Disaffected, Angry and Fearful
Since Donald J. Trump became a serious contender for the GOP nomination there have been many writers and a few academic studies that have sought to profile those who follow and support him. We know a whole lot about what they don’t have in common: they aren’t all Republican, nor churched, nor old, nor male, nor poor. They are likely to be white or latino, working class, and socially conservative. They tend to be from authoritarian families. Their assessments are binary: winner/loser, truth/lie, good/bad, friend/foe. (I’ve listed reference links for these demographics at the end of this essay.)
A viral email dating to 2012, right after President Obama was re-elected, contains angry sentiments that we’ve heard echoed by Trump and the people who support him. Various versions exist reflecting embellishments added as it was forwarded from person to person. Though it has been falsely attributed to a US Marine Corps Vet, or to Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, the actual source is unknown.
The American Dream Ended … (Snopes.com version)
“The American Dream ended last night in Ohio.
The second term of Barack Obama will be the final nail in the coffin for the legacy of the white Christian males who discovered, explored, pioneered, settled and developed the greatest Republic in the history of mankind.
A coalition of Blacks, Latinos, feminists, gays, government workers, union members, environmental extremists, the media, Hollywood, uninformed young people, the forever needy, the chronically unemployed, illegal aliens, and other fellow travelers has ended Norman Rockwell’s America.
The US Constitution has been replaced with Saul Alinsky’s ‘Rules for Radicals’ and Chicago shyster David Axelrod, along with international socialist George Soros, will be pulling the strings on their black puppet to bring us into the New World Order.
The Republicans ran two candidates who couldn’t even win their own home states, while circus clown Chris Christie helped Obama over the top with a glowing ‘post-Sandy’ tribute that elevated the phony ‘Commander-in Chief’ to Mother Teresa status.
People like me are now completely politically irrelevant; I will never again comment on or concern myself with the aforementioned Republican coalition, which has surrendered our culture, our heritage and our traditions without a shot being fired.
You will never again outvote the people who gave Obama four more years. It will take individual acts of defiance and massive displays of civil disobedience to get back the rights we have allowed them to take away. It will take zealots, not moderates; zealots who will never ‘reach across the aisle’ to RINOs, to right this ship and restore our beloved Country to it’s former status.
Those who come after us will have to risk ‘their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor’ to bring back the Republic that this generation has timidly frittered away due to white guilt and political correctness.
My wife and I will now put our anti-ACLU Nativity Scene on display, and start wishing everyone a “Merry Christmas”. And enjoy the rest of our lives in our 50’s-throwback Village of (Redacted) Lakes, here in (Redacted) Harbor.
Atlas has Shrugged, and John Galt has left the building.”
Knowing that I collect and study them, a conservative friend receives many such viral messages and forwards the most provocative ones. In March of 2016, three-plus years after it was originally posted, it was still in circulation In this instance my friend noted that it expressed the feelings of many people he knows. The broad scope of the response to Trump suggests that he is right about that. Many of Trump’s applause lines evoke the emotions expressed in this piece.
Viral emails get forwarded exactly because they express a feeling that the sender likes and wants to share widely. Although the original writer remains anonymous, the forwarder is known to his correspondents. When this happens countless times over a several year period it demonstrates that lots of people endorsed the sentiments. It doesn’t seem to matter that the content isn’t logical, and doesn’t pass the sniff test for factual basis.
My knee-jerk reaction when I first read American Dream Ended was to characterize the writer as a defeated white supremacist bigot. It’s easy to make that casual assessment, but not likely to contribute anything to solving the social problem. Since beliefs are primarily influenced by social environment and not by facts, it’s foolish to ignore and marginalize those who hold what we deem to be such ignoble sentiments.
On reflection, I realize that I have friends who don’t speak of such feelings in polite company, but actually harbor them in secret and feel frustrated, angry and ashamed. It’s understandable that they might look back wistfully and see the less enlightened 50’s as a time when they could be themselves. As it is they must watch their words.
