7 Tuesdays to Go: Why Nothing Matters to Trump's Voter Cult
On Jan. 23, 2016, in Sioux City, Iowa, Donald Trump infamously boasted amid the Republican presidential primary that, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
At the time, it ranked as just one more of the reality TV, real estate con man’s endless supply of hyperbolic, over-the-top and tasteless brags.
Today, it seems like the understatement of the century.
Seven Tuesdays before the Nov. 3 election (that's 49 days for those keeping score at home) Trump's job approval rating stands at 45 percent, exactly where it's been, plus or minus a few points, since he took office -- despite 200,000 Americans dead amid his bungling of the coronavirus pandemic, the tanking of the economy and Trump's constant dumping of rhetorical jet fuel onto volatile national unrest over racism.
For Democrats, many independents, Never-Trump Republicans and others who comprise the substantial majority of U.S. adults who disapprove of him, it is an abiding mystery: Why Does Nothing Matter to Trump Voters?
After nearly four years of a term which began with the brazen acknowledgement that he lives in an parallel universe of “alternative facts,” which has been packed with nearly 25,000 catalogued lies and an outrage or scandal-a-day and in which now the nation - with four percent of the world's population -- accounts for 22 percent of global Covid deaths, the support of his political base appears unshakeable.
As a psychological matter, the answer to this question, plaguing those with eyes to see his utter unfitness for the presidency, may be found in studies of totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, the Authoritarian Personality by Theodor Adorno or of modern nationalist, neo-fascist movements around the world.
As a domestic political matter, however, there are at least three fundamental, interlocking and measureable factors that help explain why Trump voters remain unbothered and undeterred by his aberrant attitudes and behavior.
The demographic divide. A just-out study of 11,000 adults by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center demonstrates key, stark contrasts between Trump voters and those who support Democrat Joe Biden – differences that have greatly deepened since showing up in similar surveys about Trump and Hillary Clinton four years ago.
“The remarkable stability of Trump’s support reflects the degree to which American society has separated into two very distinct — and very different — camps,” veteran political analyst David Lauter wrote about the Pew poll.
For starters, nine-in-10 Republican voters are white, compared to six-in-10 among Democrats, and their attitudes on questions about race speak volumes.
For example, when asked if it is more difficult to be a Black person than white in America, nearly three-fourths of Biden backers said it is a "lot more difficult"; by contrast fewer than 10 percent of Trump voters expressed agreement with that sentiment – an astonishing 65 percent chasm.
Conversely, when asked if white Americans benefit from built-in societal advantages that Blacks do not share – a question pointing to attitudes about white privilege and systemic racism - about 60 percent of Biden voters agreed that whites benefit; the number of those who agree among Trump voters: 5 percent.
There are equally striking differences in attitudes about sex and gender.
Among Biden voters, for example, 72 percent said sexism is an obstacle for women; the portion of Trump voters who view sexism as a problem: 26 percent.
A separate and related Pew study, which dissected the electorate in the 2018 midterm elections, found that people with no formal religious affiliation represented about 40 percent of Democratic voters in the 2018 mid-terms – compared to only 15 percent of Republicans; White evangelical Protestants represented one-third of the GOP vote – but only six percent of the Democratic vote.
Another bright line example: Nearly three-fourths of Republican voters said that Islam is a "religion that encourages violence" – while an equal number of Democrats said it does not encourage violence.
Negative partisanship. Among the countless ways Trump is unique among American presidents, perhaps the most revealing is that he never made even a pretense, let alone a substantive effort, of being a unifying leader, the president of all Americans. Rather, his words, policies, resentments, rages and tweets invariably have been aimed at pleasing his political base, effectively positioning him as the President of Red State America.
By constantly demonizing Democrats and other political foes, not as opponents with whom he has policy differences, but as monstrous enemies and traitors who should be imprisoned, he has deepened what already was a gaping partisan divide in the country.
