WE CAN’T COUNT ON TRUMP SUPPORTERS CHANGING THEIR MINDS ABOUT TRUMP
An analysis of the impacts of Trump policies is increasingly clear, and largely confirms the predictions made going back to the 2016 election. That is, the biggest victims of Trump’s policies (outside of immigrants, of course) are often Trump voters.
The reaction from the rest of us who see Trump as the walking orange catastrophe that he is is two-fold. On one hand, there’s a bit of schadenfreude. Hey, they voted for Trump and now they are getting exactly what they voted for. After all, Trump lied about a lot of things during the campaign, but he really was fairly honest about the actual policies he wanted to implement. Just remember how Trump voters felt when they feared they were going to lose the Obamacare policies they depended on. He was honest about his intentions toward the ACA. You voted for him. There should be no surprises here. Our only regret is the certainty that the pain Trump voters deserve will also impale the rest of us who don’t. But, at least we can derive some satisfaction.
Once we get over ourselves and look to the real impacts of such consequences, we have to ask, will the negative consequences for voting Trump convince Trump supporters to abandon ship and come back to the light? Once farmers start losing money, and conservative districts suffer lower prospects, then they will have the proof they need to conclude that Trump really isn’t the “anti-establishment” defender of the working class that such voters somehow convinced themselves that he was.
Or they won’t.
But why wouldn’t they? Life is either better, the same or worse for people. and if after voting for a candidate, one’s life isn’t better for it, the response should be obvious. Don’t vote for that guy again.
Unfortunately, things are just not that simple. There’s more to voting and political support than a mere calculus of better/notbetter. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this and I found myself responding viscerally to Ezra Klein’s podcast with author Lilliana Mason.¹ Mason made some interesting and excruciating points about group process and identity. She points out that party affiliation is not a rational response to a personal calculus on the benefits of particular partisan policy proposals. Rather, party affiliation is a matter of deep identity. Those who identify with a particular party become more invested in the well-being of the party, even at the expense of one’s individual well-being.
What strikes me is that this analysis parallels my own theoretical work. I’m interested in how institutional complexes incorporate human action toward their own ends. I elaborate on how such complexes construct knowledge in such a way that it shapes the consciousness of those within the complex. Whereas I’m looking at the phenomena from a structural perspective, Mason is elaborating a more cognitive approach closer to symbolic interactionism.
Regardless, based on my own work, and Mason’s analysis and what I know about in-group/out-group dynamics, I’m not convinced that a significant number of Trump supporters can be made to abandon their hero regardless of the likely harms they face as a result.²
After all, this is nothing new. Regions that are currently conservative in worldview, anti-government, anti-regulation, skeptical of elites and experts, dismissive of the social safety net, and viscerally hostile to anything smacking of socialism, have been so for a long time. Even when these regions were part of a solid Democratic bloc, their politics was staunchly conservative. This has been costing these regions dearly for just as long. Conservative regions have the highest poverty, lowest health indices, degraded environments. This reality is directly attributable to conservative policies. Yet conservatives keep voting conservative despite how much it costs them.
There have been some sincere efforts in trying to understand why conservatives seem to consistently vote against their own interests. The conclusions cluster around the fact that what constitutes one’s “interests” is pretty complex and isn’t a simple formula. One’s interests have to do with historical contexts and traditions, relative privilege, practical contingencies, religious beliefs, prospects for the future, concepts of “the other” and more. Eliza Griswold documents this complexity in her book, Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America.³
The most poignant exploration of this phenomenon, in my opinion, is Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land Anger and Mourning on the American Right. In this sympathetic ethnography, Hochschild points out that many on the right are motivated by what she refers to as a deep story. This deep story, for the right, is summarized in a parable in which everyone is standing in line making their way to the good life. Conservatives, mostly white, rural Christians, have worked hard to secure their places in line and to make their way to this good life. Despite their hard work, however, as they look ahead they notice that the government has intercepted the line and is putting people ahead of them. The people cutting the line, with government approval, are those who do not work hard, who are lazy and unproductive, but they are given an unfair advantage. Furthermore, as more people cut in line, hard-working “real” Americans find themselves moving farther and farther away from the good life.
