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Trumpism and the Politics of Distrust

Trump is a lousy populist, but he retains what popular support he has because so many Americans distrust those most alarmed by Trump's behavior

Damon Linker’s latest column for The Week is a lament for Trump’s absurdly high approval rating:

President Trump’s approval rating has sunk to historic lows. No president has hit an average of 38 percent this early in his first term. Those of us who are prone to despair at the disaster of the Trump administration are told to take solace in this fact.

This is dead wrong — a product of analysts insisting on judging the 45th president by the same standards that applied to previous occupants of the White House when no such comparison is warranted.

The politically relevant, and profoundly disturbing, fact is precisely the opposite of the conventional wisdom: After six months of unremitting chaos, lies, ignorance, trash-talking vulgarity, legislative failure, and credible evidence of a desire to collude with a hostile foreign government to subvert an American election, President Trump’s approval rating is astonishingly high — with something between one-third and two-fifths of the American people apparently liking what they see and hear from the White House. They approve of the constant ignoble churn and presumably want it to continue. This is the kind of politics they prefer.

That is simply stunning — and reveals just how precarious American democracy has become.

Linker goes on to ruminate on whether Americans have lost their “democratic habits” and become more authoritarian in orientation, and thereby become receptive to someone like Trump, or whether it’s the other way around. Either way, our republic is under serious threat.

I don’t minimize the threat myself, because I share much of Linker’s concern. We have lost some of our democratic habits — indeed, in many ways we are losing our very cohesion as a society. But I frame the question very differently.

I know a bunch of Trump supporters. Some of them are intellectuals who write for places like TAC. But most are not. Neither are any of them raving bigots or knuckle-dragging neanderthals, and all of them read the news, though with vastly less obsessiveness than people who work in the business.

None of them “like” things like “unremitting chaos, lies, ignorance, trash-talking vulgarity, legislative failure” or collusion with foreign governments. Some of them minimize some of these things at least some of the time — and I myself have been known to derive a kind of pleasure from the absurdity of a figure like Mooch. But this isn’t what the people who I know who voted Trump voted for, nor is it why they continue to be happy with their vote  — which, however unhappy they are with how the administration is conducting itself, most of them still are.

Rather, the commonality among those who voted for Trump is their conviction that the Democratic party’s leadership is utterly bankrupt, and, to one degree or another, so is the Republican leadership. And that assessment hasn’t changed one iota since the election.

I have a friend who was a big Ron Paul supporter who voted Trump with firm conviction that he was the only alternative to the final destruction of what was left of the republic. Is he happy with Trump? No — he’s especially unhappy with the number of Goldman bankers Trump appointed to senior economic posts, but more generally he acknowledges that the government is in chaos and that Trump is not bringing the change he hoped for. But he doesn’t regret his vote, and he prefers the chaos of Trump to business-as-usual under either the Democrats or the Republicans. And if Trump winds up discrediting the Federal government generally, that’s fine with him.

I have another friend who is a successful former Wall Street trader who always votes Republican, was a fan of Romney and looks back fondly on George H. W. Bush. He surprised himself by voting for Trump in the primaries because it was “time for a change.” He had no doubts about voting for Trump in the general election, and while he thinks the reality show shenanigans are ridiculous, he thinks government in general is pretty ridiculous. From his perspective, the administration hasn’t done much yet, but it also hasn’t done anything really crazy — and he retains his conviction that Hillary Clinton would have been a truly terribly president, much worse than Trump is.

I have yet another friend who is a strong immigration opponent and opponent of America’s interventions in the Middle East who, for obvious reasons, voted for Trump with enthusiasm, and who is very happy at the way Trump has changed the terms of the debate and punctured the pieties of political correctness. He agrees that Trump is a sloppy manager and that there’s way too much drama, but he also thinks much of the drama is because of the press rather than uniquely due to Trump. He thinks everybody should calm down.

I don’t agree with these friends of mine. I think things are much more serious than that, and that Trump is already proving to be a pretty catastrophic president. But my point is that these people aren’t frothing-at-the-mouth lunatics. Nor are they incipient authoritarians convinced that we need a strong man to wipe out the enemies of the state. They are, however, people who have lost trust in the individuals and institutions who are most alarmed about Trump: the political establishment, the press, etc. And so, on a relative basis, they’d rather continue to put their trust in Trump.

The challenge for those who oppose Trump isn’t to convince the American people that Trump presents a threat to democracy, or to wean them off the thrill of a reality show roller coaster in Washington. The challenge is to win back the trust of people who have tuned them out entirely.

The fact is that liberalism has always been an elite rather than a popular ideology, and we shouldn’t panic that our democracy will collapse if large numbers of Americans want to restrict speech they don’t approve of. What we should worry about is the mutual alienation between ordinary Americans and the elites that inevitably man the institutions of the state and civil society. That’s what fuels populism, whether of the left or the right. And populism by its very nature cannot build institutions, cannot govern, even if the populist leader is more competent than Trump is.



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