Editorial: The enduring support for Donald J. Trump
It’s not that anyone predicted a Biden landslide. But the former vice president’s supporters, most Californians included, had expected a more decisive repudiation of a president who has lied repeatedly, pandered to conspiracy theorists and far-right hooligans, undermined science and botched the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in myriad ways. There were indeed people who abandoned Trump ― he did worse with white males than in 2016, for example ― but also those who, if they didn’t flock to him, at least saw him as the better option.
Many presidential elections have been won by thin margins, as this one apparently will be. But a presidential campaign with Trump is not a normal presidential election with typical political disagreements. It’s not just a matter of one side believing in lower taxes, less regulation and smaller government, while the other favors tougher regulation, better social services and more activism from Washington.
We can always debate those issues. But how do we debate whether facts are facts? How do we discuss rationally whether public insults and patently false statements by our president are acceptable?
This has not been a normal presidency. And people on both sides of the partisan divide agree with that assessment. What was missed by many NPR devotees on the left, who saw this presidency as an embarrassment and a danger to our very democracy, is that the abnormal is what drew many people to Trump in the first place. And the second place too.
There is, of course, no single answer to why so many Americans voted for Trump. To pretend otherwise would be to stereotype a diverse group of people and beliefs. His supporters include conservatives who would vote for any Republican presidential candidate because those are their values. There are single-issue voters who oppose abortion or who cheer Trump’s tough-guy stance against undocumented immigrants. His behavior might be boorish, they say, but he gets things done, even if that includes pushing treatments for COVID-19 that haven’t been shown to work. Similarly, many voters were attracted to the idea of a strongman who barreled through the gridlock in Washington, rules be damned.
But among the Trump supporters are those who like him most for some of the very qualities that disturb others. People on both sides find reasons to deplore the political establishment and its favor-trading, privilege and frequent lack of connection to everyday Americans and their concerns. Those who celebrate Trump see him as the Great Disruptor, not a career politician, the guy whose Twitter vitriol tells it like it is. In their eyes, he cuts through the baloney ― what others might call the uncomfortable realities of complex problems and contemporary society ― and makes things not just simple, but rosy.
In that world, there’s less for people ― especially white people ― to worry about. Climate change can be ignored, masks are unnecessary, COVID-19 isn’t really all that life-threatening to millions of Americans, we can have amazing new health insurance without a price to pay, and complicated issues about immigration can be solved with a wall. It’s a world in which racism might not be explicitly approved, but neither is it acknowledged.
The controversial call received pushback from the Trump campaign. Fox News is holding firm and could call Biden the winner of the White House on Thursday night.
We on the editorial board, being deeply enmeshed in news reports and highly focused on the workings of government, see the lies and obfuscations of the Trump administration and wonder why so few Trump supporters seem to be bothered by them. Why does the reporting that mattered so much a few decades ago, when Watergate did in Richard M. Nixon’s presidency, not seem to make a dent now?
In truth, people are listening; they’re just the people who already agreed with us. The eyes we’d hoped to open aren’t focused on the travails in Washington because they don’t see a connection to their daily lives. Or they’re reading something else, watching a different cable TV news show or glancing through the social media posts of people whom they trust, because they don’t believe what we’re saying.
According to the cable TV channels, websites and social media feeds that inform many in Trump’s orbit, Joe Biden is a socialist and a crook who will destroy their jobs, raise their taxes and make them all wear masks. Trump has succeeded in sowing so much doubt in mainstream journalism, his followers feel as comfortable dismissing it as moderates feel in ignoring Breitbart News. The mainstream media’s eagerness to shine a light on Trump’s norm-busting behavior actually fueled this distrust because it struck many conservatives as reporting with an agenda, or opinion masquerading as news. Both sides look at each other and see fools who follow their preset beliefs without considering obvious truths. They also see the other side’s news sources as hopelessly biased.
Both sides think they understand the other’s reality. In truth, neither fully does because we’re not talking to each other.
Americans have always discussed, debated and disagreed as part of our way of creating democracy. The difference now is that we have divided ourselves in the most saddening of ways: We’re no longer even in the same conversation.
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