IMAGE: Gage Skidmore
Fear, Shock, & Awe—The Raucous, Enduring Appeal of Donald J. Trump, and How Dems
Could Retake America
John J. Berger
Sustain Europe U.S. Correspondent
December 16, 2020
Given Donald Trump’s scandal-plagued record in office, failure to contain the COVID pandemic, and provocative behaviour, Democrats have been flabbergasted that former Vice President Joe Biden only managed to win the Presidency by razor-thin margins in battleground swing states.
The election was neither the landslide nor the repudiation of Trump’s populism, character, or governing style that many Americans on the Left had expected and yearned for. Though 7 million more people voted for Biden, many Democrats wondered why more than 72 million American would vote to keep a man of Trump’s character and aggressive demeanour in the White House for another four years? Now they also have to figure out why some 70% of Republicans believe that Trump actually won the election but is being denied victory through massive voter fraud.
Nightmares in America
An explanation for these collective delusions can be found by analysing the new, illiberal, far-right Republicanism that is aligned behind Trump’s banner and marches when his trumpet blares.
This new voting bloc has complex drives and concerns that led them to coalesce behind Trump. The factors include economic insecurity and despair, racial and ethnic prejudice, religious fundamentalism, anti-scientific and anti-elite bias, ignorance of history and civics, over-reliance on social media and biased TV coverage, and feeble critical thinking muscles. Another calculatingly rational component of Trump’s support comes from the more affluent business community that likes the tax cuts and minimal government regulation that Trump supported.
On the other end of the economic spectrum, the heartland and working-class of America have been hurt by automation and globalization. Workers’ real wages have barely increased in the past 40 years. Since 2009, the U.S. Federal minimum wage has been stuck at only $7.25 an hour for non-tipped workers. How do you live or support a family in 2020 on $14,500 a year? This has been fertile ground for the seeds of Trumpism to take root.
As the nation continued its recovery from the 2008 recession, Trump pointed to his deregulation policies and trade wars as the reason why unemployment had declined. Under his economic policies, however, stable manufacturing jobs became rare and were replaced by low-wage service industry jobs.
With little savings, no secure path to the middle class enjoyed by prior generations, and a realistic fear of the future, many workers without a college education accepted Trump’s lies that their economic position was somehow stronger. In fact, most gains went to the highest-paid workers, and his massive tax cuts dramatically favoured the wealthy and corporations.
The stock market has hit record highs under Trump, throwing off cash to stock investors and pumping up employees’ 401K plans for those lucky enough to have them. Interest rates have been held at record lows, buoying up the housing market and lowering costs for Americans with enough disposable income and credit to buy a home.
Meanwhile, in many cities and towns in Middle America, shops were being shuttered on drab and run-down Main Streets. Many workers struggled with bills, could not pay for high-priced prescription drugs or medical insurance, and had no way to afford to send their kids to college.
Average rents today for an unfurnished apartment are about five times what they were in 1980. A concomitant epidemic of homelessness has put 500,000 Americans on the street. The prior opioid epidemic soared wildly during this time and expanded into a broader epidemic of substance abuse, suicide, violence, and other “deaths of despair.”
IMAGE: Ted Eytan
A Grievance Machine
Donald Trump, brimming with anger, gripes, and uninhibited by any concerns for truth, brilliantly exploited the grievances of others, turning insecurities into fears, resentments into fury or hatred, and fears into nightmares. Once a nation is taken down a narrow, treacherous, winding road like this, it is difficult to back up. Dr. Edward Teller, the “father of the H-bomb” once told me, “It is very easy to scare a person. It is terribly difficult to reassure him once he is scared.”
With dog whistles to garden-variety racists, Neo-Nazi loners, and right-wing militia groups, Trump in plain sight pandered to white nationalists, xenophobes, and to gullible people vulnerable to extreme and screwball conspiracy theories. QAnon has amazingly won over 10% of Americans. And nearly 25% of Americans currently identify as evangelicals and have been delighted with the anti-abortion justices that Republicans have added to the Supreme Court.
