Trump’s win and the benefit of the doubt

Richard Sproat

[After I wrote this a few days ago, a friend pointed me to a piece in Haaretz, that made the same point, only more bluntly.] 

In the aftermath of the surprise election of the real-estate magnate and reality TV personality Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, there has needless to say been a lot of soul searching.  Many of us, including a couple of my friends, were fairly certain that this could never happen; that faced with a choice of a totally inexperienced demagogue, and a highly seasoned political professional, Americans would, if reluctantly, choose the professional to fill what is widely regarded as the most difficult job in the world. In other words, they didn’t really believe that Americans could be that, well, dumb. The result seems to have even surprised many of the people who supported Trump.  

Among the various acts of soul searching have been pleas from various writers in the so-called “liberal” press to avoid rushing to judgment about what motivated people to vote for Trump. Nicholas Kristof even proposed a 12 step program that included such things as vowing to avoid Hitler metaphors.  

While it is usually good advice to avoid rushing to judgment on any issue, it is worth analyzing  whether anyone’s motivations for voting for Trump were wholly salutary. And in order to think about that question, one needs to consider the various sets of reasons that people may have had for doing so.  While one can hardly hope to know all of those reasons, there has been enough discussion in the press, both on the left and right, that one can be reasonably sure of covering most of the important motivations.

So what were these, and is it possible to give a positive spin to any of them?  Let us take the easy cases first.

One group that Trump is almost universally popular with is the so-called Alt-Right, which includes various quite radical groups, such as  the Ku Klux Klan and various neo-Nazi organizations. Trump’s own personal views on racial issues have been unclear, though in his various actions over the last few decades, and more importantly in his various statements during the campaign, there is good reason to worry that he is not very sensitive about race. To groups that have an outright racial agenda, some of whom want to see the “white race” restored to its “rightful place” of supremacy, Trump must have seemed a godsend, especially compared to the overtly inclusive Hillary Clinton. Indeed, some on the extreme Alt-Right have said as much.  

I hope it is not necessary to argue that this motivation for supporting Trump is simply nasty. If there is a single most positive outcome of the decades of struggle for civil rights, it has been the realization that no one group of people is inherently superior to any other because of their race, ethnicity or religious persuasion. To be sure there are groups that hold particularly abhorrent beliefs that do need to be closely watched: among these are militant Islamic groups, ultra-right-wing Jews and, yes, many groups in the Alt-Right.  But such vigilance is motivated purely by these groups’ own professed agendas, which include exclusionary and sometimes violent proposals on what to do with people who do not belong to their fold.  One can denounce and exclude violent Islamists, without denouncing or excluding the vast majority of peaceful Muslims.

At the other extreme of Trump supporters are a very small number of the ultra-rich. While much of Wall Street and Silicon Valley overtly supported Clinton, a few notable exceptions such as the entrepreneur Peter Thiel and the hedge-fund manager Robert Mercer, came out in favor of Trump.  Mercer even supposedly supported Trump’s campaign to the tune of $15 million. Since Mercer had previously been a strong supporter of Ted Cruz, his switch to Trump probably means that he simply wanted any ultra-conservative in the White House.  There are many possible reasons for this. At the top of the list of likely reasons are Trump’s promises to unravel the various pieces of legislation that control the financial industry, and that were put in place to avoid the kind of financial debacle that occurred the last time a Republican was in the White House. Possibly Trump’s promise to lower taxes on the wealthy in order to re-apply the long discredited “trickle-down” approach to stimulating the economy, was also a factor.  Perhaps people like Mercer also think that Trump will generally be good for the markets, though again most of Wall Street seemed to be placing its bets with Clinton.  Finally, though the markets have so far shrugged off Trump’s victory (just as they shrugged off the equally surprising Brexit vote) the long term effects of a Trump presidency are very unclear, and it is quite likely that we are in for a chaotic period, with markets fluctuating rapidly due to one or another crisis. Rather than fearing this, someone like Mercer may well be counting on it: who better to profit from uncertainty than a hedge-fund manager?   Again, I hope that it is clear that none of these possible motivations is particularly salutary: lowering taxes on the wealthy has never had the result of stimulating the economy, positive moves in the market certainly benefit some, but bypass the vast majority of people, and profiting from chaos is of course reserved for a very very few people engaged in an activity which has no redeeming social value.

