President Trump is not misunderstood. To the contrary, there is broad agreement on who he is and what motivates him. In the latest Fox News poll, 56 percent of voters think he is “tearing the country apart,” while only 33 percent think he is “drawing the country together.” Fifty-six percent of voters think he does not respect minorities, while only 41 percent think he does. Fifty-six percent disapprove of his handling of the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville; only 35 percent approve. (Fifty-two percent blame the neo-Nazis for the violence, while only 19 percent buy into Trump’s view that “both sides” were responsible). And an astounding 70 percent thinks he hates the media more than he hates white supremacists. (A minority, albeit a disturbingly large percentage — 40 percent — of voters themselves consider the press to be a bigger threat than white supremacists.)
The poll’s finding that 55 percent of voters disapprove of the job he is doing roughly coincides with the percentage of voters who say he is ripping the country apart, does not respect minorities and mishandled Charlottesville. To be blunt, they think he’s a bigot and they don’t like a bigot as their president. This is not to say there hasn’t been some erosion in Trump’s base. In fact, compared with previous Fox News polls, Trump has “lost the most ground with conservatives (down 7 points), Republican men (-9 points), and whites without a college degree (-9 points).”
Nevertheless, unlike Democrats, independents and most every other segment of the electorate, Republicans simply don’t see Trump’s views and performance on race negatively — or maybe they refuse to confess that they see it that way because they don’t want to part ways with him. Eighty-five percent of Republicans approve or somewhat approve of his performance, with 65 percent saying they strongly approve. Tearing the country apart? No way, 68 percent of Republicans say. C’mon. They see Trump — and cheer him! — when he rips into other Republicans, Democrats, the media and anyone who criticizes him (such as the business leaders who quit his advisory councils). How can Trump supporters hoot and holler when Trump rips their foes and yet still claim that he is a great unifier?
One suspects that a high percentage of these Republicans know quite well how divisive Trump is, but they don’t want to think of their choice for president as someone who divides the country. Likewise, do only 23 percent of Republicans think the neo-Nazis — who ran over a woman and killed her — are responsible for the violence in Charlottesville? Well, Trump said there were “very fine” people on both sides, so they go along with that. Naturally, 72 percent think he handled Charlottesville well. And 82 percent think Trump respects minorities since, well, they’d never support a bigot.
You see, a very large percentage of Republicans refuse to acknowledge Trump’s overt bigotry and divisiveness — or any other glaring character flaws. It’s not unusual for those who voted for a candidate to refuse to confess to their error or the candidate’s flaws. Whatever side Trump is on and whatever defenses he raises, his cult follows.
When it comes to Trump, there is, however, something besides just voter denial and loyalty going on. A very large percentage of Republicans are convinced that minorities have an advantage over whites in this country. By every statistical measure, we know that is false, yet a plurality (40 percent) of Republicans, 38 percent of conservatives and 40 percent of white evangelicals are convinced that whites are the victims in society. This matches other polling that shows Trump’s most loyal group — evangelicals — don’t see much prejudice against minorities, immigrants and gays, although they are quite convinced that Christianity and whites are under attack.
And that makes perfect sense. Trump’s core campaign message was about white grievance, as he sought to convince mostly working-class voters that their livelihood, their status and their cultural dominance were stolen from them by foreigners, “globalists,” elites and those who won’t say “Merry Christmas.” It’s only natural that the visceral connection that Trump made with them is hard to break. For these people, whenever Trump says or does something regarding minorities that others find horrifying, they see this as evidence that he is fighting for them and leveling the playing field (remember they think they’re the victims).
The Trump phenomenon, you see, is inextricably tied up with the white grievance mentality, born in the GOP’s “Southern strategy,” nurtured by talk radio and blasted for more than a decade by Fox News at a discrete group of voters who immerse themselves in the Fox-created news universe. These voters are convinced that they’ve been done wrong, and it’s the fault of people who don’t look or live the way they do. This is identity politics run rampant, and Trump has perfected it. But the good news is that an increasing majority of Americans don’t buy his act, don’t like it and don’t want the leader of the United States to be Archie Bunker reborn.