Are Trump Voters Hard to Understand?

This post is my attempt to set out some reasons why people might have voted for Trump, reasons that do not require that we see these people as stupid or wicked. A great deal of what I have to say comes down in the end to this: tu quoque. That is, Trump is clearly unfit for office, but so are the Democrats. The question of who is less fit is ultimately a judgment call without a clear answer. There does seem to me to be something here that often goes unsaid. For example, I agreed with pretty much everything in this conversation between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan – in particular, I think they have understood Trump better than many of his critics – but I felt something significant had been left out. So here we go.

The day after Trump was elected in 2016, I went around feeling like I’d been punched in the face (I’ve already written about the night before). I couldn’t believe this had happened. It was clear that we were entering a new era, in which many of the old rules no longer applied. It wasn’t clear how exactly things were going to play out, but it was going to be bad.

This year things are different. I certainly did not vote for Trump, but I can respect many people who did. To my mind, the election presented a choice between two almost unimaginably awful possibilities, each so terrible that I felt completely at sea, unable to discern the correct path. The current situation, with Biden appearing to have won by a very narrow margin indeed, and the Democrats failing to control the senate, seems to me to be the best possible election result. Yes, it’s still quite bad, but every other possibility on the table was really bad.

The advocates of Trump or Biden can see what’s wrong with the other side, and only that. Everything they can see about the presidential race is filtered through the lens of the other side’s faults, with the result that nothing matters but keeping the other side from power. If the other side wins, it is The End – of the world, or perhaps only the republic. Because of the great evil that needs to be defeated, each side is willing to overlook faults among its own people, and so is effectively blind to them.

The faults of Donald Trump have been adequately catalogued elsewhere. What I want to look at here is the inability of even the Democrats’ more intellectual supporters to see what is wrong with their own side. The faults of the American left are very great indeed, to such a degree that I feel I can understand why someone might vote for the other side even in the recent presidential race. Here I will try to set out, first, what I think are at least defensible reasons for voting for Trump, and second, a couple of the decisive moments that have made me, once a tribal leftist, abandon the Democrats: for the first time, excluding the presidency, I voted red, and I have a hard time believing I’ll ever vote Democrat again.

(An aside: one worthwhile look at the myopia of the left came from John Gray a couple years ago, in a piece that reviews Michiko Kakutani’s persuasive but one-sided book, The Death of Truth.

There are three kinds of people whose vote for Trump I cannot fault at all: (1) those who lost, or feared losing, a job for voicing an unpopular opinion; (2) those who watched their life savings and / or livelihood go up in flames in recent months, or feared the same, or who were subject to physical violence or intimidation from the left, or were given reason to fear it; (3) those who have immigrated to America from Cuba or Venezuela or China or Eastern Europe (etc.), having experienced the far-left governments those places had or have, and now believe that they see the same cultural trends at work here. I can also understand how those who are strongly influenced by people in any of these groups might finding themselves voting for Trump.

Let us start with group (1). There are now deeply illiberal winds blowing across the English-speaking world. I have spoken with friends in three states, not all of them conservatives, who have expressed varying degrees of concern about losing their own jobs (and, in one case, friends) for admitting to unpopular opinions, or who work with people who are afraid of losing their jobs. This experience dovetails with the stories I’ve been reading for years now about people who have been fired or otherwise ‘cancelled’ for admitting to moderate and widely-held opinions or similar trivia. If you actually doubt this phenomenon, here’s a Twitter thread that documents over 180 firings, cancellations, etc., each with a source you can check out for yourself. It’s not red-hat-wearing MAGA louts who are getting people fired: it’s almost always when someone fails to conform with the ideas of the left that they find themselves worrying about their job.

Is Joe Biden directly responsible for these firings? Of course not. His party, however, is very much aligned with the ideas that are becoming mandatory, and will do nothing at all to restrain this development. On the contrary, it is not impossible to imagine that the new government will act as an accelerant (note Kamala Harris’ hyper-woke tweet a couple days before the election). In this context I can understand if not everyone looks ahead with boundless delight to prospect of the cultural power of the left being combined with that of the federal government. In addition, there is a significant connection between these firings, which represent a cultural trend that has really got going in the last 4-5 years or so, and the current presidential contest: that trend was anticipated by Joe Biden’s Title IX policy, an illiberal disruption of due process rights within universities. Have you read Laura Kipnis’ Unwanted Advances?

