The Stubborn 40%: or, What the Fuck is Wrong With the People Who Still Support Donald Trump

This is probably the first presidential election in living memory – and certainly the first election within my lifetime – where there is a clear, unambiguously wrong answer on the ballot. There is enough flexibility in the principles of representative governance and liberal democracy – enough space for interpretation in the values spelled out in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the U.S. Constitution – that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were defensible choices for president. The same is true of Obama and McCain, Kerry and Bush, Bush and Gore, and so on, going back decades. For years, thoughtful voters have consistently been able to punch the ticket for either major party candidate, anchored by a believable defense that their decision was consistent with both a sensible reading of traditional American ideals and a rational interest in peace and international stability.

Not true, in 2016. This year, the American electorate has been presented with the starkest choice imaginable, a decision cast into sharp relief by the fact that one candidate is professionally, temperamentally and intellectually unqualified for the office under contest. Donald Trump represents a threat, not only to the American Experiment, but to the economic and political stability of the entire world. An egomaniacal gasbag and lecherous charlatan, dispositionally insensitive to constructive criticism and new information, Trump has sown distrust in the legitimacy of the very system meant to ensure a peaceful transfer of power, corroding faith in the central mechanism of democratic governance. To boot, he has fueled his campaign on racism, tribalism, xenophobia, and virulent nationalism, all while promising to blatantly disregard the Bill of Rights and the governmental strictures outlined in the larger body of the U.S. Constitution. He has boasted about sexual assault and pedophilia, openly toyed with the idea of using the power of the presidency to persecute his political opponents, and – in a blazing display of contempt for long-standing international relationships, peace, and human life – advocated nuclear proliferation and preemptive nuclear strikes. His ignorance about science, economics, the structure of the U.S. government, the function of executive branch, and international affairs is staggering, dwarfed only by his need to satisfy his own ego at virtually any cost.

There is no case to be made that the values outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the preamble of the U.S. Constitution are laudable aims and useful guideposts for measuring the efficacy and legitimacy of Federal authority and that Donald Trump should be president. The two claims stand in mutual contradiction. Either Constitutional order is desirable or Donald Trump should be president. Either international peace and stability are worthwhile or  Donald Trump should be president. Either all human lives are inherently valuable or Donald Trump should be president. Either active racism, sexism, and xenophobia should be stripped from humanity’s collective consciousness or Donald Trump should be president. There are simply no reasonable arguments behind the proposition that the office of president comes with a mandate to help ensure peace, prosperity, equality, and liberty and that Donald Trump is even a good (never mind the best) choice for said office.

Thanks to Donald Trump, our decision about who to vote for runs far deeper than the issues that normally divide the electorate. It’s not about whether or not climate change is real and caused by human activity. It’s not about whether it makes sense to impose a fundamentalist interpretation of one religious tradition’s definition of marriage on an entire country. It’s not about whether the federal government has grown too large, or what kind of tax system works best. Nor does it have much to do with immigration, deficits, terrorism, or privatization. Sure, all of those issues matter, and all of them will be influenced in some way or another by the outcome of the election. But on a more fundamental level, this election is about who we are as a nation. It’s about whether we’re a country of principled, thoughtful voters, willing to make tough choices to uphold cherished values, or a country of degenerate ideologues, racists, and dupes willing to follow an authoritarian huckster to the edge of chaos – and over. This is the election that will validate or discount the Founding Fathers’ concerns that mob rule could pave the way for despotism.

Yet none of this seems sufficient to convince some 40% of the electorate not to let their blind partisan loyalties and ideological intransigence ride our country off a cliff. Very likely, Donald Trump will lose the election. But the fact that he will lose by anything less than a crushing electoral landslide is deeply troubling. Though Hillary Clinton is an inarguably flawed, deeply problematic candidate, there is no justifiable sense in which her presidency poses a threat to the perpetuation of democratic order. Not so with Trump, whose strongest affinity to world leaders rests among petty, megalomaniacal African despots.

The fact of the matter is, anyone who finds the prospect of a Clinton presidency thoroughly unpalatable need not vote for Hillary Clinton. They can sate their political conscience by voting for Gary Johnson, Evan McMullin or Jill Stein. Barring that, they can display their stalwart defiance against the prevailing political order by writing in a name, voting for a fictional character or their imaginary friend. The existence of third party candidates is hardly a secret, yet a distressingly large swath of the electorate is still considering a vote for the most poisonous candidate since Barry Goldwater. Informed citizens making thoughtful choices are the lifeblood of representative governance. If those criteria obtained in this election season, the Trump campaign would look up to Jill Stein’s polling numbers with envy. Clearly, there’s a cog somewhere in the machine.

The explanation for this is, I think, twofold. First – and most simply – there is the raw fact that some of Trump’s base really do fit into that basket of deplorables. They are racist, sexist, xenophobic nationalists with a paltry understanding of the way the world actually works – if we dare be so permissive as to grant that it even exists. Their feelings of disillusionment, disconnection, and disenfranchisement come from a very real and understandable place: the fact that there is no place for them in the society more intelligent and ethical people are trying to build. Their primitive worldview belongs in the dustbin of history and the rest of us should be doing our best to place it there.

