I mean, let’s be honest: isn’t this the question at least half of the country is asking? And isn’t that just how they want to ask it?
It’s always the first question I’m asked when someone finds out I’m a Republican (I didn’t). Even before they get the words out, I can see it in their eyes. The bewildered look of “What the *____* is wrong with you people?” The desperate, pleading expression of “Please God, help me understand!” That look of “Jesus Christ, do I even want to know??” If you’re familiar with the comedian Lewis Black, it’s that sort of pre-apoplexy face of astonishment, confusion, and fear.
This post will answer the question of why someone who is not crazy, not a bigot, and has read a book at least once in their life would vote for Donald Trump.
The easiest way to start is by sharing the first time I heard someone give a cogent explanation for why they were voting for him. I was at a debate watching party, talking to a lawyer in his 60s. It was the first Clinton/Trump debate. We were at a large, airy bar, in a festive atmosphere courtesy of a local conservative think tank. At the time, I still couldn’t believe anyone was actually going to vote for this guy, even after winning the nomination, even after clearing fourteen lifelong politicians and two truly self-made achievers off the slate. The whole thing was still a joke to me. But here this lawyer was dead-serious going to vote for Trump, and after I stopped laughing, I asked him why. He quietly said “The president is for four years, the Supreme Court is forever.”
My reaction? “………….”
Ok. Well. Hmmmm…….s**t, that’s actually a real reason to vote for him. I had to concede that immediately. I really didn’t know what to say. I honestly hadn’t been able to imagine a single genuine reason to vote for Trump until then. And if there was one legitimate reason….there might be more.
This is the moment that made it real for me. “It” being a real thing in the real world where real people were actually going to vote for Donald Trump. I couldn’t argue with the guy or his logic. I had to admit that was as legitimate a reason to vote for any candidate as you’ll find in any election. As he said, if we get just one Supreme Court justice, that’s a huge win for conservatives. A generational win. If we get two, that’s like hitting the political lotto twice, almost certainly solidifying a conservative Supreme Court for at least one generation, literally for decades to come. Whether you’re liberal or conservative, if this is something within your reach with one election, that’s a game changer in the political landscape in your favor. It doesn’t matter who the candidate is.
And that’s the first thing you need to understand about people who voted for Donald Trump. It’s not necessarily about Donald Trump. It’s about run of the mill politics. It’s about your party passing your agenda and ensuring your vision is the one being propagated by the federal government. Do you want higher taxes or lower taxes? More regulations or fewer regulations? More Obamacare or less Obamacare? A liberal Supreme Court or a conservative Supreme Court? So that….that’s just business-as-usual. It’s got nothing to do with who the particular candidate is, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or Mickey Mouse. Whoever advances your agenda is your “man.” If Mickey Mouse favors my kind of tax plan, I’m voting for Mickey Mouse, I don’t care what he says about ducks or about his squeaky voice or his tiny hands.
And on this one issue alone, what has Donald Trump done with our Supreme Court and our judicial system in general? Well, see for yourself:
In the weeks before Donald J. Trump took office, lawyers joining his administration gathered at a law firm near the Capitol [and] filled a white board with a secret battle plan to fill the federal appeals courts with young and deeply conservative judges.
[…] Mr. Trump has already appointed eight appellate judges, the most this early in a presidency since Richard M. Nixon.
[…] Republicans are systematically filling appellate seats they held open during President Barack Obama’s final two years in office with a particularly conservative group of judges with life tenure. Democrats — who in late 2013 abolished the ability of 41 lawmakers to block such nominees with a filibuster, then quickly lost control of the Senate — have scant power to stop them.
[…] During the campaign, Mr. Trump shored up the support of skeptical right-wing voters by promising to select Supreme Court justices from a list Mr. McGahn put together with help from the Federalist Society and the conservative Heritage Foundation. Exit polls showed that court-focused voters helped deliver the president’s narrow victory. Now, he is rewarding them.
“We will set records in terms of the number of judges,” Mr. Trump said at the White House recently, adding that many more nominees were in the pipeline. Standing beside the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, he continued, “There has never been anything like what we’ve been able to do together with judges.”