The bottom line is that if you fear these illiberal trends, you know that a vote for the Democrats won’t stop them, and will likely drive them forward. There is also a deeper point here, one that cuts to the heart of certain arguments against voting for Trump. It certainly is important that a president pays proper respect to the norms necessary to a liberal democracy. Trump has repeatedly shown himself utterly unfit for office on these grounds, most recently by failing to affirm in advance that he would accept the outcome of the election and by strongly suggesting he had already won the election before the votes had been counted. A president who behaves like this is a threat to the whole democratic system. But that is not the only possible threat to the system. Our increasingly illiberal culture, supported and driven forward by the Democratic party, can also pose a threat to the possibility of liberal democracy. Is it worse than or not so bad as Trump in the White House? That is a difficult call to make, one on which different people can reasonably come to different conclusions.

Am I being alarmist or absurd here? Well let’s look at group (3), those immigrants from (former) communist countries who now see the same cultural trends at work in the West as they did in the countries they left behind. Consider the following account:

‘…his wife, a naturalized citizen from China, has voted Democratic for as long as she has been able to vote here. This year, she’s voting for Trump. Why? “This whole year has reminded her too much of the Cultural Revolution,” he said. “She has been horrified watching the events of the summer unfold.”

The reader added that she has been part of a big TV network/newspaper tracking poll. She certainly did not ask to be; they randomly called her first back in the spring primary season. She was afraid to turn them down and wished she had never answered the first call. They call her once a week to ask her who she’s voting for. She has told them consistently that she’s a Biden voter, and she has been careful to answer all the ancillary questions in a “liberal way” so as not to give them any idea there is a problem. But that’s not what she really believes. Rather, she is terrified of getting on a list somewhere as a Trump voter. When the reader asks her why she is lying to the pollsters, her response: “You Americans are so naive and so trusting. Chairman Mao and the Red Guard did exactly this same kind of thing in so many clever ways. You will get on a list somewhere and when the time comes, your life will be over. I will never put my family through what I went through. That is why I came here in the first place — to get away from all that.”’

I am not going to multiply examples here. Rod Dreher has just published a book, Live Not By Lies, in which he gives many more examples of immigrants from (former) communist countries who now see the same illiberal culture at work in their new home. I also recommend keeping an eye on his blog, which gives a thoughtful look at current cultural developments from a right-wing perspective – I have found it very helpful indeed in coming to understand the right.

Before going on to group (2), one other point. After the unexpected results of the election, everyone has a theory about how the results confirm his or her preferred theory. But consider how my ‘fear’ thesis explains certain aspects of this situation. As the case of that woman from China shows, this thesis explains how the poll results could be so wrong. It explains why otherwise decent and intelligent people can support an incompetent lout and obvious conman. It can also explain how Trump’s ratings seem always to be so little affected by his latest screw-up (e.g., getting Covid). People who are driven by fear for their livelihoods or basic freedoms will have a sort of tunnel vision, and will cling like glue to the person who may be their last line of defence. Almost nothing will cause them to abandon their support for him.

And of course I’m not only saying that people voted for Trump on account of fear. I already suggested above how a Trump vote could be something a reasonable person might do. There are further good reasons one might have done that. And so we come to my own story.

Group (2) mentioned above is made up of those affected by the riots of recent months. These riots, and in particular the reaction of the Democrats to them, had a great effect on me, shattering certain of my previous conceptions, and breaking the tie that had long connected me to the Democrats.

By the time the Democratic National Convention came around, I was no longer the unquestioning supporter of the party that I had been four years earlier. I was uneasy with certain aspects of the party’s platform, and opposed others. For the first time, I found myself actually listening to what was being said, as someone whose vote might hang in the balance. What did they have to say to my concerns? The background to the convention, for me at least, was the fact that the BLM protests had by this point quite clearly morphed into violent riots in a great many places. There seemed to be no end of videos online showing businesses going up in flames or people being brutally beaten by a mob. I listened to Obama wanting above all to hear his response to all this. I heard his response, all right, and it surprised me: he spoke only of police brutality against peaceful protestors and not at all of violent rioters. When I listened to Biden’s convention speech, he took the same route.

