Willful Ignorance, Faustian Bargains, White Privilege and the End of Liberal Democracy
What Trump Voters Did
Since Donald J. Trump declared victory in the early morning hours of November 9th, commentators have been incessantly bemoaning the calamity that has befallen the U.S. And with good reason. As many people had warned for months, Trump was unfit to be President and posed a real threat to the country’s ability to sustain its commitments to liberal democracy. The election tally itself was a cause for concern. Trump lost the popular vote by approximately 2.5 million (about 2 percent of the total) while winning a forecasted majority of the votes in the Electoral College. His was not a mandate. Further, exit polls indicated that most people who voted thought Trump was neither qualified to be President, nor trusted in office. His behavior since then has been less than reassuring: he has consistently lied about matters large and small, demonstrated an irrational level of irritability about the most minor of personal slights, all the while proving to have conned his supporters by promising the rich tax cuts and infrastructure contracts but going silent about his job creation plans for ordinary Americans (other than claiming he strong-armed Carrier from shipping 1,000 jobs to Mexico when in fact he basically rewarded them with contracts even as they shipped another 1,000 jobs away). He has in unprecedented and unconstitutional fashion stubbornly insisted he is above the law when it comes to him and his children continuing to make business deals all over the globe even as they pose a conflict-of-interest for him as President. His time has been mostly spent interviewing and announcing cabinets picks that amount to nothing less than a rogue’s gallery dominated by politically dangerous racists, misogynists, xenophobes, and also the super wealthy and Wall Street financiers (who he has now embraced after running against them). All are hell-bent on radically dismantling the domestic and foreign policies of the outgoing President Barack Obama, and in most cases without proposing credible alternatives.
Trump himself would rather, it seems, stay on Twitter whipping up hysteria about voter fraud and flag burning, while going back on the campaign trail so he can stage more of his beloved rallies, this time as part of a victory tour. His constant playing to the crowd to distract them from his retrograde appointments and policy proposals is more consistent with an autocrat than a President who aspires to be the leader of the free world. In fact, the Trump Administration is looking increasingly as one that will be willing to shut down our constitutional system if need be in order to rule over the country as its pathologically stubborn leader insists.
Commentators have increasingly noted in recent days that Trump’s victory challenges American liberal democracy. It is not inevitable especially since the constitutional protections that have kept it in place have become increasingly fragile in recent years. Valerie Bunce and Mark Beissinger note that with Trump’s win, the U.S. has come to add the third of the three critical conditions for when a democracy in crisis turns to authoritarianism as a political solution to its social and economic problems. These conditions are: (1) public opinion turns to distrusting the government’s ability to address the problems that have come to be seen as bringing on the crisis; (2) governmental institutions start breaking down failing to function at a rudimentary level of enacting public policy and enforcing the laws; and (3) a strongman or party steps forward announcing that he alone can solve the problem by taking swift and decisive action. The high levels of distrust in the U.S. government have been building for years. The chronic gridlock born of partisan polarization, which produced a policy stalemate is the ongoing result of the Republican Party’s refusal to recognize Barack Obama as a legitimate president. Now, Trump’s explicit campaign statement that he alone is strong enough to fix the problem puts the U.S. in line with others democracies that had these three critical factors at work in leading to the overturning of a democratic system and producing a turn to authoritarian rule. Comparative political analysis suggests we need to be concerned about what Trump will do as President going forward. The end of liberal democracy in the U.S. may in fact be near.
As distinctive a threat to U.S. liberal democracy as he is, Trump is nonetheless a product of larger forces that made his ascension to the Presidency possible. For years, the Republican Party has moved to undermine the pillars of liberal democracy, increasingly pushed by right-wing ideologues, especially on hate radio and cable TV, while receiving increased funding from corporate elites like Charles and David Koch who had the own agenda to free corporations from being held democratically accountable for their behavior when it came to getting rid of jobs, threatening the environment and more. The Republicans worked to undermine the remnants of democracy by suppressing the vote, flooding campaigns with the wealthy’s money, gerrymandering legislative and congressional seats, mounting massive disinformation campaigns, shutting down the government, paralyzing it in gridlock, and refusing to compromise on just about anything. They defunded schools, gutted unions both public and private, and hollowed out the welfare state. Then when election time rolled around, they amped up their efforts to prey upon people’s anxieties about racial diversity, immigration, and their fears about foreign threats, especially terrorism, all while they exploited people’s growing economic precarity in the face of a globalizing economy. Voters increasingly expressed urgency that change had to come. Yet, when it came, it did so ironically in the form of support for Republicans taking over what remained of a functioning government. It was as if the Republicans held democracy hostage until the people ceded them control of the government (which the people did perhaps primarily out of desperation that any change would be better than none, thereby making Trump’s vacuous campaign appear marginally credible).