So on this single issue, one that in itself can sway many rational voters, President Trump has delivered, and appears primed to deliver more, in spades. Now, I understand: this reshaping of the judiciary is utterly horrifying to someone who leans left on the political spectrum. But this is no different than how conservatives would view a similar judicial opportunism by a Hillary Clinton administration. Nor is it any different than the worst case/best case scenario (depending on your view) that you would see with any other Republican president. So in a deep and meaningful way, this election had nothing to do with Donald Trump, the same way every election is in some sense more about whatever random Democrat or Republican empty vessel that stands in for our own hopes, dreams, and agendas than the specific individuals who become those vessels.
Here’s another thing that will help Democrats understand why people voted for Donald Trump, but it requires a bit of harsh self-reflection about your own party: many people held their nose and voted for Hillary Clinton, choosing to vote for her not because she was their ideal candidate or first choice, but because she was the person in the position to advance their agenda. There are innumerable, well-documented reasons to lack enthusiasm for Clinton even if you’re a Democrat that I won’t go into here. But knowing this can help you understand Trump’s voters: if you can hold your nose and vote for Hillary Clinton, someone else can hold their nose and vote for Donald Trump. Yes, really. No I mean really. Your version of holding your nose and voting for your party’s candidate is just as horrifying and unimaginable as their version is to you. So I think this is a great place for some common ground and for voters in both parties who were stuck with historically bad candidates to have some empathy for each other. This is a point that can allow both sides a mutual understanding of how it feels to not only have to vote for a candidate you find at best unappealing, but a nomination process that exposes a horrifying dearth of leadership within both parties, and potentially within society at large.
And this brings me to my next point: what does Trump’s very nomination say about the Republican party and Republican voters? Doesn’t the nomination of this disgusting man-pig speak volumes about Republicans, who they are willing to vote for, and by extension who they themselves are and what they believe? I’m glad you asked!
This is a very important point that I think most Democrats are missing, that cannot be over-stated: Donald Trump’s nomination was not a ringing endorsement of Donald Trump, either as a human being or as a candidate. As I mentioned above, voting for Donald Trump in the general election was not necessarily an endorsement of him as a person, but simply a vote to advance one’s agenda, whoever the vessel may be. Likewise, a vote for Donald Trump in the Republican nomination was not a vote for Donald Trump The Man. It wasn’t a vote for Donald Trump as articulating or embodying our noblest conservative ideals. Nominating Donald Trump was, by and large, quite simply a gigantic “F U” from the Republican base to the Republican party establishment. Donald Trump was their weapon, a blunt instrument to be sure, but nonetheless the weapon they had at their disposal to express their dissatisfaction with being taken for granted by their party, for being lied to by their party, for their party turning their back on their values, and for the party establishment being, in general, a bunch of self-dealing, two-faced sellouts and elitists who had abandoned the principles of small government and stopped listening to the voices of their grass roots. Ironically, this is exactly what almost happened in the Democratic primary in 2016, and would have happened if the party hadn’t rigged the nomination for Hillary.
So here again, Democrats should be able to have a lot of sympathy for why Republicans voted for Donald Trump: he was a refutation of party politics-as-usual, and a means to punish the party establishment and tell them exactly where to go. Republican voters were Negan, the Republican party was Rick’s group from Alexandria, and Donald Trump was Lucille. Or, if you will, picture Donald Trump as a giant middle finger. For some reason I think that will be easy to imagine….
The last point I want to raise about why people voted for Donald Trump has, unavoidably, a bit of a ring of partisanship to it, but it can’t be helped entirely, and it is an absolutely crucial aspect to understanding what happened in this election, and what may continue to happen for at least a few cycles to come. Once again, I feel that explaining my personal experience will help you understand this phenomenon writ large. To put it simply, conservatives are very, very tired of identity politics, and of the modes of discourse common to today’s discussions of political issues when we engage our friends on the left. There is no way I could ever count the number of times I’ve been called a racist, for example, for disagreeing with today’s dominant liberal views about race in America, and for having completely mainstream, middle-of-the-road conservative views about say the intersection of economics, race, culture, and success in America. There are periods of time when I’m engaged in a lot of online political discussion that I am literally called a racist every day. The long-term effect of being met with the worst sort of personal slanders for the simple act of disagreeing and having a political view on the other side of the spectrum has built up an enormous well of resentment, which can easily turn into a powerful backlash if given the opportunity.
