The country is certainly divided in two. I don’t mean just blue/red, urban/rural, religious/a-religious, college educated/non-college-educated. Here, the division is between those who want politics to tend to their emotional needs (pride, recognition, resentment) and those who want politics to solve problems while they take care of their self-esteem and emotional well-being in other ways. Ironically, Republicans who for decades accused the left of playing to emotions rather than dealing with cold, hard facts now eschew objective reality in favor of feelings.
President Trump’s lies (the extent of crime, the effect of trade deals, the risk of terrorists masquerading as refugees) and failures (on the wall, health care, travel ban) matter to Americans in the “politics as problem-solving” group. These voters measure politicians by what they do. It matters very much that the American Health Care Act would hurt poorer, more rural Americans and that Trump’s tax plan is a jaw-dropping give-away to the rich. He is supposed to be fixing health care and reforming our tax code, right? These Americans cannot fathom how Trump’s base convinces itself he has been a huge success any more than they can comprehend why his base ignores easily obtainable evidence on crime, immigration, the economy, etc. Frustrated, they stack layers and layers of evidence in front of Trump fans only to receive blank stares in return.
The Trump electorate, many more men than women, is whiter, older and has less education. But Trump also carried a number of high-information, angry cynics. As to the latter, it’s hard to count the times an educated conservative has said to me, “I know he’s saying junk but I just love when he goes after [the media/the Muslims/the illegal immigrants].” It’s a guilty pleasure for them, I suppose, like watching crappy TV. If only the country were not at risk, I wouldn’t begrudge them their entertainment.
Trump fans think he is winning because he yells at the press, vilifies cities run by Democrats, denies climate change and demonizes immigrants. He talks and acts like they wish they could — demeaning women, stereotyping minorities, telling off experts. (According to polling, Trump’s voters really are more amenable to racial stereotypes than non-Trump voters.) It does not matter to Trump fans if the executive orders are struck down or are mere window dressing (authorizing an agency to study something it already has the power to study). He makes them feel as if they’re winning, as if they are now more important than the experts with the facts and the courts with the laws on their side. Trump fans, the quintessential Fox News viewers, revel in the know-nothingism of a hero who reflects their anger, grievances, frustration and, yes, prejudice. (Granted, there also are certainly Trump voters of good faith who genuinely — and very wrongly — think the trade deficit is a problem, China is “stealing” our jobs and Russia can be our friend; however, they may be awfully resistant when their Fox News-induced misconceptions are rattled.)
Politics for Trump and his ilk is a tribal-identity exercise. People on “their side” don’t believe in climate change or facts on crime or illegal immigration. It’s odd to affix one’s identity to whether one accepts or rejects demonstrable evidence, but that’s how partisans have come to behave. If you believe that climate change is real, that immigration benefits our economy and that America is not getting ripped off by the rest of the world then, in the Trump mind-set, you’re on the other side. (What’s more, you’re not respecting their right to be irrational. Hence they claim perpetual victimhood.) Trump affirms their tribal identity and tells them they are right to hold their views. He reverses the tag of “low-information voter” by assuring them everyone else is lying or fake.
No wonder Trump keeps bringing up the election results, which the elite media didn’t see coming. The winning he loves, but what really delights him is recalling that everyone he and his followers detest got it wrong. This is, when you get right down to it, still the boy from Queens who never got respect from the Manhattan upper crust. “Winning” is the equivalent of “showing those people.” White working-class men without college degrees who feel they’ve declined in status at least have Trump (and Fox News) telling them day in and day out that they are right and those people are wrong.
Onlookers who do not share Trump’s resentments or the angst over the decline of manufacturing centers may understandably be puzzled. It may confuse them when Trump voters claim the moral superiority of victims for situations that, while difficult, can be ameliorated (e.g. learn new skills, move to where the jobs are, resist opioids). As victims, you see, the Trump die-hards cannot be responsible for their own situation or derided as uniformed. They claim the high ground as they blame immigrants or elites for their problems.
The group that author Robert Jones identifies as “white Christian America” — in essence, the evangelicals in the heartland — feels social, cultural and economic resentment the most acutely, and therefore embraces Trump the most tightly. Recent polling shows that evangelicals are his strongest supporters. (“Three-quarters of white evangelical Protestants approve of the way Trump is handling his job as president, according to a new analysis of Pew Research Center surveys conducted in February and April. This is nearly twice as high as the president’s approval rating with the general public (39%).”) Religion per se has nothing to do with it. (In fact Trump is an encyclopedia of sins and character flaws, was pro-choice until he wasn’t and never shared his fans’ aversion to gay marriage.) Tribalism has everything to do with it.
Saying he’s the most successful president in the first 100 days ever may sound nuts to people who look at what he’s done; it makes perfect sense to the people whom Trump makes feel better. At some point, one wonders when it will dawn on Trump’s fans that they’ve been bamboozled.