Democrats had their strongholds on the coasts, but not in between, where, crucially, the Party wasn’t successful in speaking effectively to the middle and working-class white voters who were increasingly sensing that the country was leaving them behind as it changed demographically, culturally and economically. The Democratic Party was desperate to stay competitive, especially in the fight for campaign contributions. The Democrats became a pale shadow of the Republican Party and a real friend of Wall Street at the expense of Main Street. As a result, a growing segment of the white electorate was feeling increasingly ignored and even dismissed by the Party that previously had a reputation for standing up for workers and the “little man.” Whites became more vulnerable to racist appeals about Mexicans immigrants, Muslims refugees, African-American citizens and the special ire that was focused on Obama as the first nonwhite President in the history of the country. Trump had, for years, been trying to find a constituency to satisfy his pathologically narcissistic desire to win the Presidency. He, along with others, identified this situation as a political opening and, more than anyone else who ever successfully ran for the Presidency, he was willing to pander to the most racist and extremists white hate groups. First with his insistence that Obama was an illegitimate President not born in the U.S. and then with his campaign theme that he alone could, in classic fascistic fashion, “Make America Great Again.”
Lastly, there is the need to recognize that Trump’s surge is associated with a broad global, reactionary movement against global economic changes as witnessed by the rise of nativistic, anti-immigrant parties across Europe. Trump is the most prominent and successful of these leaders who are gaining votes in parliamentary elections across Europe and winning this summer’s Brexit referendum in England.
A few months ago, this would have read as a fictional melodrama; however, today most Americans are reading it as an uncontroversial statement of our current political reality. How could such an outrageous story become a matter of fact? More to the point, how could we allow this to happen here?
There is blood on many hands, Republicans, Democrats, elites, and ordinary people alike. But it is a mistake to heap too much blame on people who opposed Trump (even if they did it ineffectively). A key piece of the puzzle is the politically controversial topic of the Trump supporters themselves. That is where the focus needs to be right now and where the reckoning must begin.
During the campaign, Hillary Clinton did highlight the issue of who was supporting Trump. Most controversially, she told contributors at a New York City fundraiser that half of Trump’s supporters were a “basket of deplorables.” She was roundly criticized, in most instances as only committing a political gaffe — i.e., when a politician thoughtlessly states the truth about something they should mention only circumspectly. Racial resentment had been growing during the Obama years, in part because he was President but also for other reasons related to demographic, cultural, and economic change. Trump’s pandering had emboldened racists to be more open. But many other Trump supporters were offended by Clinton’s suggestion that half of his constituency belonged in the basket of deplorables. Clinton’s gaffe should have been a reminder that the truth is not always the correct thing politically (or, should we say, not always the politically correct thing).
Yet, no matter how sensitive it is as a topic for public discussion, there is a real need to keep on talking about Trump supporters and calling them out now as enabling a veritable crisis for our liberal democracy. Some Trump supporters do not belong in the basket of deplorables and simply voted for Trump because he was the Republican nominee or because he said he would appoint pro-life justices and protect gun rights. But people are mistaken if they think that their ideological commitments absolve them of responsibility for a Trump presidency. They, along with the others, are enabling a pathologically dangerous presidency to come into being, one that is likely to abrogate the Constitution and trample basic rights on a variety of issues: immigration, voting, access to health care, job protections, protection of the environment, torture of enemy combatants, foreign adventurism and a whole host of other issues. They made a pact with the devil, their own Faustian Bargain, and exercised their own kind of Willful Ignorance about who Trump is and what he can do, just so they could insist on change (even if it now seems likely that the change, especially in the economic realm, will not be to their benefit). Ignorant racists are undoubtedly a key part of Trump’s consistency; but willfully ignorant voters are also critical in making Trump’s threat to liberal democracy possible. Their anger and frustration is making autocratic rule all the more likely.
How could it be that people were willing to go so far? This is the question we need to be answering now, and I suspect we will be preoccupied with this question for a long time to come. Part of the answer is deep frustration with the existing political establishment that justifies people’s willful ignorance. But part of it is also just plain ignorance. As Richard Fording and I reported on our research the day before the election, Trump distinctively attracted “low-information” white voters, when previously these voters split their support between the Democratic and Republican candidates. Many people who voted for Trump did not know much about what he as President would or could do. They just knew they were mad and that Trump stood for their anger. These low-information voters were also likely to make their decisions based less on fact-based reasoning and more on how their emotions, manipulated as they were by Trump’s pandering. These voters were much more likely to have high anxiety about Mexican immigrants, Muslim refugees, African-American citizens and Barack Obama as President.
So there were diverse elements to Trump’s overwhelmingly white constituency. Some people were willfully ignorant, other were just plain ignorant and still others belonged in the basket of deplorables (even if they got put there by having their emotions manipulated). It is this kind of constituency that is not in anyway capable of resisting Trump’s attempts to rule however he wishes. It is up to the rest of us to resist. Otherwise, liberal democracy will be lost.