For example, in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, there was a tsunami of stories about a sudden and drastic spike in hate crimes, most of which turned out to be false. One of my friends was posting about a slew of bomb threats to Jewish community centers, and was expressing his dire concern about how Trump had done this to America. I advised caution and to wait until the facts came out to see if any of these turned out to be hoaxes, like so many of the other stories that had received much attention and gone viral (the vast majority did turn out to be hoaxes). Almost as soon as I said it, one of his friends jumped in to call me an anti-Semite. When I responded that I was only saying we shouldn’t make a judgment until we know the facts, that we don’t even know if these are real, let alone how or if you could attribute them to something about “Donald Trump’s America” if they were, he simply said “I refuse to engage with a known anti-Semite.” I tried, politely, to get him to respond to my points on the facts, and he simply repeated he would not engage in a discussion with a bigot. I suspect he didn’t want to “normalize” me. Rather than defend my character and ask his other friend to tone it down, my friend, who happens to know something about my views regarding Jewish culture, not only let these accusations stand, but explained how it was reasonable to interpret my comments as expressing bigotry.
I have more stories like this than I can count. A salient fact here is that I am mixed race, half white and half black. While engaged in one political debate this year, I had a white man call me a house you-know-what for disagreeing with some of his political views. Let’s pause and chew on that for a minute. Political discourse is at such a degraded level, that a white person thinks he has the right to call a black person the worst slur in the English language for a disagreement of political views. What must be the state of mind of such a person? Soon thereafter, a black friend of his found a picture of me in a corporate environment, and proceeded to call me a good Uncle you-know-what, licking the boots of my white masters. The person whose wall this was taking place on not only didn’t try to moderate this discussion and ask them to pull back from their vitriol, he supported their attack on me. Several months later, on the wall of a different friend, a black friend of his found the exact same picture, and called me the exact same name, and then made some absolutely vile comments about white female ancestors of mine lusting after black men. And did my friend who actually knew me ask him to tone it down, or better yet, demand civility and an end to these disgusting insults? I’ll give you one guess.
So now, if you’re politically liberal, imagine you’re me for a minute. Imagine you’re a pro-gay, pro-choice, pro-immigrant, multicultural economic conservative, who is liberal on every social equality issue and goal, but has conservative views on how to achieve some of them. How do you respond to people who say such vile things? Ok, maybe you say “Just walk away and give up.” I can do that. How do you respond if some variation of this happens in the majority of political discussions you have? If you’re not a racist for having mainstream, milquetoast conservative views, you’re definitely a misogynist, or a homophobe, or a classist. And they are going to let you know it. What if this has been happening for the last ten years or more? What if it’s not just a majority of interactions with people who disagree about politics, but more like 75 or 90%? What if it’s not just you, but every moderate conservative you know?
If you want to understand what is going on in the mainstream conservative psyche, please, I beg you, take some moments, now and after you read this, to run a thought experiment and ponder how you might feel about politics or the other side of the spectrum if you have had this experience hundreds of times over the course of years. If you get nothing else from this essay, I hope you come away with a little more empathy for what it’s like to be a reasonable, normal person who is constantly accused of being the most vile sort of bigot almost every time you have a political discussion.
If you do, you’ll feel the inevitable result: a tightening coil of resentment ready to be released in a backlash, just waiting for the moment, and getting stronger by the day. I resist this feeling mightily, and try very hard to rein it in and keep my resentment in check, to remind myself that not everyone on the left is like this (though it feels like it sometimes), to stay aware that responding in kind will not make anything better, and will only contribute to the negative feedback loop that is dragging this country down not only in its discourse, but in its very soul. I make myself reach out to people I disagree with on an almost daily basis, to keep seeking out civil discourse and nurture it, wherever it may be found, to not isolate myself in a bubble, hell, just to see if I can defy expectations and today’s sad normalcy and just have a polite discussion about politics with someone who I disagree with.