Trump’s public appearances attract like-minded people. Trump doesn’t shame them for politically incorrect sentiments or behavior, and in words and actions he evokes the emotions encourages followers to let loose. Polite society is shocked and scornful but Trumpists, having found their tribe, simply don’t care. Indeed, the more criticism Trump draws, the more loyal and fired-up they become.
Like The Rest of Us, Only More So?
To some degree most of us share deep dissatisfaction with the present political climate and the legislative stagnation and gridlock that seems to grow ever worse. Few of us have escaped the economic consequences of the 2007 Great Recession. Though we disagree on the causes and remedies, all of us recognize the social problems of poverty and diminishing economic mobility. Trumpists are much like the rest of us except that in venting the pent-up rage, they blame all the wrong people, and look for a ruthless strong leader to fix it, make it great again.
Norman Rockwell’s America, wasn’t as idyllic as some people remember it. With few exceptions his paintings remind us of what we aspire to, America at its best, not the unsentimental reality of the street. Most of the “rights” Trumpists feel they have lost, weren’t ever rights, and Trump can’t deliver on his implied promise to Make America Great Again for his followers because that perfected America never existed – at least not for the 99 percent.
Anger at Being Left Out
It’s not patriotic or socially acceptable to be angry at America. Yet for many shirt-sleeve workers the American system hasn’t been working for a long time, and they have lived with smoldering rage they couldn’t express openly. Conservative writer David Brooks described them as: “ … a coalition of the dispossessed. They have suffered lost jobs, lost wages, lost dreams. The American system is not working for them, so naturally they are looking for something else.” And there’s another kind of alienation that’s more social in nature, the mainstream of society disrespects and shames them for their “ignorance.”
To muster our empathy, let’s imagine walking in their shoes. How frightening it must be to jobless with no prospects. How shameful it feels to fail in supporting your family even though you desperately want to work. How humiliating to have no marketable skills. How depressing to have permanently lost your retirement nest-egg or your home in a market downturn that others have mostly recovered from.
If you’re self-employed, how frustrating to experience your independent small business burdened by fees and taxes when it’s hard to even meet payroll. How enraging to be fettered and delayed by unhurried civil servants secure in their recession-proof jobs.
Although the discontent has been rising for decades, established leadership is reactive rather than creative. For the prosperous, the good life is secure and it’s instinctive to stifle change that could be disruptive.
The establishment is inherently risk-averse and defensive. Neither posture supports visionary thinking. They fail to see the threats and opportunities coming until it is far too late to adapt. We see the pattern play out daily in the Opinion section of the Wall Street Journal. When you are happy with the way things are, it’s hard to embrace change or to recognize any need for it. Enter Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Case in Point: The GOP Establishment
The GOP successfully built their base from a coalition of evangelicals and several flavors of populists. But in most policy matters the establishment “business suits” were acting contrary to the interests of the “shirt-sleeves” that made up 70% of that base. Now, thanks to Trump, it’s coming unglued and the shirt-sleeve Republicans (and Democrats) are awakening to how the suits have been ignoring them. Bernie Sanders addresses the ignored needs, while Trump blatantly exploits the fears and emotions that the GOP panders to with more nuance.
One of the consistent failings of the GOP has been the failure to see big challenges coming. That is the essential nature of establishment conservatism. “Don’t fix what works,” might well be the slogan of the GOP establishment. GOP ideals (Free markets, small government, low taxes, deregulation, and a disbelief in central social planning) all come from the instinct that nobody is smart enough and pure enough of character to engineer a better future. Centrally controlled economies fail. There are no historical successes. Conservatives prefer to allow events to run their course unfettered except by the invisible hand of Darwinian efficiency. The industrious will prosper, the lazy and incompetent will suffer the deserved consequences, and society will be the stronger in the end. It’s a hands-off no safety net philosophy that is fiercely individualistic and reactive. Big forward-looking ideas, at least for organizing American society, are not sought or valued.