Then there’s the Christian conservatives, for whom things like so-called “family values” have long been important. No doubt Trump’s appeal among this group was enhanced with his appointment of Mike Pence, a Bible-believing young-earth Creationist, as his running mate. But Trump himself is so obviously the antithesis of everything that this group believes in, one can do little but scratch one’s head over their choice.  Even admitting, for the sake of argument, that perhaps the “liberal establishment” has “failed” this demographic, does one vote for someone, no matter how bad they are, just because that person opposes the status quo? Is that a reasonable approach for sane people to take? Is this not an instance of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face? It is hard to find any positive things to say about choosing Trump for reasons of enhancing the “values” of the Christian right wing.  The most polite thing one can say is that it is blatantly naive.

The same naïveté seems to apply to what is probably by far the largest group of people who supported Trump. Conservatives, overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly working class, who are not particularly racist, not particularly extreme in their religious views, but who feel that as a group they have been overlooked. Their economic advancement has stagnated or regressed, their jobs in many cases have moved away overseas, they see the country flooded with immigrants taking opportunities for advancement away from them, they see attention being paid by the “liberal establishment” to any group except them. They yearn for an America that they believe once existed, not so long ago, where things were much better for them, the America for example of the 1950’s, where white working class Americans indeed seemed to be better off — forgetting of course the fact that non-whites in America were not so well off at that time, and that America had far fewer economic competitors.

Now, one could argue that this worldview is somewhat lopsided and that white working class Americans are indeed vastly better off than working class people in bygone eras: even in the worst cases, I doubt that one can find anything even remotely approaching the absolutely appalling conditions that George Orwell found in the coal mining districts in the north of England, and described in abundant detail in The Road to Wigan Pier. Or to take an American example of just a few decades prior to Orwell’s study, the equally appalling conditions in the Chicago meat packing industry described in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Even if conditions have stagnated or even moved backwards for some groups over the past few decades, people are still vastly better off than they were eighty to a hundred years ago. Sometimes one has to take a broad historical perspective to see that there has been progress on many fronts.

Unfortunately that argument is unlikely to win many converts: people feel what they feel, and there is nothing that one can do about that feeling except try to do something to make them feel better.  Lecturing them is unlikely to work. But one has to ask again why people who fall into this group voted for Trump. The obvious reason that he said he was going to do things to help the working class and that, as some have claimed, now the working man is going to be present in the White House, is hardly a good answer given that Trump was remarkably light on specifics on what he would do and how he would achieve any such goals. Furthermore, Trump’s own life is, as in the case of the Christian right wing, entirely the antithesis of the working class person.  Trump has never known want. He has never known what it is to struggle. He has made effective use of legal (and possibly not-so-legal) loopholes to avoid paying huge tax bills. (I am sure that many working class people might wish they could be so lucky as to be able to write off their tax bills entirely for many years in a row.) He has generally lived the high life, replete with everything that anyone could possibly want including a series of trophy wives and no limits on material possessions. If Trump had started off poor, one might admit there is some common ground with the working class, who might see him as one of their own who was resourceful enough to made it big. But of course Trump inherited a great deal of wealth, so even that explanation is not available.

Furthermore, to say that Trump is a narcissist is to engage in extreme understatement. It seems unlikely that in recent times there has been a public figure who is so self-promotional, who is so wrapped up in his own self-image.  People might be forgiven for putting Trump in the same category as Hitler, Mussolini, Saddam Hussein or Hugo Chávez, because that is the direction towards which his personality cult seems to be headed.  But the main issue here is the narcissism itself, since almost by definition narcissists have no real concern for anyone except themselves. Everything they do is geared towards promoting their own self-interest, and if they happen to do something good for others along the way, that is just a lucky side effect of promoting an agenda that is otherwise completely self-serving.

