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It’s Simplistic to Assume Trump’s Devoted Voters are Irrational.

The narrative surrounding Donald Trump's supporters often characterizes them as ignorant and unquestioningly loyal. However, their support stems from a deep distrust in the American political system and a desire for change. Trump's appeal lies in his portrayal as an outsider willing to challenge the status quo, reflecting a rational response to a dysfunctional political landscape.

Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump appears during a rally Oct. 10, 2016, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. © Matt Smith Photographer /

February 15, 2024 03:08 EDT

The mainstream narrative about Donald Trump’s supporters, otherwise known as the MAGA nation, is that they are generally ignorant, racist, reactionary, utterly blind to Donald Trump’s faults and possibly unable to make decisions in their self-interest.

These perceptions arise from a fundamental misunderstanding about why Trump’s base supports him. People wonder: Why does this group continue to passionately support a man facing 91 criminal charges in four felony cases? Why would someone back a candidate the constitution could potentially disqualify from the ballot due to an insurrection clause? Why rally behind someone who openly flirts with totalitarianism and jokes about imposing a dictatorship on day one of his administration?

We may be approaching these questions from the wrong angle.

This point of view assumes that Trump supporters are making an irrational choice because, to some, it seems illogical to support a flawed candidate like Trump.

What if we instead reframe this question slightly? What if we assumed that Trump supporters are rational actors making a sensible choice that conforms with their point of view? What can we see and understand about the 2024 election that eludes and confuses mainstream commentators?

Let’s start with this:

We are watching the disintegration of the American political system happen in real-time. The governor of Texas is openly challenging federal authority. President Joe Biden and the Democratic party are employing judicial warfare, or “lawfare,” to block both Donald Trump and Democratic primary challengers from electoral ballots. A decades-long strategy to pack American courts with hard right, pro-business judges is paying dividends all the way to the Supreme Court, which is actively searching for more cases to upend the status quo. And let’s not forget that an angry mob ransacked the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

People are discarding long-held norms. The glue that once held together what was already a rickety Rube Goldberg-like contraption of a nation-state has dried out. Our system is falling apart.

Americans’ trust in government institutions

Trust in government is disintegrating. Recent polling numbers by the Pew Research Center have cratered to all-time lows. At this point, fewer than 2 out of 10 Americans are likely to say they trust our political class to do what’s right, the lowest measure seen in more than 70 years of polling. People were less cynical about our government even in the years after Watergate than they are now.

There is also a broad loss of faith in American institutions. Only one in four Americans has confidence in the Supreme Court. Trust in public health officials, businesses and even religious leaders has declined. Pollsters registered surprise in 2022 when, for the first time, more Americans (38%) said they had “no trust at all” in the media than the group that said they had a great deal or even a “fair amount” of trust in our fourth estate (34%).

At the risk of being dismissed for engaging in “both sides-ism,” I will say that both major parties have played their roles in getting us here. Both are the handmaidens of business. No one is fooled just because one party is out and proud about this and one pretends otherwise. Both parties have played a role in hollowing out the American economy. They have welcomed deindustrialization in favor of financialization, choosing Wall Street profits under the misguided assumption that helping businesses helps everyone.

Many Americans have concluded that the fix is in. It’s understandable why Americans are losing faith in a system that barely even tries to maintain the pretense that government should represent the public interest over private profit.

Here is the context in which the 2024 presidential election is happening: On one side Team Status Quo. Biden speaks to those who somehow believe things are functioning basically as they should despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Biden asks the electorate to keep its blinders on and pretend that the American system can keep staggering along this way for another four years or more.

On the other side is Team Wrecking Ball. (There is no third side because there can only ever be two sides in a system that employs winner-take-all elections and actively takes steps to outlaw alternatives like ranked choice voting or proportional representation, which would give us fewer hopeless options than just the Democrats or Republicans.) 

Donald Trump has long “joked” about his desire to become president for life. To use just one example: When discussing Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump said in 2018, “He’s now president for life. President for life. No, he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.”

Trump’s response to an anxious Sean Hannity about any incipient dictatorship prompted not a denial but more “jokes.” In Trump’s retelling of the incident, “He says, ‘You’re not going to be a dictator, are you?’ I said: ‘No, no, no, other than day one. We’re closing the border, and we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator.’” How reassuring.

According to The Washington Post, there is even talk that Trump might invoke the Insurrection Act as soon as he takes office, allowing him to deploy the US military against American protestors, part of a larger scheme to punish or silence his political opponents.

Donald Trump is the candidate for those who want to blow this system right up. His answer to our dysfunctional government is to entrust it to him. And Trump’s supporters are buying it. The American system limits the public’s means of political expression severely. We have but two options. When a dissatisfied population has the choice between keeping our broken, unrepresentative system and the option to self-destruct, some have decided it is time to mash that self-destruct button as hard as possible.