Laissez-faire economic philosophy looks impartial and reasonable for those whose fortunes have prospered – the top of the food chain. But unfortunately not everyone, and certainly not a solid majority of the people, feel that they have prospered economically or otherwise. Fearing the popular appeal of the big idea politics of the left the GOP has reacted by opportunistically crafting positions that attract groups of single-issue voters: evangelicals, gun enthusiasts, right-to-lifers, and militarists. This last includes people whose livelihoods depend on maintaining and equipping our large military. Loyalty to the GOP is rooted in an emotional appeal to an instinctive fear or personal belief. It’s reactive, not visionary.
This aggregation of individual issues is not a natural union of like minds it’s a circling of wagons for collective strength. The GOP establishment doesn’t have the votes to prevail on its own. “My enemy’s enemy is my friend,” seems to be the unifying glue. For years the leaders piloted the GOP on a course that protected the interests of the fortunate and successful, shielding wealth. They used rigid party discipline and policy to uphold the collage of single interest postures that bound the other two-thirds of the base together.
To divert the attention of the base from their lack of participation in the growth of personal wealth, they systematically spread disinformation such as “trickle-down” supply side economics and the notion that lower taxes on the wealthy result in more jobs. Despite unprecedented reserves of cash in blue-chip industry, the consumer demand that actually drives commerce and jobs has been slow to recover. Reduced taxes on the wealthy enacted during the Bush years failed to bring offsetting economic growth and while the rich got richer, the nation got deeper in debt.
Rana Foroohar writing for Time (4/4/16 issue) describes how little of that protected wealth actually is engaged in producing anything real:
“Experts including Adair Turner, the former
head of financial regulation in the UK, estimate
that only about 15% of all capital flows within
America’s financial system end up making their
way into the real economy. The rest of that money
just rotates around the high-finance microcosm,
enriching the 1% as they buy and sell existing assets
to one another, bidding up their value, while
failing to invest in research, products, jobs or innovation.
C-suite executives, likewise, contribute
to the sort of “quarterly capitalism” by seeking
out Ding Doodle—style deals rather than making
long-term investments. That has begun to worryy
even some of finance’s most accomplished players.
(Warren Buffett, Larry Fink and Jamie Dimon recently
met in secret to discuss how to fix corporate
The GOP also opportunistically gamed the system to acquire more power. The tactics include: gerrymandering of congressional districts to ensure election of GOP legislators; conservative stacking of the Federal and Supreme Court benches; killing public funding for National Public Radio; building the Fox News Propaganda machine; promotion of discriminatory voter ID laws; weakening the labor unions; and eviscerating campaign finance laws. The wealthiest GOP supporters created PACs and Super PACs to fund political advertising and elect GOP candidates. Though politically effective, these measures did nothing to help the plight of increasing numbers of less successful wage-earning individuals in their base. They became Romney’s infamous 47%.
Until Trump rallied what I’m calling the silent minority, the GOP held them spellbound with bright shiny objects like flag-pin patriotism and propaganda that said big government was the problem. The GOP raised fearful specters like socialism, health care death panels, and they vastly over-hyped the threat of weapons of mass destruction and lately the menace of terrorism and of ISIS.
The political establishment of both parties largely ignored long-time and emerging issues that have seriously hurt the silent minority. Among these are the disruption of American manufacturing by international trade agreements, the insolvency of many pension programs, the short and long-term effects of the Great Recession on the middle class, wage stagnation for four decades at least, and the chronic neglect of US infrastructure.
Looming in the future as threats are: global climate change, global scarcity of essential resources like clean water, air, and even food, loss of unskilled work to robotics and automation, and conflict arising from religious extremism. To add insult to injury, Social Security and Medicare may be unsustainable if not reinvented. Bernie Sanders preaches a vision of a better deal, and Donald Trump plays to the fear and anger. The establishment didn’t see them coming.
“Us” versus “Them” Mentality
Many of those who write or read about Trumpists are looking for affirmation that they are somehow morally flawed and different than the rest of us. We want to believe that Trump followers are an anomaly – not regular people. Media reporters have jumped on photos of a campaign worker with tattoos allegedly identifying her as a white supremacist. But the data does not support such broad stereotyping of Trumpists. There is vastly more to be learned by searching for our similarities.