Which brings us back to the question: why would you vote for a person who is entirely wrapped up in himself, and who is in every way utterly unlike you, merely because he says he is going to help you? Is this, to put it bluntly, not a stupid reason for voting for someone?

To be fair though: there is one way in which Trump is like many people in America: he is obviously ignorant, obviously anti-intellectual. In that sense, he is like many in conservative America who have become distrustful of the educated “elite”.  While many of us were alarmed by Trump’s apparent ignorance, for many others this may well have been a selling point.  In our Fahrenheit 451-esque world where sports and reality TV comprise the overarching interest of a large fraction of the population, there must be some appeal to the notion of an apparently ignorant reality TV star replacing the stuffy and effete “liberal elite”.  If indeed Trump’s very ignorance is the basis of his appeal for many people, I again fully recognize the futility of arguing with this view, since rational arguments by their nature cannot win here. I merely point out that it seems to us like an awfully bad reason to select someone for such a difficult and demanding job.  I imagine that if someone promised that they could drive a bus from Las Vegas to Los Angeles in only 3 hours (Google Maps recommends about 4 hours’ driving time), and it was at the same time clear that he had never driven a bus or indeed anything before, that nobody who supported Trump because of his ostensibly homey qualities would get on that bus. Yet they are willing to elect someone to a much more difficult and potentially dangerous job on such a basis?

And finally: One other possible reason for voting for Trump, not mutually exclusive with any of the above-discussed reasons, is that some people were not so much voting for him, but against Clinton. It is perhaps worth pointing out that I was not exactly sanguine about Clinton. Her past hawkish tendencies were particularly worrying. The email scandal seemed to show very poor judgment on her part. Given a chance, I would have voted for Bernie Sanders. But the fact remains that given her wide experience in the legislative branch, in diplomacy, and her first hand observation of the executive branch at both the state and national level, she was surely the most qualified presidential candidate that the US has seen in decades. During the campaign, Trump acknowledged that Clinton had a lot of experience but derided it as “bad experience”.   Even if that were true (and despite some obvious bad mistakes on her part, I do not believe that it is true), the one advantage of experience of any kind is that it helps you know what to do next time. Contrast that with Trump’s complete lack of experience, meaning that every single policy decision he will be called upon to make will be a new experience for him, one where he is completely untested. Perhaps thereby one can begin to see the nature of the problem. Once again, voting for Trump to spite Clinton seems like an instance of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Again, it seems like a stupid motivation.

In the above discussion I do not know if I may have missed some reasons that people had for supporting Trump, but I have covered a wide range of groups and possible reasons, so I believe that I have been fair in my coverage.  And the reasons for supporting him range from the truly nefarious, to reasons that are at best irresponsible.  None of them, in short, seem like a particularly good or sensible reason.

None of us can say where this choice will bring the US, and the world, in the years to come. The fact that Trump seems to have moderated his stance on some issues, such as disavowing the Alt-Right, his signaling willingness to look a little more closely rather than simply scrapping President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and his making at least one sensible choice in his proposal of the moderate Republican Nikki Haley as UN Ambassador (lamentably though not a cabinet-level appointment), may suggest reasons for cautious optimism that things will not turn out as badly as some of us have feared.  But that is hardly a very positive recommendation: One never wants to enter a new period of history uttering the mantra “this may not be so bad after all”.  

Given Trump’s complete lack of any government experience, not to mention his complete ignorance of many of the things that one needs to know in order to govern in today’s world, the best some of us feel we can hope for is that he will turn out merely to be an incompetent president, rather than a willfully malicious one. Still, as Venezuela's experience has shown in the aftermath of Chávez, an incompetent populist can do a great deal of damage.