In the American two-party system, there are just two seats at the table and money occupies both. Americans don’t trust our institutions, and they don’t trust one another. What might one expect to happen when there are only two options and neither will consider the needs of the mass population? Some will conclude that the answer is to blow this system up and roll the dice on whatever replaces it.

Trump’s Art of the Deal

There is nothing inherent about Trump that makes the Republican base blindly follow him. If we take a brief trip down the memory hole, we can see that Trump was not always so beloved by Republicans. In May 2015, before the formal announcement of his candidacy, an ABC/The Washington Post poll showed only 16% of Republicans had a favorable view of Trump, while 65% saw him unfavorably. By his coronation at the Republican convention in 2016, the trend had been reversed, with 65% of Republicans seeing him favorably. After Trump became president, his favorability ratings shot past 80% amongst Republicans.

Trump has long positioned himself as a conduit for the frustrations of his supporters. He is the one, he tells them, who gives voice to the voiceless. This is not a new strategy. It’s possible to draw a direct line from Trump’s pitch back to Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority rhetoric. Trump says that he is called to serve. He tells us that he doesn’t need politics, politics needs him.  Ultimately, it’s a very traditional sales pitch.

The January 6 Capitol riot did little to dent his support. If anything, the full-scale attack by the establishment that followed has made Trump seem more authentic to his base. As former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker told the Associated Press, “One of the key things that President Trump has done well on is kind of position this as, ‘They’re going after me because I dared to take on the machine, I dared to take on the swamp, I dared to take on the establishment.’” 

Some Trump supporters take this idea further. One supporter told MSNBC, “When Jesus died, he died for us… so when Trump is facing all these things, he’s doing it for us in our place.”

Trump has successfully judo-flipped the perception of his legal onslaught into a net positive with supporters. MSNBC statistician Steve Kornacki showed how the first indictments against Trump turned a potentially competitive GOP primary into a Trump blowout. He said, “It almost seems to have triggered a rally around Trump effect among Republicans.”

The fact that there is a clear partisan divide on whether the US government is trustworthy should not come as a huge surprise. Historically, this trend line has swapped back and forth. Whenever “your guy” is in power, the home team tends to say they trust the government more. As expected, those who identify as “liberal” or Democratic have much higher levels of trust, according to the Pew Research Center (23%, still not great). But now, only 4% of those who identify as conservative Republicans say they trust the government to do the right thing. Clearly, in their view, the legal attacks on Trump are illegitimate. 

The Dysfunctional Two-party System

Trump supporters are most disenchanted with American politics and stand ready to push the TNT plunger down to blow things up. It’s silly to pretend that support for Trump does not include a faction of people who have had it and want to hit the reset button. They see an opportunity to begin dismantling the current system. They hope that doing so will benefit them because Trump tells them he is the avatar of their will. Like it or not, this represents a rational response to a dysfunctional political system that severely restricts political expression.

But just because it is a rational response does not make the immolation of the American system desirable or guarantee any improvement for the mass population, least of all for Trump’s base. Should a Trump dictatorship emerge, it would doubtlessly be a nightmare. His propensity for deal-making would almost certainly mean good things for corporate power and bad things for anyone drawing a paycheck. (Please see Trump’s 2017 tax cut for the rich if you doubt this.) Authoritarian regimes all tend to go that way. Even Trump’s most devoted supporters would probably miss freedom of expression and the ability to disagree with government policies.

It is easier to destroy than it is to build. The Republican Party has spent most of the modern era since Reagan trying to dismantle the existing system in favor of one that is more pro-business. Trump supporters are ready to finish the job. And waiting in the wings is the fanatically right-wing Heritage Foundation, prepared with a step-by-step instruction manual on how to crown the next Republican president a dictator perpetuus.

I am reminded of a passage from Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas? (An excellent example  for understanding how the GOP has stoked and leveraged the anger of the American population for decades in service of its core business agenda.) Frank writes:

The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistibly against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privilege. They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawood toffs. They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills, hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. “We are here,” they scream, “to cut your taxes.”

— Frank, Thomas. What’s the Matter with Kansas? Picador, NY. 2004 p. 109

The prospect of a Trump reset does not offer anything hopeful. His supporters might get their wish. But whatever will happen should Trump manage to obliterate the American system is nightmarishly unpredictable.

Trump supporters aren’t wrong for being angry and frustrated. They aren’t wrong for wanting something better. They aren’t wrong for feeling powerless, at the end of their rope. Plenty of conservatives’ sworn enemies feel the same way. It might not seem like it, but there is enormous potential for finding common ground.

What’s needed is empowerment. What’s needed is hope. What’s needed is a vision of the future that prioritizes the public interest over money power. Neither major party is offering that. 

Sadly, it is not irrational to vote for Team Wrecking Ball.

[Liam Roman edited this article]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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