Second, and perhaps more distressingly, there is the wider problem of increasing partisan acrimony and ideological insularity. People on both the left and the right are both unwilling to seriously entertain opposing views and frighteningly eager to disparage contrasting perspectives. This is a problem that exists on both ends of the political spectrum, but in the candidacy of Donald Trump we have what amounts to a natural experiment definitively proving that it has driven the political right completely – and, perhaps, irreparably – off the rails. The conservative media echo chamber has done such a good job of vilifying the political left and spreading a baseless, parasitic white-Christian victimhood narrative that some Americans are willing to fall in step behind an obvious political disaster in order to best their political and ideological opponents. We’ll only know if this is true of the political left when the Democrats nominate someone like Flavor Flav or Kim Kardashian to run against someone like Bobby Jindal or Mike Huckabee – that is, someone abjectly unqualified against someone deeply problematic.

This means that after a few million American heroes do the mature, responsible business of electing Hillary Clinton in order to defeat Donald Trump, there will still be plenty of work to be done. In 1972 George McGovern’s presidential ambitions were obliterated, losing the election with only 37.5% of the popular vote and 17 electoral college votes. McGovern was a reasonable candidate running against an incumbent Richard Nixon (who would be impeached and ultimately resign just two years later). Jimmy Carter lost his second term to Ronald Reagan, winning only six states, despite being a perfectly ethical, intelligent, sane human being. Donald Trump – a puerile, impulsive, pathological liar and conspiracy theorist with virtually no foresight and a repeatedly self-expressed disregard for the rule of law – stands to win something like 40% of the popular vote and at least 35% of the electoral college. This fact alone stands in glaring testament to the fact that our political system is in need of serious repairs.

There’s nothing to be done about the plebeian rabble who actually think Trump makes sense. Anyone who listens to what Trump has to say and actively cheers his candidacy is, for all intents and purposes, a lost cause. Our only hope is that their children and grandchildren turn out slightly less ignorant and intolerant than they are, allowing the slow march of progress to move another few inches forward.

Going forward, there needs to be an urgent program of national soul-searching, the focus of which must be on discovering and eradicating vectors of tribalism and ideological intransigence. We need to find out how we got to a place where people who aren’t racists, xenophobes, or struggling to find their way in a complex world with the cognitive faculties of a sea cucumber are willing to vote for a signally unqualified maniac in order to prevent a flawed – but capable – candidate from winning. They’re willing to trade a potentially bad president for what could very well be our last president. And that, no doubt, is a disturbing symptom of some kind of national lunacy. We’ve had bad presidents before. Hopefully it’ll be a long while before we have our last one.

At root, some of this flows directly from a fallacy at the core of democracy’s central contention: that people can rationally discern what is best for them and will reliably act accordingly. A large and growing body of psychological, anthropological, economic, and political evidence demonstrates that this is simply not the case. Even hyper-intelligent people with rigorous, specialized training in things like game theory and formal logic can be pulled off course by emotional impulses and ideological biases. For a recent field case, look no further than the remarkable success of Trump. It’s tempting to think of his base as entirely comprised of gibbering idiots, but that’s really not the case. A large proportion of the pro-Trump electorate is dangerously ignorant, but there are also very intelligent people seriously considering him as a viable option. The best explanation for this otherwise perplexing phenomenon boils down to deep psychological biases that lend themselves to reactionism and groupishness.

It is these biases that are inflamed and exaggerated by the conservative media echo chamber. Working on extant emotional preferences, outlets like Fox News and right-wing talk radio take people who might be inclined to vote conservative for a variety of thoughtful, principled reasons and turn them into ideological fanatics, possessed of such an unbridled distrust of the political opposition and passionate partisan loyalty that they would rather vote for one of the worst candidates in history than vote for a troubled candidate or third party alternative. The modern media landscape excels at taking the very likely evolved emotional preferences that limit our rationality in everyday decision-making and exploding them into unbridgeable barriers.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to see what can be done about this. All of the most likely solutions seem to fall somewhere between paternalism and authoritarianism. The only recourse that seems in line with our desired aims – mitigating partisan intransigence and ideological fanaticism – and our guiding principles – freedom of speech and expression, for instance – is discourse and persuasion. Sadly, this seems the method that has proven least effective on the modern political landscape. Whatever progress it yields will be glacial. But personally, I think it’s worth a try.

Which sets an agenda going forward. Those of us who recognize the existential threat Donald Trump poses to our political system and are willing to act accordingly should make efforts to convince redeemable Trump supporters (i.e. those outside of the basket of deplorables) to see the light. That doesn’t mean convincing them to adopt a liberal worldview – I don’t see how that’s possible or even, necessarily, desirable. Rather, it means encouraging them to divorce themselves from the information vectors that are poisoning their thinking – turning off Fox News and conservative talk radio, avoiding sites like Breitbart and the Drudge Report, and leaving books written by right-wing pundits on the shelves. In the spirit of detente, we might propose a trade, turning our attention from blatantly liberal news sources. This is not because they are in anyway equivalent to Sean Hannity or Alex Jones or Rush Limbaugh, but because we can all (regardless of political inclination) afford to spend less time watching or reading material that only serves to confirm or reinforce our existing worldview.

If this is a route to progress, it’ll be both tedious and frustrating. But simply convincing friends and family to avoid sources that seed dangerous and demonstrably false narratives into the national consciousness could go a long way toward moving the United States toward a place where productive discourse and bipartisan compromise are once again feasible. Importantly, it might get us to a place where a candidate like Donald Trump will be drummed out of the primaries well before we get to a place where the fabric of democracy looks precipitously close to unraveling.

So who am I voting for? I’ll tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?

And, because it is both funny and considerably more intelligent than anything Trump has actually said, enjoy:

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