But most people are not like this. Most people aren’t this introspective. Most people are not political nerds. Most people don’t engage in political debates or discussions every day. Most people simply don’t have the time to ponder these political problems from as many angles as possible, or read enough articles to make sense of it all. They have families to raise, jobs to worry about, houses to fix, parents to visit, lives to live. But you know what they do have in common with political wonks like me? They experience the insults and easy accusations of bigotry too. They have people in their lives who they care about call them names too. Their feelings are hurt too, when people who should know you’re a good person treat you with contempt for your political views, or silently watch others do it with tacit approval, secretly (or not) cheering them on. If you’re genuinely curious about what happened in this election, ask some closet Trump supporters why they stayed in the closet. Ask some Trump supporters who are out of the closet how many friends they’ve lost, and what kind of things people have said about them. Ask some of your friends who are simply boring moderate conservatives how they have been treated in political discussions over the last ten years. You may find some deep waters that you didn’t see running through our political landscape, and a lot of frustration that you didn’t know existed.
This is the last thing you need to understand about Donald Trump’s election: once again, it’s not about Trump. It’s about something else that’s going on in America. On this point, it’s about a backlash against more than a decade of pent-up frustrations of literally being silenced for your political views, lest you be publicly shamed as a bigot. It is that simple. That is the situation moderate conservatives find themselves facing in the current political climate. This is a thing that conservatives walk around with daily, a thing that we feel whenever we log onto Facebook, whenever we hear our liberal friends talking about politics around us and know we dare not join in, a thing that we see in the news every single day. We see bland, moderate conservative views labeled as the most extreme bigotry, and we are frustrated, confused, and angry. And lately….mostly angry.
I have to admit to feeling this way myself. I fight it as hard as I can, but when for example today I am called a “typical gun nut” for defending Second Amendment rights (I’ve never owned a gun and never will), I can’t help but step back and think “You know what? You deserve Donald Trump.” Now this reaction is nowhere near strong enough in me to get me to actually vote for him, but it clearly is for millions of other people. And every time it happens, I inch a little close to thinking “F**k it, next time, I’m gonna DO it.” Electoral backlash is a very real, and at least occasionally rational political phenomenon. I’m not here to say if it’s the right thing to do in this particular situation, but I am here to say that it is real, it is happening, and we will continue to ignore it at our peril. As one commentator noted, the left is lucky that Donald Trump is the worst thing they got in this electoral backlash. Based on the history of devolved, strife-ridden politics, it could have been much, much worse, and still has the potential to become worse in the future.
If you made it this far, I have to congratulate you for your tenacity, and thank you for your patience. I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know how to fix it. But I do feel that I have some insight into what the problem is, into how we got here, and into the motivations for the completely normal, civilized, moderate conservatives who voted for Donald Trump. I do believe that if our friends on the left could more often engage us as normal, civilized, moderate human beings, that it would do much to lessen the appeal of a person like Donald Trump as a type of electoral revenge. Beyond and before that, I believe that conservatives as a group and the Republican party as an organization have some very difficult soul searching to do, to find a solid principled stance, to build an intellectual foundation for their policies and beliefs that rests on more than simply anger at reactionary identity politics.
It is a terrible and dangerous thing to define yourself in opposition to, rather than for, a person, group, or idea. When this paradigm is the dominant norm of an era, a society slips precariously towards the edge of a precipice, beneath which lies the potential to tear it apart while we succumb to our worst tribal instincts. We are not there yet, but I think there is little doubt that we are heading in that direction, and when we get there, we are all going to regret it. As impossible as it sounds, Donald Trump is not that precipice. He is only a warning that we are approaching it. And if the warning looks like Donald Trump, can we afford to find out what awaits us over the edge?