Thus more than 47% of voters cheerfully validated a compulsive liar who separated breastfeeding infants from their parents, locked up children, and “lost” essential family reunification records. Ironically, the harm to the lives of these children apparently did not alienate the support of Evangelicals and other right-to-lifers. Nor did the dispatch of desperate asylum seekers from our borders back into harm’s way. Trump laid the groundwork for that by famously scapegoating immigrants (“drug dealers, criminals, and rapists“) whom he insinuated were out to take workers’ jobs with Democrats’ blessings.
In addition to Evangelicals and other religious fundamentalists, Trump’s broad coalition is comprised of white bread rural Middle Americans, the wealthy, the non-college-educated, gun enthusiasts fearful of gun control, and suburban women fearful of crime.
The gun rights and right-to-lifers in particular and racial extremists all tend to be single-issue voters so, by welcoming them all into his fold, Trump consolidated a core group of passionate supporters willing to abide by anything, provided he stood firm on their issues.
Trump’s modus operandi has been to keep his inalienable base continuously riled up by fanning the flames of division, resentment, and mistrust, aiming that blowtorch at the media (“fake news”), elections (“voter fraud”), and the FBI and CIA (the “deep state”) creating distrust of government and democratic institutions.
In addition, with characteristic ingratitude and malice, Trump even splashed mud at doctors—who had just gotten finished saving him from COVID-19—by accusing them of profiteering on the pandemic—charges that were immediately denounced and refuted.
The Joys of Shock and Awe
Trump also gained the allegiance of those who fear crime and unrest and believe his “law and order” rhetoric. Those fears were amplified by the sporadic looting that marred the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Another group of acolytes envies Trump’s wealth and sees him as a successful businessman, unconcerned or unaware of Trump’s six bankruptcy filings and that he (and some of his family) may eventually go to jail for tax evasion.
A segment of the electorate admires Trump’s "machismo" and actually envies the impunity with which Trump has sexually assaulted women—some 20 have accused him of sexual assault, including rape. In the words of eminent Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Charles Popper, Trump has “shock-and-awe entertainment” appeal: “the joys of watching a successful bully.”
The remaining underpinnings of Trump’s electoral support may be even more important. Many ordinary working Americans, especially low-income people sceptical of medical science, want the economy to stay open at all costs, so that they can continue to pay their rent and feed their families. Thus, ironically, minority support for Trump may have actually increased during the pandemic that Trump’s behaviour—secrecy, disinformation, and mismanagement—unleashed on America.
IMAGE: Ninian Reid
The Spectre of Joe Biden
Trump and other Republicans have successively scared the public into believing that Biden will raise their taxes, impose onerous regulations, defund the police, halt fracking, take away their doctor (“Medicare for All”), their guns, and their religious freedom.
At his rallies and in his tweets, Trump—a former Democrat from 2001-2009—depicted the Democrats, with their coalition of Blacks, Latinos, immigrants, Native Americans, liberals, young voters, and environmentalists, as a force that will end the American Way of Life his supporters want to preserve.
He also succeeded in making climate science denial another ideological issue that appeals to people who resent and mistrust elites, read: intellectuals, journalists, and scientists. He stoked fears that the Left would use climate change and decarbonisation—the Green New Deal— as an excuse for Big Government, Big Spending, overregulation, and the elimination of the fossil fuel industry and its jobs. Biden also provided additional ammunition for the latter charge with his truthful remark that the nation does need to transition away from fossil fuels and must eventually phase out the oil industry.
To an uninformed person who heard these charges relentlessly confirmed by the polemics of Fox opinionators and ultra-conservative television stations, the charges gradually became credible. (Fox is by far the most viewed U.S. cable network.) Democrats unwittingly aided Republicans on law-and-order issues by rallying behind the ill-chosen “Defund the police” slogan that Biden disavowed.
