The Why of Trump Supporters

[Content Note: Racism; violence; disablist language at link.]

The media's latest totally trenchant ponderance is why so many people are supporting Donald Trump. Naturally, their having turned 98% of their 24-news cycle into a Real Dirtbags of Gold-Plated Toilet Penthouses reality show is never part of the answer.

They have noticed, however, that he tends to appeal to white people who are racist. Funny how that happens when a candidate engages in racist rhetoric, allows black protesters to be attacked and forcibly removed from his rallies, hedges as disavowing support from white supremacists, and invites loyalty pledges that involve his supporters raising their right hands into the air.

Thomas Frank explores this explanation for his support in the Guardian, and concludes it's not so much that Trump's supporters are racist; it's that they're fearful, economically insecure, and appreciative of his position on free trade.
Last week, I decided to watch several hours of Trump speeches for myself. I saw the man ramble and boast and threaten and even seem to gloat when protesters were ejected from the arenas in which he spoke. I was disgusted by these things, as I have been disgusted by Trump for 20 years. But I also noticed something surprising. In each of the speeches I watched, Trump spent a good part of his time talking about an entirely legitimate issue, one that could even be called left-wing.

Yes, Donald Trump talked about trade. In fact, to judge by how much time he spent talking about it, trade may be his single biggest concern – not white supremacy. Not even his plan to build a wall along the Mexican border, the issue that first won him political fame. He did it again during the debate on 3 March: asked about his political excommunication by Mitt Romney, he chose to pivot and talk about ... trade.

It seems to obsess him: the destructive free-trade deals our leaders have made, the many companies that have moved their production facilities to other lands, the phone calls he will make to those companies' CEOs in order to threaten them with steep tariffs unless they move back to the US.

...Thus did he hint at his curious selling proposition: because he is personally so wealthy, a fact about which he loves to boast, Trump himself is unaffected by business lobbyists and donations. And because he is free from the corrupting power of modern campaign finance, famous deal-maker Trump can make deals on our behalf that are "good" instead of "bad." The chance that he will actually do so, of course, is small. He appears to be a hypocrite on this issue as well as so many other things. But at least Trump is saying this stuff.

All this surprised me because, for all the articles about Trump I had read in recent months, I didn't recall trade coming up very often. Trump is supposed to be on a one-note crusade for whiteness. Could it be that all this trade stuff is a key to understanding the Trump phenomenon?

...Ill-considered trade deals and generous bank bailouts and guaranteed profits for insurance companies but no recovery for average people, ever – these policies have taken their toll. As Trump says, "we have rebuilt China and yet our country is falling apart. Our infrastructure is falling apart. ... Our airports are, like, Third World."
There is much more at the link, and I recommend reading the whole thing. But this excerpt represents the central thesis: That Trump's primary appeal isn't racism, but his focus on the bad trade deals that have accelerated the decimation of US manufacturing.

I'm sure this is indeed part of Trump's appeal to many of his supporters. But if racism doesn't significantly figure in their support for Trump, then why is it Trump they're supporting and not Bernie Sanders, who also articulates impassioned critiques on the same subject?

Certainly part of it is that Trump gets more ink than Sanders does. But it's also because of the respective language they use. Sanders doesn't spit out the words "Mexico" and "China" like they are filth in his mouth. He doesn't rant about how we'll wreak vengeance on Mexico by forcing them to pay for a wall along our border, nor yell about China screwing us by pegging the Yuan.

Trump's language on trade and language of racism are not distinct things. They are intimately and inextricably linked.

It's not a question of whether his supporters are responding to his message on trade or his message of white supremacy. Those messages are one and the same.

Every savvy candidate wants to create a movement to which voters want to belong. Sanders wants you to join his revolution. Hillary Clinton wants you to help her make history. John Kasich wants you to take a nap with him on a pile of grey suits.

Trump wants you to be part of his crowd. As I've observed previously, Trump doesn't even give speeches. He just gets up in front of a crowd and holds forth, having a conversation with them that's two-parts defending himself with a series of bullshit justifications and straight-up lies and one-part talking to them about how he knows their lives suck and spinning yarns about how he's going to make everything better.

All of it is peppered with constant references to how popular, how successful, how wealthy, how well-liked, how connected, how influential he is. He is the cool kid. (The cool bully, no less—even more irresistible to the chronically fearful.) Don't you want to be part of his crowd?

It's a coy strategy, when his base is comprised of insecure, alienated people who aren't sure where they belong in their own country anymore.

And that, too, is an appeal to racism—to racist fears about waning white privilege.

Many people have noted that "Make America Great Again" is a thinly veiled dogwhistle for "Make America White Again." This is true. "Make America Great Again" is also an invitation—an extended hand from Donald Trump to join his clique; an implicit promise that joining his team will make you great again, too.

Or at least better than those people.

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