Fr. Richard Rohr, OHM addressed this in one of his recent meditations:
“Our lack of human compassion is rather starkly revealed in most of the candidates we consider worthy of public office in the United States. I am not sure if this is as much a judgment on the politicians’ delusions as it is on the spiritual and human maturity of the American electorate itself. That so many who call themselves evangelical (“Gospel”) cannot see through this charade, has become an embarrassment for American Christianity. Many now see our cultural Christianity really has very little to do with Jesus. Any candidate is praised and deemed worthy of high office because we think, “He speaks his mind” (when it is actually our prejudices that he is speaking aloud). Two thousand years of Jesus’ teaching on compassion, love, forgiveness, and mercy (not to mention basic kindness and respect) are all but forgotten in a narcissistic rage. Western culture has become all about the self, and that is just way too small an agenda. The very self that Jesus said “must die” is now just about all that we think about!”
Our enemy is not “out there” somewhere, it is us. It is American Individualism run amok. We operate on the assumption that opportunity is so abundant that anyone anywhere in this country can make his or her way if they only try. When the facts contradict, we seek out or invent a distinction that defines “us” as different and better than “them.”
You can’t have a serious conversation about our times without hearing assessments like these.
A retired professional planner from Staten Island (direct quote):
RW: I’ve much to say re politics, but let’s leave it at this: Cruz is more dangerous than Trump, who just wings it. Republicans are no longer conservatives; they are right-wing reactionaries. Real conservatives are respectable establishmentarians, wary of change unless tested and proved, respectful of precedent, hesitant to engage in foreign interventions, advocates of free enterprise, not monopolies and corporate welfare, and skeptical of government social engineering attempts. They are not interventionist, pro-Israel neo-cons, supply-side, trickle-down economists with no regard for consequences, nor advocates of government prohibitions on abortion or government restrictions on voting rights. They are for individual rights, not against them. Nor are they racists. Todays Republicans are; they should not be called conservatives. (And Democrats are wimps.)”
Truck driver retired from the USAF (paraphrase of a longer conversation):
MS: “I usually vote republican. At first I liked Trump, but lately with the stuff he’s been doing, not so much. I just don’t like Cruz and I don’t think he’d get much cooperation from congress. Hilary’s the best qualified, but I don’t trust her. And Bernie Sanders is a socialist.” [MS says he doesn’t know who he’ll vote for.]
Jeff Sharlet writing in the New York Times Magazine (4/12/16)
After the Youngstown [Trump] rally, I drove to the only bar I could find still serving food and found myself sitting across from a group of three supporters. Mike was a union electrician, Shawn a dispatcher and Jackie a nurse. “Definitely a racist,” Shawn said of Trump. That did not appeal. But who would receive his vote? “Definitely Trump.” Mike was a probably; Jackie wouldn’t say, but she seemed to be sliding toward Trump. Only the bartender, Shane, was holding firm for the Democratic Party. He couldn’t believe his friends. “Trump’s not just a racist, he’s a [expletive] psychotic racist!”
“So are half the people who walk into this [expletive] bar!” Shawn shouted back. He did not want to be racist. He did not want Trump to be racist. What he wanted, he said, was a better job, the kind of job Youngstown used to be known for.
That was what Mike wanted too. We drank another round of fireballs. Mike’s probably-Trump began inching toward certainty. Another round. Then he suddenly roused himself, rising up from the bar. “I don’t care if you’re racist!” he shouted at a room by then nearly empty but for us. “If you’ll just bring back one [expletive] steel mill!”
Shawn nodded, seriously. We drank to the dream, the steel mill they knew was not coming. It felt good, at least, to believe.
Interviews with Trump supporters reveal a common theme: they like Trump because he’s a brash outsider – and he’s really shaking up the insiders.
Lots of people cheer Trump exactly because he blurts out what’s on his mind, or seems to. He’s obviously not scripted and handled by a team of spin professionals. He’s not part of the business-as-usual Washington establishment. He’s generated billions of dollars’ worth of earned [free] media by being unrestrained – not unlike the shock-jocks of radio. You could paper a wall with the magazine covers and political cartoons that feature him. He entertains and energizes followers by appealing to emotions instead of presenting rational ideas.
