As night follows day, recriminations flowed in the Republican camp after Donald Trump laid claim to the GOP presidential nomination.
To hear many tell it, Jeb Bush is at fault for taking Trump too lightly. Or Ted Cruz, for failing to broaden his appeal after winning Wisconsin. Or “the establishment” generally, because — well, because everything is its fault.
Fine. But there hasn’t been nearly enough blaming of the people most responsible for The Donald’s rise: his voters.
They are perpetually — indulgently — described as “angry,” or “frustrated,” or “fed up,” and no doubt they are. But exactly how reasonable are those feelings, and how rational a response to them is a vote for Trump?
The answers, respectively, are “only somewhat” and “not at all.”
Yes, the country faces perplexing challenges, which Washington seems unable or unwilling to resolve. I would never tell denizens of a distressed factory town to shut up and count their blessings.
However, the U.S. economy, much healthier than it was in the recent past, is outperforming most of the industrial world; wages, at last, are ticking up. Trump’s legions do not consist entirely or even mostly of laid-off manufacturing workers and their friends and neighbors — that’s mathematically impossible.
In manufacturing-heavy Indiana, whose 5 percent unemployment rate, like that of the nation, is less than half what it was in December 2009, Trump won 60 percent of those making more than $100,000 per year and beat Cruz handily among college grads.
I would also note that those who may support Trump due to economic concerns are fully aware of his contemptuous refusal to offer anything but his own purported business brilliance by way of a solution — because no sentient person could be unaware of it.
The pro-Trump segment of the American electorate has thus abdicated a basic duty of a democratic citizenry: to hold a candidate accountable for his or her ideas. Worse, many seem to regard his crude simplifications as a feature, not a bug — a badge of uninvolvement in the corrupt Washington system, especially the part of it controlled by the Republican Party, which, according to a majority of exit-polled Indiana voters, has “betrayed” the rank and file.
The “betrayal,” apparently, was that, even after voters put the GOP in charge of both houses of Congress, it couldn’t get rid of Obamacare, or overturn the president’s executive order on undocumented immigrants, or destroy the Islamic State, or do a whole bunch of other things not within its constitutional power to do.
What is the Trump electorate’s “ask,” anyway? Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, who has his finger on their pulse if anyone does, says Trump’s “outspoken attacks galvanize Americans who are bitterly disenchanted by a society that puts grievance above achievement . . . denigrates their values and caters to non-working individuals.”
There’s something to this, especially the allusion to Blue America’s incurable snobbery. However, I would rephrase O’Reilly’s point as follows: Trump’s voters are bitterly disenchanted because they think society puts the grievances of others above their own.
I’m not sure what non-work has to do with it, since whatever else can be said about them, 91 percent of unauthorized immigrant men, Trump’s scapegoats, were either working or seeking work in 2012 — compared with 79 percent of U.S.-born men. Foreign-born residents of this country are less likely to collect disability than the native-born.
How can Trump voters be upset about systemic favoritism of the lazy and upset that immigrants are taking all the jobs? The same way they simultaneously express anger and distrust toward the federal government and believe Trump can order that feckless leviathan to wall off Mexico, stick it to China, wipe out the Islamic State and keep the Social Security checks flowing.
Like many Democrats who are feeling the Bern, Trump voters believe, with an instinctual passivity bred of being endlessly pandered to by politicians, that the political system is “rigged” — and it’s about time somebody re-rigged it, in their favor.
Incoherent though it may be, there is no denying the power of the animus propelling what can only be called the Trump movement; as O’Reilly says, “they want someone to blow that system to hell.”
We can, and should, understand those feelings. We’re not obliged to appeal to them, though, or honor them — at least those of us who aren’t desperately backpedaling GOP politicians.
To the contrary, the voter nihilism that Trump both reflects and stimulates is a symptom of political decay. “He’s not perfect, but anyone would be better than this corrupt bunch,” is the sort of thing many Italians said, once upon a time, about Silvio Berlusconi, or Russians about Vladimir Putin, or Venezuelans about Hugo Chávez.
Let’s end the historical analogizing there; it’s enough to show how often the cry of “blow the system to hell” has gone up among peoples living in freedom and democracy, sometimes just before they lost both.
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