Donald Trump scares me. As long as he’s a private citizen, he’s just a narcissistic buffoon with money, but he could be uniquely deadly to the world if you hand him the power of the U.S. presidency. So how did we get to the point that this dysfunctional clown leads current presidential polls?
As this is written, 28 percent of likely Republican primary voters say they support Trump. For those of us who listen to the man and immediately realize that he’s at least borderline insane, this seems preposterous. When people first mentioned him as a candidate four years ago, I said it was an indication we had reached “Idiocracy.” As it became clear that he was being taken more and more seriously this year, I compared the situation to Germany’s 1932 election.
For many of us, it’s easy to see why he’s dangerous. It’s easy to see that he’s crazy. What’s not so easy to explain is why so many Americans passionately support this man.
Trump’s supporters are angry and they’re part of an ugly movement. Pretty much every ugly movement in history is an overreaction to something bad that’s happened in the lives of the people involved. Such groups tend to feel angry and marginalized. If you don’t understand their underlying grievance — whether they’re right or wrong — you won’t understand what’s going on — and you’ll have no hope of solving the problem without massive bloodshed.
The fact that Germans in the 1920s and early ’30s were angry, desperate and humiliated led them to turn to Adolph Hitler, a minor demagogue who promised he could fix their problems. How much grief could the world have been spared if the needs and fears of desperate Germans had been taken seriously by the world after the “war to end all wars”?
You don’t have to agree with people to understand their motivations. You don’t have to take their side. You just have to understand what the world looks like from their point of view.
Over the past few decades, I’ve frequently told my politically conservative friends that the legitimate concerns and fears of angry black Americans — especially those packed into disgusting urban ghettos — were going to have to be addressed or else there will eventually be an explosion of pent-up anger.
Most of my conservative white friends have no idea why so many blacks would be angry and feel as though they’ve been mistreated. Many of my friends assume — seriously assume, with the best of intentions — that most black men are criminals and are in prison (or should be). Really. Some educated and intelligent people honestly believe this.
These people assume that poor black Americans today are all poor and unsuccessful because of their own faults and behavior. They have no idea what it’s like to grow up in poverty or in schools which are no better than daycare centers — at best — in quite a few places.
My mother spent many years teaching in one such inner-city school in Birmingham, so I know her stories first-hand. She took early retirement because she couldn’t help her elementary school students and it broke her heart. For the most part, neither their parents nor the school administration wanted anything but to be left alone. They didn’t care whether the children were learning anything. They didn’t care that the classrooms were out of control. They just wanted to warehouse those children.
These white conservatives have no idea what it’s like to be treated badly by police just because you’re black. They have no idea what it’s like to grow up in communities where it’s normal for young girls to have babies and for young boys to learn how to become criminals — simply because that’s normal life.
If you put millions of people into such a situation, it’s eventually going to explode. There’s enough blame to go around, but that’s not the point here. The legacy of slavery is still with us 150 years after it ended. The legacy of Jim Crow is still here 50 years after it was (mostly) ended. Government social engineering by well-meaning progressives has created unintended consequences. Scheming and dishonest black political leaders have also played a huge role in fleecing their voters — lining their own pockets while teaching big chunks of the black voter base to blame the white man for everything. The list of problems goes on and on — but solving such problems or assigning blame isn’t the point here.
The point is that angry cities have been a powder keg. When there’s a flashpoint — as there have been in Baltimore and Ferguson in the last year or so — things can turn ugly quickly. Many of us understand why, but many others are confused and think it’s nothing but criminals looking for an excuse to cause trouble.
The truth is more complicated. Even when the specific people making specific demands are wrongheaded or ignorant, the truth underlying the problems deserves to be understood. I’ve been making that case for a long time, but none of my conservative white friends seem interested in listening.
Right now, I’d like to ask my progressive left friends to look at the opposite problem. Why are all these middle-class white Trump supporters angry?
Yes, Trump is a buffoon and he’s dangerous and his supporters are short-sighted, but why are they like this? Why are they so angry that they’re willing to follow someone who’s so clearly crazy? It’s an indicator that many millions of people know something is wrong — that their values and lifestyles are threatened — and they’re scared.
Trump’s supporters are a particular brand of white populists. They’re not necessarily racists, although a good many of them are. They call themselves conservatives, but that’s true only in the cultural sense. They’re not part of any conservative ideological tradition. They’re just people who feel marginalized.
These are people who have seen themselves demonized for decades by the liberal mainstream as dumb rednecks who are somehow responsible for all the world’s problems. They’ve seen the federal government intrude more and more into their lives. They feel as though every other group has been given special treatment by government. They feel as though politicians, courts, presidents and elite media people have thumbed their noses at them and made them the butt of their jokes.
