Understanding Trump Supporters….or Not

| November 21, 2020 | 1 Comment

Like many, if not most, politically involved anti-Trumpers, I think a lot about how anyone can support such a flawed human being to be our President. Whenever he commits an atrocity against decency, humanity, legality or morality (which is almost daily), I think, “I wonder what (fill in the name a Trump supporter I know personally) is thinking about this?” Does it give them pause? Do they question their support? Or do they support this or that heinous act or statement? What is it about him that binds them to him even in the face of what seems to me to be ignorance, stupidity, racism, misogyny, greed, narcissism or deceit?

For some people I know, either family or friends, the answer is pretty clear to me. I believe, for some, it validates their innate, possibly implicit but unacknowledged, racism. For others, it is a deep and abiding loathing for liberals or Democrats. Some, frankly, are what’s called “low information voters,” who may be in the Fox News bubble. Which I guess could more accurately be called “wrong information voters.” And then there are the single issue voters, most obviously those among my Catholic brethren for whom there is literally nothing in life more important that stopping the scourge of abortion.

While I personally believe that Trump’s personal flaws make him an existential threat to everything – and I mean EVERYTHING – America stands for, I can at least grudgingly understand the thought process among those characterized above that brings them to support Trump. I think they are profoundly wrong, but I at least understand intellectually how they got there.

I have one friend, however, for whom his support for Trump is a true puzzle. Let’s call him Sean, which is not his real name. He doesn’t fit any of the categories above, except that he’s a devout Catholic, but I do not believe his support for Trump is singularly based on abortion. He has never said so to me. I imagine it is a factor. Just not the only factor.

Sean is a committed Republican and considers himself a moderate ideologically. He’s very smart, I would even say brilliant. He has an engaging self-deprecating wit. He is among the most compassionate and empathetic people I know. And, significantly, he’s not one of those people who is only compassionate toward people whose struggles are relatable to him. Like those politicians who support cancer research after a close relative dies of the disease. Or favors drug programs as a result of a family member struggling with addition. Or has a gay son or daughter and, therefore, supports gay rights.

Sean devotes time, energy and money to helping people who need help in the broader sense. When I first met him, he told me about volunteering at a homeless shelter on a regular basis. I remember finding it discordant that he, a Republican, would do such a thing. A reflection, obviously, of my own unconscious bias. And he has taken individuals under his wing that he has met in his daily life. His wife calls him “a true Jesuit,” which is accurate.

And yet, he voted for Trump.

If you listed all the many positive human qualities that Sean possesses in column one and list their opposite in column two, column two would describe Donald Trump. I literally cannot name one single positive human trait in Trump. It’s actually pretty remarkable. I don’t know any other person about whom I can say that.

Recently, I spent a weekend at Sean’s vacation home about 3 hours from Washington. In typical fashion, he contacted me and my wife, Rita, because he wanted to reach across the political divide and prove to himself that personal relationships can overcome partisan divisions. I was surprised by the invitation. Most of our communications over the past four years has been through comments on Facebook, which have been warm and friendly, not in any way political.

In fact, I remember well the last time we were together face to face. It was during the interim between the 2016 election and Trump’s inauguration. We did talk a bit of politics in a calm and friendly way. I expressed deep anxiety over having someone like Trump as president. He assured me that all would be well. That Trump was really not even a Republican and, consequently, was ideally suited to get things done. He described him as a deal maker who would invite McConnell and Pelosi into the Oval Office and hammer out bipartisan or non partisan agreements on a variety of issues important to the country. I was not convinced. But the lunch was very pleasant. He’s a good friend.

The weekend at his place was delightful. The setting is idyllic. His house is on an inlet near where the Potomac flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Sean’s inspiration for inviting us was seeing my bird pictures posted on Facebook. The area around his house is swarming with birds and he thought I’d be able to get some good pictures. While there were fewer birds that he’d hoped, I found plenty to photograph. And I may have taken my best bird picture so far. It was a great blue heron in flight, posted elsewhere on this blog. We also had a very fine dinner, which he hosted, at a historic restaurant in the area.

