Writer's note: I wrote a follow-up to this piece explaining some things I would change about it. You can read it here.
Many Americans had been hoping for an overwhelming Biden landslide win in this election. Not just the clear majority victory that it turned out to be, but a full-on tsunami that would thoroughly wash away the stain of Trumpism from America forever.
That didn't happen. And we really shouldn't be surprised by that.
As in 2016, there's a push in the social discourse to try to understand why 71 million Americans thought Donald Trump was a better choice than Joe BIden. (Cue the thousandth media interview with a rural, small-town American.) But Trumpism isn't that hard to understand. It's multi-faceted and multi-layered, but it's not complicated. In fact, simplicity is one of its key features, which I'll explain in a minute.
I am going to speak frankly and somewhat forcefully about my fellow Americans here, but first I want to be clear about my perspective. I am a political independent who would best be described as "leaning left," though I hate those kinds of labels. I have always voted for both Democrats and Republicans, including on my own state's ballot in this election. The only real passion I have for politics is my disgust with our two-party system, so don't take my words here as toeing some partisan or ideological line.
I also believe there is a distinct disconnect between why Trump supporters think they support him and why they actually do. I've spent four years listening to their reasoning. I've tried to make it make sense. And though entire books can and will be written about this, I've landed on what I see driving Trumpism the most.
Though partisanship certainly plays a role in his number of supporters, the support for Donald Trump isn't about political parties. Yes, there are people who will vote Republican even if they have to hold their nose or sell their soul to do so (same with some Democrats, I would assume). For some people, elections are all about one issue—usually abortion or taxes—so they vote Republican, but Trump hardly represents the traditional party identity.
I mean, let's be real here. Anyone who thinks a serial-adultering, porn star banging, pussy grabbing, charity stealing, student defrauding, non-church-going, faith-mocking, unrepenting man like Trump is a reflection of true conservative values is as delusional as he is. And anyone who thinks that a military-bashing, deficit-building, debt-ballooning grifter is a true Republican is fooling themselves. There's a reason why many lifelong Republicans rejected Trump from the beginning.
Despite appearances, Trumpism isn't about Republicans vs. Democrats. Political parties are merely weapons Trump wields in his battle for personal glory. After all, this is a man who changed his political party four times in less than three decades. He's not now and has never been about party.
No, Trump is about Trump. It's what he's always been about and will always be about. He is a textbook malignant narcissist, always and forever obsessed with what will serve his personal need for power, glory, and adulation.
The question then is, how did Trump get 70+ million voters to believe he's all about America or all about them? He did it the same way every demagogue with authoritarian tendencies throughout history has done it—by keeping the message painfully simple, appealing to people's basest human instincts, lying egregiously and relentlessly, and undermining people's faith in the real-world journalism and fact-checking that keep them from being sucked into his unreality.
Let's start with the messaging. Trump's gist is this: "The government is broken. I'm an outsider, but clearly a powerful one because I have money and fame. I alone can fix what's wrong. The problems are simple and are caused by [insert 'other' group—undocumented immigrants, Muslims, Democrats, long-time public servants, etc.] and the solutions are simple too [build the wall, ban them from the country, vote for me—I'll drain the swamp]. Yay, America!"
No matter how ridiculous that all sounds to many of us, there's a significant portion of the country who relish in such simplicity. We don't want to have to think about complicated problems or work through unclear solutions. Making things black and white, removing all the gray area and nuance and complexity from the issues, feels refreshing to a lot of people. It doesn't matter if it's based on falsehoods instead of facts. Keeping problems simple and making it seem like solutions are cut and dry makes people feel safe.
The problem is, in order to reach that simple, safe world, you have to appeal to people's prejudices and fears. People of every persuasion are easy prey for fear-mongering. Prejudices are common, fear is an easy instinct to manipulate, and Trump is shameless about combining the two. Scary caravans of immigrants. Scary Muslims coming in from scary Muslim countries. Scary gang members moving in next door. Scary poor people coming to live in your suburban neighborhood. Scary rioters. Scary ANTIFA.
I know there's some debate about exactly how racist Trump is, but we don't even have to quantify that. It's very clear that he utilizes and allows for racism when it suits his needs. Same with xenophobia. Same with partisan tribalism. Again, Trump is all about Trump. And pushing people's prejudice buttons, indicating when they should feel fear or enmity and then convincing them he'll keep them safe with his simple solution is a strategy that works.
One of the weirdest things for those of us outside of Trumpland, of course, is that it doesn't matter whether anything he says is true at all. His followers don't seem to care that he lies constantly and egregiously. I've heard some try to brush it off as "Oh, all politicians lie," but no, all politicians don't lie like Trump. Trump doesn't just stretch the truth or mislead by creative wording or omission like most politicians. Trump does the Big Lie thing, where if you say untrue things enough times and with enough conviction, people will believe you, even when what you say is verifiably false.
This part of Trumpism gets tricky, because in order for it to work, you have to also successfully discredit the people who hold politicians accountable and fact check them. Hence the outright dismissal of mainstream media. Hence the constant "Fake News!" drumbeat. Hence today's Twitter rampage against Fox News for actually reporting facts instead of constantly praising him. Hence the proliferation of right-wing news outlets that keep going further and further into conspiracy theory land.
Misinformation is Trump's engine and praise and flattery are Trump's fuel. The more he gets, the more he pushes the simple messaging and fear-mongering that give people the brain chemical releases they crave. (If you think people don't like having their fears triggered, there's an entire horror movie industry that disagrees with you.) And the more he gives people what they want, the more they give him what he wants—big crowds and rabid fandom and heaps and heaps of adulation. And so the cycle goes on, with Trump seeing himself in the thousands of faces in the crowd, which serve as narcissistic mirrors in which he sees his power and glory.
Which he then turns around and claims is all for them. And they believe him because at this point, his reality is their reality and real reality doesn't exist anymore.
Of course, not everyone has full-on fallen into the Trump cult. We can't discount the role that good old-fashioned self-interest plays in some people's decision. There are a whole lot of people who simply don't want to pay taxes, don't care who Trump's policies hurt, and think destroying the dignity of the office of the presidency is a small price to pay for filling their own pocketbook. There are also those who will put up with anything if they think it'll "own the libs."
So yeah. Trump's support is not hard to understand. Between playing on people's loyalties, prejudices and fears, and manipulating people with misinformation, Trump's demagoguery works the way it has always worked in other cultured countries throughout history. Americans are not immune to the psychological pull of a "Dear Leader" type—we're just incredibly lucky that this particular demagogue also happens to be an incompetent fool.
I know that Trump supporters will fall all over themselves trying to claim that I've gotten them all wrong here, but here's what they'll miss. If they genuinely believe that a known conman who has embarrassed the country on the world stage and whose pandemic oversight has caused countless American deaths is a truly a better choice than a man with more than four decades in government and who is personally well-liked on both sides of the aisle, then whatever they believe about either Biden or the Democrats is almost assuredly based on misinformation pushed in Trump's unreality.
At this point, you can't support Trump and be living in the same objective reality as the rest of humanity. You really can't. And if you are living in objective reality and chose him anyway? Sorry, but you've got some soul-searching to do.
There's nothing more to be understood at this point.
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