writes. “However, like all populists, Trump offers a much different deal — ‘Vote for me: I will destroy your enemies.’”
Then came the obligatory lecture for the rest of us: “Sheer outrage at the president’s scandals is pointless. … But worse still is directing your anger at his supporters. Then you’re doing the same thing Trump is: believing your side is all right and the opposite side is all wrong; you’re playing to the polarization game instead of defeating it.”
And later this: “Populism is and has always been the daughter of political despair. Showing concern is the only way to break the rhetorical polarization.”
With due respect to Axelrod and Rondon, I’ve had enough of being scolded for not understanding Trump’s appeal.
Do you know what populism also is?
It’s the “daughter” of racism, sexism and unrepentant ignorance. Through that lens, and that lens only, does the intense hatred of Barack Obama make any sense. A disciplined, cerebral centrist, a moral leader and admirable family man — what was the beef of these victims of “political despair” if it was not primarily racial?
In 2016, my major criticism of presidential journalism was false equivalency. The nation’s leading news organizations overplayed anything remotely negative about Hillary Clinton to — consciously or not — balance the journalistic scales against Trump’s obvious lies and abhorrent behavior.
You know the drill — when the GOP ginned up prominent stories about Benghazi or email servers, it hardly mattered what they actually said. They succeeded in peddling the notion that politicians are all the same.
Then in 2017, the same editors dispatched writers to the Trump-loving hinterlands, yearning to understand how Trump had been so underestimated. A recent post by Ashley Feinberg, writing for HuffPost, cataloged 36 such articles under this slightly judgmental headline: “What I learned from reading all the media safaris into ‘Trump country’ I could handle before wanting to die.”
She writes: “Reporters returned with tenderly crafted soft-focus portrait after tenderly crafted soft-focus portrait of people aching to say the n-word.” And this: “Trump supporters are mad, reporters told us. Maybe you’ve heard? They’re mad at the establishment, they’re mad at Democrats, and most of all, they’re mad that they’ve been left behind. (And of course a lot of them are mad at black people, and many even say as much, but we try not to talk about that part.)”
Feinberg’s is an impressive list of same-sounding headlines and links from major news organizations spanning 2017. The list starts in January with this Washington Post headline: “How nostalgia for white Christian America drove so many Americans to vote for Trump.” And ends with this Associated Press headline in late December: “In the heart of Trump country, his base’s faith is unshaken.”
Under each headline, Feinberg adds what she learned from the story. The phrases are amusing but sad. On that first Post story, for example, she writes, “Racist Trump supporters support Trump because he is a racist.”
About half of the summaries say simply “Trump voters support Trump” and others have some variation, but it always comes back to a feckless devotion to their man. “Trump supporters, despite not receiving any of the things they were promised, still support Trump,” was one. And another: “Trump supporters, though unhappy with the president’s tweets, still support Trump.”
So, let me get this straight. Not all, but many of Trump’s supporters love him and stay devoted not because they think he will actually improve their lives, but because he so stridently hates the rest of us? Got it.
A less toxic version of this phenomenon helped launch the Scott Walker gubernatorial juggernaut in Wisconsin nearly eight years ago. Kathy Cramer, University of Wisconsin-Madison author and professor, plumbed the depth of anger in outstate Wisconsin at the educated elite and urban people of color in her book “The Politics of Resentment.”
Even now, tapping that resentment remains Walker’s go-to tactic. Nary a press release goes out, it seems, without referencing “hard-working” people and “common-sense” solutions, because elites and people of color, Walker always seems to imply, neither work hard nor possess common sense. But Walker’s approach looks positively quaint in today’s Trumpian days of rage.
Looking ahead, those who despise Trump will continue to try to advance public policies to support public education, job training, infrastructure and preserve a limited yet compassionate safety net. They do that because it is the right thing, whatever the zip code or skin color of the beneficiary.
With time — and that time could be this fall — voters will isolate and marginalize the haters who underpin Trump and people like him. After all, the GOP has effectively branded itself — especially to Millennials — as the party of Trump and Roy Moore, the party of tax breaks for billionaires.
In the meantime, my tolerance for lectures about how progressives are insensitive to the “political despair” of Trump’s devotees is over.
Perhaps I should admire the humanity of those who still beseech us to empathize with the suffering inhabitants in Trump-voting counties across America.
But here’s the thing: My guess is that most Trump supporters regard such concern as a sign of weakness, rejoicing in our misery. That has to be it, because Trump and his ilk are doing nothing to actually improve their lives.
So far as I can see, Trump’s virulent base is most powerfully animated by a small-minded desire to give the rest of us a big, long middle-finger salute. Let’s not reciprocate, but let’s not pretend it’s much more complicated than that.
Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.