We talked very little of politics, until Sunday morning breakfast. And even then, it was utterly without rancor. There was one moment when it could have veered into a more hot argument. It was when he described himself as a “pro immigration Republican.” I couldn’t resist and asked what he thought about separating children from their parents at the border and putting them in cages. He very quickly asserted that that policy was started by Obama.

A response was forming in my head along the following lines. There’s a difference between an unexpected and undesired consequence of immigration policy and an affirmative policy choice. Yes, there was some family separation under Obama. But it was limited and not Obama’s expressed objective. Under Trump, the separation was the policy. As has been said, “the cruelty was the point.” AG Jeff Sessions was explicit that the policy was intended to discourage refugees from coming to the U.S. for fear of having their children taken away.

In addition, since there is no policy process under Trump on issues like this, there were no plans made for reuniting the families. In a normal administration, the collateral effects of such a policy would be identified and provided for. In this case, they just implemented a zero tolerance policy at the border and let the chips fall where they may. As of this writing, there are still about 500 children who remain separated from their parents. Utterly inexcusable.

But, I didn’t respond and we moved on to another topic.

So, where am I going with this? Well, Sean offered some other clues as to his support for Trump. His loyalty to the Republican Party demanded that he remain within the party and fix what’s wrong, rather than abandon it to the crazies. He also explained that the judges, cabinet secretaries and political leadership of the agencies were important to him, implicitly suggesting a crazy president will still lead an executive branch filled with non-crazy people with Sean’s values. (I’d argue that didn’t happen with Trump. Lotta crazies in the agencies). He did acknowledge that there are crazies in the party, but seemed to believe he needed to remain loyal so that the crazies didn’t permanently take over. And, finally, he said that he thought all this talk about Trump being a threat to democracy was hyperbolic.

I guess that’s what it comes down to. Ideology aside, we simply disagree on the magnitude of the threat Trump poses to the country. As I write, he has a clown show of lawyers in court arguing that judges should disqualify millions of votes in order to grant him the presidency. He is personally trying to persuade state legislators to appoint electors to the Electoral College that support him, even if the voters of the state voted for Biden. And he is constantly tweeting to his followers that the election was rigged and he is the rightful winner. While we didn’t discuss these issues, my guess is that Sean would say “Aw, that’s Trump being Trump. He’s going to lose in the end. What harm will have been done. Your fears are exaggerated.” But a fundamental basis of democracy is the peaceful transfer of power where the vast majority of the citizens accept the results of the election, even, if not especially those on the losing side. We are about to head into a situation in which at least 30% the public will consider their president illegitimate. And Trump will be beating that drum for years. That, I believe is a threat to democracy.

And that’s what I don’t get. How can you say that a president who refuses to cooperate with the peaceful transfer of power is not a threat to democracy? It seems to me that is the very definition of a threat to democracy. Yes, American institutions may, in fact, resist the threat, but you can’t say it’s not a threat. And I tremble to think where we’d be right now if the election were closer than it turned out to be. Is there any doubt that Trump would do absolutely whatever it took to seize power if he had lost by a little?

In the end, I think the question I’ve posed to myself is unanswerable. There is no way that one human being can get into the mind of another. It becomes a matter of perception. Trump supporters, whatever their motivation, do not perceive what I perceive. And I can’t change that through argument or logic. To quote the man himself when talking about the pandemic, “It is what it is.”

So, I’ve concluded that, while I consider Sean to be deeply and catastrophically wrong about Trump, he’s right about one thing. And that is that friendship both transcends – and is far more important than – personal politics. It’s more real. It’s more rewarding. And it’s more to be valued.

Everything else is noise.

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  1. David L. Durkin says:

    De gustibus non disputandum est.

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