In 2016, Pew quantitatively mapped dimensions of “negative partisanship,” which Politico described in a seminal piece on the subject this way:
"Conservatives and liberals don't just disagree -- they actually like to hate each other. And it's getting uglier.”
Pew’s follow-up survey on the phenomenon, released last fall, found Republican and Democratic voters alike had grown more negative about the other – and that, on nearly every measure, Trump backers were significantly more hostile to the partisan other side.
For example, 55 percent of Republicans said that Democrats are “more immoral” compared to other Americans, while less than half – 47 percent – of Dems believe that of the GOP.
Nearly two-thirds of Republicans (63 percent) said Democrats are “unpatriotic," compared with just 23 percent of Dems who describe their rivals that way; and 46 percent percent of Reps described Democrats as “lazy” -- compared to just 20 percent of Dems who said the same of them.
The only category for which Democrats expressed a higher degree of negativity was for being “close-minded,” with 75 percent describing Republicans that way, compared to 64 percent of Trump supporters saying that of Dems.
In right-wing Twitter parlance, Trump’s go-to move in viciously attacking Democrats is known as “owning the libs.” By doing it virtually every day of his presidency, he has succeeded in hardening the opposition to him among those who have endured such attacks day-after-day -- while convincing his supporters that Dems not only are wrong – they’re evil.
The death of truth. Most crucially, Trump commands the unquestioning loyalty of supporters by presenting himself as the most reliable source and arbiter of news, information and truth, followed by the Fox News Channel, which effectively serves as the propaganda organ for Trump’s government.
With about 160 million Americans expected to vote in 2020, Trump has 86 million followers of his Twitter feed.
Not all of them live in the U.S., of course, but the audience for his non-stop tweets nonetheless represents an enormous number of Americans whom he has trained to view historically credible and mainstream sources as “enemies of the state,” whose product invariably is described as “fake news” -- unless it is flattering to him.
Journalism scholar Jay Rosen, in an essay in the New York Review of Books, described the impact this way:
"For core supporters, media hate helps frame the president as a fighter for them. 'I will put these people down for you' was one of the most attractive promises Trump made during the (2016) campaign. He has delivered on that pledge. They, in turn, deliver for him by categorically rejecting news reports that are critical of the president, in the belief that journalists are simply trying to bring their guy down…
There is a risk that one third of the electorate will be isolated in an information loop of its own, where Trump becomes the major source of information about Trump, because independent sources are rejected on principle. That has already happened. An authoritarian system is up and running for a portion of the polity. Another way to say this is that before journalists log on in the morning, one third of their potential public is already gone."
Reams have been written about the closed feedback loop connecting Trump and Fox, and Pew has worked to quantify it. Some key findings:
43 percent of U.S. adults – a number virtually identical to Trump’s favorable rating on any given day – say they trust Fox for political and election news – and only slightly fewer say they have gotten such news from the cable network in the last week.
65 percent of Republicans say they trust Fox for politics and election news – twice as much as the news source they rank second for trustworthiness (ABC News at 33 percent); by contrast, a majority of Democrats trust a variety of news sources, from CNN (67 percent) to PBS (56 percent).
87 percent of Fox News viewers identify their race and ethnicity as non-Hispanic white, and about 40 percent of those who favor Fox are 65 or older.
63 percent of Fox News viewers said last March that Trump was doing an excellent job handling the pandemic – compared to 23 of all adults at the same time.
One more statistic: A Democratic business project called Navigator conducted a poll last year to glean the differences between Fox and non-Fox viewers of all political stripes.
Bottom line finding: 78 percent of Republicans who watch the channel said they “believe Trump has accomplished more than any other president in history.”
“There is an alternate reality in American politics, and it plays an outsize role in the way many experience and form opinions on the most important issues facing the country,” the group reported. “The influence of Fox News Channel is undeniable, from their audience to their biggest promoter, President Trump.”
Images: Trump rally (CNN); White lives matter sign (Time); Cartoon (Daily Kos); Trump Pinocchio (Daily Kos).