For such people, getting to the good life means stopping those people from cutting the line, and stopping the government from giving some groups an unfair advantage over others. This deep story certainly clarifies some of the analytic mess. It leaves me wanting, however. After all, where did this deep story come from? It’s not an organic socio-historical understanding of reality. It’s largely bogus. It’s a twisted fairy tale.
This deep story was constructed by the conservative movement through contexts going back to the Reconstruction Era and promulgated in response to the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century. This was an intentional strategy for furthering the interests of the economic elite in the furtherance of otherwise unpopular political goals. In exchange for standing in the way of “those people” cutting the line, and paying homage to the requisite churches, the corporate elite gets lower business costs, lower taxes, fewer regulations and open access to despoil the commons. On the other side of the coin, conservatives agree to lower wages, fewer benefits, fewer protections, lower wages and a poisoned environment.
This is a one-sided, co-dependent relationship that is obvious to any outside observer. So what makes this story so deep?
The answer lies in Mason’s concept of mega-identities as well as the existence of an infrastructure and right-wing institutional complex specifically designed to reinforce these mega-identities. That the right defines group inclusion in terms of having a special, “real American” status as compared to the liberal out-group should not come as a surprise. All groups premised on in-group/out-group dynamics, including left-wing groups, communities, sports teams, etc, construct identity in much the same way. But modern society, with its advanced cognitive sciences, and interactive technologies raises the prospects of in-group/out-group dynamics to whole new levels.
In the face of calamity, conservatives can simply lie. The infrastructure exists within the right-wing media bubble in which these lies will never be confronted. The right-wing can simply scapegoat “those people” who are cutting in line consistent with the deep-story. Any suggestion to the contrary can be brushed off as “liberal bias” or “fake news.” Even in the event that members of the right are themselves challenging Trump’s legitimacy, they can be disregarded as RINOs or traitors to the cause. They were obviously bribed by the establishment or in league with the “Deep State” to discredit the Orange Don. They are not to be suffered. Furthermore, because of human group dynamics, what Mason refers to as mega-identities, these evasions will be accepted because to reject them would mean rejecting the underlying premise of one’s own identity.
This creates quite the impasse. I’d like to think that something that was constructed can be deconstructed. But the very experts who are in a position to deconstruct paradigms, namely members of academia, are the very people conservatives have been conditioned to distrust. I’d like to think what was done intentionally can, with equal intent, be undone. Unfortunately, I’m not entirely clear on how to do that.
First, a countermovement would have to get the attention of those within the conservative in-group. That’s becoming increasingly unlikely in a world in which one can surf for hours within the safe confines of one’s ideological bubble and never be exposed to an alternative thought. Then a story has to be constructed that this group would interpret as being legitimate and telling. This story would have to come from sources with legitimate authority to be listened to and taken seriously. Without such an intervention, group solidarity will be perpetuated by the telling of the same deep story, and even the most calamitous of events will be defined in terms of this deep story.
Don’t expect the “real American” victims of Trumpism to see the folly of their ways in the face of their victimization. The structures are in place to ensure a long life for American conservatism/Trumpism. If the left or even mainstream liberals want to compete against such a juggernaut, they need to stop watering down their message for the sake of playing to the middle of the road. After all, the middle of the road is really disappearing.
The left needs an inspiring story that encourages participation in a collective vision for a progressive future. This won’t necessarily attract Trump supporters. Sure, there may be some who are less invested in the conservative movement, who exist on the periphery of the conservative reference group, or who are equally invested in other groups and can be convinced to shift their paradigms. The bulk of the Trump right, however, will remain exactly where they are. There are, however, many people who have rejected political affiliation, or progressives who feel rejected by the Democratic Party and the liberal establishment. They can be incorporated into a left mobilization with the right appeal to their own deep story.
- My analysis including Mason’s conclusions are based only on what I heard in the podcast. I’ve not yet read her book, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. I intend to, and hold that a more deeper understanding of her work may lead me to change my conclusions.
- I’ll offer that this thesis may be a matter of degree. Perhaps, if the consequences were dire enough, and the fault could be placed clearly enough on Trump and the GOP, Trump might lose his following. Unfortunately, I believe the extent of this degree would have to be pretty extreme.
- Also the topic of a podcast, this time with Chris Hayes.