They’ve seen the economy decline and they blame high taxes for taking more and more of their money and transferring it to people who they assume are lazy bums. They’ve seen government try to achieve racial quotas in hiring — in ways that force companies to hire less qualified people over more qualified people, based on skin color or sex.
They’ve elected Republican politicians who have told them they were going to fix all their problems, but who have changed nothing of substance. They’re angry and desperate to find someone who is strong enough to force their views to be heard.
In focus groups, Trump supporters don’t talk so much about the specific policy proposals Trump favors. They talk about supporting him because he’s saying the sort of “politically incorrect” rhetoric that they want to hear. They say it’s like listening to themselves talk. (Read this story. It explains a lot about this.)
To my progressive friends, you know how you and I have been able to realize that angry and marginalized inner-city blacks were eventually going to rise up in desperation if their concerns and needs weren’t addressed? This is the same way to a group who you’re not inclined to like.
You’ve spent decades belittling and marginalizing these lower middle-class white folks in media and in condescending conversation — and they’re angry about it. This turn to Trump is a small foreshadowing of what they’re heading toward in the future.
I’ve been arguing for many years that this country is heading toward social and economic collapse. The government-managed economy isn’t sustainable, because markets aren’t being allowed to function correctly. (People blame free markets for the mess we’re currently in, but we haven’t had a real free market for at least a century — and it’s gotten progressively more controlled and doomed.)
We have an elite that has done pretty well. Those who live on the periphery of the elites have done less well, but still live nice lives. Increasingly, though, there are growing numbers of people in this country who feel as though they’re being ripped off by the system, for one reason or another.
Many poor blacks feel they have no stake in the system. Many of those folks are ready to revolt at the first halfway legitimate excuse. Many poor and middle-class whites feel as though they’ve been marginalized and mistreated. Many of those folks are ready to follow the first strong man who claims he will “Make American Great Again.” Sound familiar?
You don’t have to agree with the political positions or proposals of any of these people — white, black, Republican, Democrat, whatever. I don’t agree with any of them, but I need to understand them.
Trump and his supporters are a natural result of what happens when you tell people that the majority get to rule and you have a lot of people angry and feeling ignored. They’re desperate to find a strong man who will make them heard.
The riots in places such as Baltimore and Ferguson are also a natural result of what happens when people feel they have no control over what’s going on in their communities. They’re desperate to make the rest of the world understand their plight.
As long as you believe that it’s moral for a majority to elect politicians to impose their will on everyone else, some form of this is going to happen. There’s no mechanism within this system for groups to have their own areas where they can set their own rules and live as they want to live. People of every group that feels somehow oppressed by the elites will eventually turn to more and more radical ways to get their own way.
The real problem is a “one size fits all” system that asserts a right to control everyone in the name of a majority.
We need a real conversation about how different groups can go their own way and live as they want to live, even if the rest of us disagree with them. It won’t be an easy conversation and the answers will lie in solutions that go far beyond the nation-state solutions that have been so common for centuries. But something has to change.
Honestly, though, there’s no chance things will change. The vast majority of people still believe in the idea of a holy paternalistic government controlling and “protecting” everyone — in patterns laid down by elites who think they’re better than everyone else. And because people still believe in that system, the conversation about a peaceful breakup won’t happen. When the end comes, it will be bloody and ugly. Nobody will be happy.
When it comes to young black men rioting over police treatment, you can choose to hate them and blame them — or you can take the time to understand why they feel and believe as they do.
When it comes to Trump supporters following an obvious lunatic, you can choose to just call them stupid and blame them — or you can take the time to understand why they feel and believe as they do.
You don’t have to agree with them — on either side — but if you don’t take the time to understand where they’re coming from and why they’re doing the things they’re doing, you’re going to come to the wrong conclusions.
I have great empathy for millions of black Americans who feel they’ve been marginalized and mistreated. I have great empathy for millions of white Trump supporters who feel they’ve been marginalized and mistreated. I don’t completely agree with what either group believes is the way out of their troubles, but I have empathy for them. I understand them.
Trump supporters believe that they have the right to elect a man to enforce their will on everybody else. They are using an electoral system that you’ve told them is holy and right.
But the supporters of every other candidate are doing the same thing. If you support Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders or Ben Carson or Jeb Bush — or any of them — you’re essentially saying that it’s your right to elect someone to force your will on other people.
The problem isn’t Trump or his supporters. The problem is a system that claims a right to force others to obey.