Trumps critics explain his appeal as a mainline zap to the “lizard brain” – that part of the brain that’s most primitive and wired for instinctive survival. It’s the domain of fear, hate and mob behavior. For people who feel anxious and threatened, irrational arguments, obviously unsupportable or untrue claims don’t matter. What does matter is the resonance with something instinctive deep and dark in the listener. It’s a gut level thing – bold, assertive, impudent, aggressive, powerful and confident. “Make America Great Again” translates make me feel secure and good about myself again.
At this primitive level feelings reign; and facts, logic, and sensible thought fail. Condemn this as “ignorant” at your own peril, because we all, as humans, have areas where we function on emotion and ignore (or don’t seek) the facts. It is how we are wired. Much of becoming an adult is training ourselves to temper our lizard brain instincts.
By way of example, consider the enormous attention we focus on acts of terror. The rational mind knows that our individual personal odds of falling prey to a terror event are vastly lower than suffering a home or automobile accident. Yet as a nation we spend billions on anti-terror measures and still don’t feel entirely safe. We certainly don’t dread automobile travel, or the flu season that way. The most important personal life-choices we make (who we love, what we eat, what we do for fun) seldom involve much rational thought. We actually function on an emotional level most of the time – all of us. We regard those who appear to be entirely rational as cold and alien, like Spock of Star Trek. Donald Trump knows this. But does Hillary?
Compassion not Confrontation
Most of the press and the GOP establishment wrings their hands over how to stop Trump, as if he alone and personally were the problem. In my view he’s just the latest opportunist exploiting the emotions of those we now term Trumpists. His “leadership” is more a cult of personality than a political movement. I call his followers the silent minority because they feel alienated, disrespected and repressed in a society that shames people like them. If you accept that “they” are like us only more so, then confronting them as outsiders can’t work – it only alienates them further and fuels their anger.
George Lakey, a Quaker activist, teacher, and writer asserts that practicing compassion and nonviolence is the only strategy that stands any chance of success. In his March 18, 2016 Essay How Empathy, Not Protest, can Defeat Trump and Right-wing Extremism he says,
“Donald Trump’s March 13 rally in Boca Raton, Florida, was revealing. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank left the press corps and inserted himself into the core of the giant crowd. In that rally protesters had been screened out. Trump brought forth his usual inflammatory rhetoric, saying he might pay the legal fees of someone who sucker-punched a protester. Milbank reports, however, that the rally remained fairly tame. When Trump eventually asked, “Do we have a protester anywhere?” no one responded. Where was the drama? Milbank noted, “Trump and his advisers seem to delight in the confrontations, which fuel the crowd’s energy.”
Lakey goes on to demonstrate that angry confrontation won’t be effective. Trump crowds feed off the energy of conflict. Lakey’s low-drama strategy is not intuitive but it makes great practical sense. I recommend visiting the website, reading the essay, and also reading the reader comments and Lakey’s very illuminating responses. For real-world tactics, Lakey suggests a Swarthmore source that documents 198 nonviolent actions and reports on their use and historical effectiveness. He promises to write more in future posts and suggest a strategy.
They Aren’t Going Away
The members of the Trumpist Silent Minority live among us and they aren’t really that different from us. Actually my late father harbored some of those bigoted sentiments while being outwardly politically correct. I recognize them in his stories about war experiences, and his patronizing attitude toward certain minorities, and his simplistic framing of complex social issues. Some of my fellow firefighters were like the writer of that viral American Dream email. They may be closet bigots, but they are also men who are bold and selfless when faced with danger. In other words the anxieties and feelings that draw a person to the Trump personality are not as aberrant or weird as some media would suggest.
We are all part of the American whole, and America is part of the community of humanity. We can’t build walls or hoard resources to defend ourselves from the social problems of sharing this little planet. Like it or not, we are all in it together for the duration.
Media Opinion and Analysis Considered for this Essay:
“Not Even My Wife Knows …” Secret Trump Supporters