On another occasion, it is true, Biden did explicitly condemn the violence, but I found myself agreeing with those who expressed concerns about the way he did it. His statement was more in the manner of a general statement about violence in general. He did not condemn Antifa in particular. I felt that what was needed was a statement in which he specifically distanced himself from those elements of the left that were active in a violent manner. Trump had put explicit distance between himself and neo-Nazis on more than one occasion, but the recent riots had caused destruction on a scale far, far beyond anything done by any far-right group. To expect Biden to denounce extremist left-wing violence that had grown out of protests he and his party had supported was simply to expect that he not fall below the standard set by Donald Trump. It didn’t happen.

I was now confused as to how I ought to vote. I felt I couldn’t see clearly any more: though Trump is clearly not fit to be president, it now seemed as though the Democrats might be no better. For a time I thought the answer might lie in following people like Claire Berlinski, Sam Harris or Andrew Sullivan, who are not blind to the problems on the left, but who nevertheless argued for the necessity of an anti-Trump vote: perhaps they could see things a bit better than I.

The third moment would push me further. It came with the first Biden-Trump debate. Here two statements from Biden destroyed my previous connection to his party. He defended critical theory, which was dishonestly dressed up as something like sensitivity training, and he defended Antifa, saying it was an idea not an organisation. The latter statement is not simply a defence of something I felt Biden needed to condemn, it’s a defence that requires of us that we ignore readily available evidence: there are Antifa websites, there are pictures and videos of U-Hauls showing up with ‘protest’ materials – there are even uniforms for groups of people confronting the police! Listen to Douglas Murray, who speaks from first-hand experience, for about 30 seconds in this video (from 8:39; UPDATE: listen to this too): Biden’s defence of Antifa was a monstrous distortion, a scandal. I had long thought of the idea-not-organisation line as something characteristic of the far left, of people ready to invent their own reality for the sake of their preferred views. I honestly never imagined that a top-two candidate for the office of President of the United States would say “an idea not an organisation.” Of course no news organisation not on the right called him out on this.

I’m not going to go into critical theory here, but if you have an hour, why not take a look at this video, which gives a first-hand account from an employee of the federal government? It gives a good idea of what is at issue here. (The only time at which I thought of voting for Trump, for about 30 seconds, was after his presidential ban of critical theory.)

The point, however, is that Biden, with those two statements, annihilated what was to me the most important line of argument in his favour: that he would be a figure of the center left, not the far left.

Consider this argument from this perspective at the last few years. These last years had caused me to doubt that the center left can be said to exist in a meaningful way at all. How often have they stood up against the far left in a meaningful way? How often has the center left stood up for liberal principles? In the Christakis / Yale affair, in the Weinstein / Evergreen business, where was the center left? When people are being mobbed online or losing their jobs or having their work unpublished for wrongthink, where is the center left? One lesson of recent years seems to be that the great majority of people who occupy leading or controlling positions in our major institutions and businesses are not worthy of the institutions they represent. They pretty much always abandon any defence of genuine liberalism and give way to extremists, provided those extremists are on the left.

So the worry with Biden was that although he’s a decent man, and one who has surrounded himself with centrists, we’re now living in a world in which that would mean nothing in the end. When pushed by the far left, those centrists would give way, as they pretty much always do these days. But with his comments on Antifa and critical theory, Biden showed that this line of thinking is actually too optimistic. He signalled that he already has given way! Even during an election, that time at which there is most of all a need for a signal to the center, to people beyond the activist crowd – even at this time, Biden sent about the most far-left signal possible on these two issues. So the line about how we’re voting for Biden, not for the worst excesses of the far-left, is quite empty: Antifa and Critical Race Theory represent some of the worst excesses of the far-left, and Biden’s position with regard to them is horribly clear.

I now felt I could see even less clearly than before. Though I might respect the likes of Berlinski or Sullivan, or for that matter the various experts who have defected from the Trump administration saying that he has to go, still I think they’re providing judgments that are one-sided. They need to be held in balance with a consideration of ordinary people, such as those who have been fired or beaten up or had their livelihoods destroyed by left-wing extremists – and in fact our system of government does just that. It now seems to me rather difficult to claim that the Democrats are better than Trump.