IMAGE: Gage Skidmore
Deprogramming the Base
Although the diverse segments of Trump’s base each see some interest of theirs being served, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts here. Trump’s core group of followers has the hallmarks of a cult.
Cult followers relinquish reliance on their own judgement and let their leader provide a uniform dogma to which they conform. It is a form of mass psychosis. As Trump famously said, "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose voters."
Those familiar with history know that mass psychosis can be induced by a charismatic sociopath, as Hitler demonstrated in Weimar Germany. So it is not irrelevant that many mental health professionals have found the charismatic President mentally unfit. Nonetheless, he has persuaded millions of people to vote against public health, environmental protection, and their own economic interests.
How now can Democrats convince them that Trump sides with rich people over low-income and ordinary Americans, and that he's been playing them for fools? Again, there are no simple answers. Trump is a dangerous cult leader. The millions of followers in his thrall badly need help... But that won’t be easy. Deprogramming is not generally successful, although it must be tried.
The most trusted deprogrammer is likely to be the very Pied Piper who led the flock astray in the first place. Therefore, one possibility would be for wealthy Democratic donors to establish a new media platform where right-wing media celebrities willing to gradually wean their followers from Trump could receive lucrative contracts. At their core, these highly paid ideologues are opportunists willing to say anything that advances their career and is in their financial interest.
Be that as it may, when Joe Biden assumes the Presidency, he should also immediately and patiently begin, issue-by-issue, to re-educate the shellshocked American electorate to bring the psychologically abused Trump voters back to their senses.
Some will be hard to reach. The conspiracy-minded branch of the Republican Party gets their news from social media and opinion shows on radio and TV.
With the individual realities that social media algorithms feed each victim, conspiracies and misinformation circulate at warp speed, confirming biases and inducing the gullible to share these stories and impressions widely as memes. That’s what the business model was designed to do—to generate more ad revenue. (Hat tip to Tristan Harris in “The Social Dilemma.”)
Pervasive reform of social media is thus essential. Perhaps a bipartisan effort can be cobbled together to break up social media powerhouses like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
But so long as they remain unchecked, the grassroots Democrats who walked precincts, made phone calls and sent texts, must now find ways to get into the social media enclaves and actively engage with conservatives. Dems must enter the hitherto homogeneous “thought bubbles” of the Radical Right to at least challenge if not puncture the distorted, unhinged “reality” circulating there.
IMAGE: Gage Skidmore
Democrats also need to begin making some noise about media monopolies. The hijacking of the American political system has been made possible by stations, ostensibly licensed in the public interest, that no longer adequately demarcate fact from opinion. There needs to be a revival of the Fairness Doctrine in broadcasting to guarantee both sides of controversial issues are heard and to restrict media oligopolies. These two strategies would at least be good first steps.
However, the best arguments that Democrats may be able to offer to crack the Trump coalition may be to put fat, renewable-energy-transition and infrastructure-rebuild checks into the hands of millions of American workers.
Indeed, the ten-year, $2 trillion climate action plan that Biden has proposed is intended to elicit a total of $5 trillion in public and private spending. Biden's campaign claims this will produce 10 million new jobs and has announced the intention to partner with colleges, unions, and the private sector to train American workers for the clean energy economy. Investments would be made in infrastructure, transit, buildings, power generation, new technology, as well as agriculture and conservation.
Wage earners can expect Biden to expand earned income tax credits and childcare credits and reinstitute a first-time homebuyers credit. In addition, he plans to support legislation to make it easier for workers to unionize and has also proposed to incorporate skills training into his infrastructure investment plans and to assist "coal and power plant communities" by helping them to create high-paying union jobs there along with training programs to prepare workers to fill them. Workers in the U.S. will thus have much to gain in a Biden Administration and this could help the Democrats expand their base.
Other persuasive Democratic arguments would be provision of affordable medical insurance, excellent medical care, free childcare, student loan forgiveness and affordable access to college for youth. The self-respect that comes from having a good-paying job and a stake in the future will take the edge off many a Trump voter’s grievances.
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