There was one more moment that solidified my doubts about the Democrats: Michelle Obama made a speech, and she went all-in on the “mostly non-violent” line concerning the ‘protests.’ Even now I find it hard to believe that she actually said this. The riots that grew in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd now seem to have been the most destructive in American history. You can say “mostly non-violent” of them in the same sense that you can say that France was “mostly non-violent” on June 6th, 1944 or that flights were “mostly non-violent” on September 11th, 2001.

Why did this sort of thing make such an impression on me? Let us recall the days when Trump was originally campaigning for the presidency. One early red flag for me was that rally at which he said something like, “in the old days, they would have had to carry that guy out on a stretcher!” Hearing that, something in me said “Whoa! Hold on a minute!” There is only one answer for someone with significant political influence to the question of violence: you have to be against it. You have to speak out against it. Every time. No exceptions. Trump’s implicit approval of violence, even hypothetical, marked him as someone unfit for office. But what Barack Obama did at the Democratic Convention was not really much better. In the face of actual violence, in the face of brutal beatings and the destruction of property on an immense scale, Obama pretended that it all didn’t exist. It wasn’t worth even a few words in his speech. Michelle Obama’s “mostly non-violent” speech, on the other hand, was definitely worse than Trump at that rally.

No principle is more necessary to a liberal democracy than an explicit condemnation of violence. When the other side gets violent, you have to call it out. When your own side gets violent, you really, really have to call it out.

Of course, what we were witnessing was not simply violence. I was reading that the police were being held back in many places, that the lawlessness was being allowed to happen by the state or municipal authorities – Democrat authorities. It was as I learned this, and considered the words of the highest representatives of the federal Democrats, that I began to wonder if I really felt comfortable supporting the Democratic party. I found myself asking, what has Trump done in the last four years that is as bad as this? What could Trump do that would be worse than this? I have a hard time thinking of anything. Monstrous corruption? Endless lies? All that Russian treason stuff? If it’s all true, it’s still not worse than this.

Among the most fundamental responsibilities of any government is the maintenance of civil order. That’s one of the most basic reasons why we have a government at all. Actually to refuse to do this is not just a profound failure, it’s a betrayal, an abandonment of a foundational principle necessary to any legitimate government. This is a failure on an historic scale, one that bodes very ill indeed for the future of the country. In a sense, it’s worse than Trump, because it’s not proceeding from a single individual, but rather represents the spontaneous action of a great number of people in a party. Violence in the streets is also much less abstract for the average person than the failure of a president to uphold basic norms.

One thing in particular bothers me here: a sort of dissembling that allows people to look away from the truth. Of course neither Obama nor Biden came out explicitly in favour of violence. What they did was in a certain sense worse, for by ignoring reality or using misleading phrases, they gave credence to an alternate universe in which people were not being dragged from their cars and beaten within an inch of their lives, in which there were no small business owners – in one city after another after another! – who had to watch as their life’s work (and savings) went up in flames, and in which mobs were not intimidating people in restaurants and residential neighbourhoods. Unlike explicit support for violence, this fiction allows people to deceive themselves about what they’re doing, to ignore or give tacit support to violence against their enemies while pretending they’re doing nothing of the sort. The message will have been implicitly understood by the worst actors on both sides.

So in the end, it comes to this: I do not see that anything Trump has done has been worse than the failures of the Democrats where mass violence is concerned. It seems to me that if we apply a set of standards to one side, we have to do it to the other. If we are told we must refuse to vote for Trump because there are a certain set of standards beneath which no acceptable candidate may fall, then the other side must be held to the same standards. A president must always clearly signal his obedience to the norms necessary to a republic. A party must always clearly signal its rejection of violence, especially violence by its supporters. In both cases, failure threatens the possibility of a republic.

So the argument that you shouldn’t vote for Trump because he’s not fit for office has an answer: tu quoque. What remains are policy preferences and a personal sense of which is worse. If you’re the sort of person who is more upset by a president who ignores basic norms, you’re likely to be against Trump. If you’re naturally more bothered by violence, you will probably be against the Democrats. Policy preferences will also play a role here, but in any event, it will be a simple matter to dress these preferences up in highly principled and valid arguments.

It should be clear now why I voted Republican aside from the presidency. It would have been unthinkable a few months earlier, but I did it with conviction. What I can’t see is a clear line of argument for one of the presidential candidates that does not ultimately rest on a subjective judgment call. I can respect people who went either way; what I have a hard time respecting is those who voted one way and regard those on the other side as stupid or evil.

It is in the nature of our present situation that the status quo will be opposed in practice by someone like Trump. The ‘progressive’ side of politics has increasingly moved away from persuasion and toward intimidation. So, for example, imagine someone who believes that it is only in the most extreme circumstances that children should be given medical treatments that could sterilise them, after all other alternatives have been exhausted, and only with parental consent, and imagine that this person applies this belief to transgender issues. If our hypothetical person fails to keep these thoughts to himself, he is unlikely to be met with attempts at persuasion. On the contrary, he can expect internet mobbings, character assassination, and attempts to have him fired from his job. (I am inclined to turn a critical eye towards Obama here: to the extent that you push thinking in terms of “the right side of history,” you not only sidestep argument, but delegitimise it. Of course, the tendency was widespread anyway without him.)

In a situation like this, people who particularly value their good name will tend to remain silent. Anyone who publicly opposes the ‘progressives’ must be ready to endure a constant stream of the most vicious abuse, above all accusations of bigotry, which tend to be accepted on the flimsiest evidence and can end careers. The people who don’t care about that sort of thing will mostly be people who care less about norms in general – and already we have a straight line from the behaviour of the ‘woke’ to both the success of Donald Trump and his worst behaviour in office. Anyone who does care about his reputation will tend to qualify his dissent from those views that bring accusations of bigotry, and this will make him less appealing to the three groups of people I mentioned above, who want nothing more than that someone should oppose their tormentors.

I realised recently that I stopped looking at Donald Trump (the political phenomenon) as something external to the intellectual class some time ago. I now see his success as a product of today’s left, and a natural reaction to it – though that is not to say a necessary or justifiable reaction. The culture produced by the left is prior to Trump. If we don’t solve our cultural problem – a problem produced above all by the move from persuasion to intimidation – we are likely to get more Trumps, and worse. Tossing him from the White House will be good, but it will not solve the underlying problem.

Since woke culture is clearly not going anywhere, the terrible choice of 2020 has a good chance of being repeated, perhaps with candidates much more objectionable than the current lot. We have just have seen the launch of a “Trump Accountability Project,” which will maintain a list of those who supported the man. An earlier version of the site, which I was looking at a some hours before publishing this post, even included lawyers Trump had hired. A tweet from a fellow named Hari Sevugan made the project’s intention crystal clear: “Warning to publishers considering signing someone who led a campaign to get Americans to hate each other – you will face a massive boycott led by the Trump Accountability Project. Not just of this book but your whole library.”

This is not how people who believe in liberal democracy behave.  If the totalitarian behaviour of the woke continues to develop on its current course, so too will the willingness of their opponents to tolerate unacceptable behaviour in whoever is left to them as a defender. History shows that there are people far more dangerous to a republic than Donald Trump.

Perhaps this is too pessimistic. I suggested above that our system balances the insight of experts with the views of ordinary people, and the election result allows us to believe that there is no small amount of wisdom in the result. Faced with a choice between two deeply unacceptable alternatives, it looks like this will be a close one, as it should be, and we can still hope that a Biden administration is checked by a Republican senate. As for the illiberal left, if it still seems to roll on without much opposition, perhaps something new will come up before long, producing an effective rollback to liberal norms.

I have tried here to suggest some ways in which a vote for Trump could be a reasonable one. If there are people who find this view distasteful, they should consider the alternative: a readiness to see one’s opponents as utterly deranged, evil and stupid is not easy to reconcile with a readiness to maintain a republic. And of course, nothing I have said should be taken as a claim that every vote for Trump was reasonable. His supporters no doubt included a significant share of dupes and racists – though it is beginning to look as though something similar can be said of his opponents.

Author: Babbington

Citizen of the English-speaking world, resident of the German. Refugee from academia, writing a blog because, well, "in my heart there was a kind of fighting/That would not let me sleep."

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