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Trying to Understand My Countrymen

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This piece will be appearing this week in newspapers in my very red congressional District (VA-06).

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Sometimes I wish that, if America must be governed by a man like Donald Trump, he had been forced upon us by a foreign power. But, even if a foreign power did play some role, there’s no escaping that Trump’s being President was and remains the choice of a sizeable portion of the American people.

Every day, I work to understand my Trump-supporting fellow Americans. I regard the search for such understanding as my patriotic duty, for I see addressing that reality as a necessary part of restoring health to American politics. (That reality will likely long outlast this presidency.)

But I’m far from satisfied with the understanding I’ve reached so far.

Take for example the results of a recent Quinnipiac University National Poll that asked Americans whether Donald Trump is a good role model for our children. Although overall, 2/3 of Americans say No to that question, 72% of Republicans said that Yes, Trump is a good role model.

How should we understand this Republican affirmation of Trump as a role model?

I’d like for the answer to be that they don’t really mean it, that they recognize that Trump routinely behaves in ways – lying, bullying, boasting, self-aggrandizing, power-grabbing, rule-breaking – that we would hate to see in our children. I hope that their answering “Yes” was for other reasons, having to do with their giving their allegiance – for whatever reasons – to this President.

In other words, in this less malignant explanation, the answer these Republicans give to the pollster’s question really would mean: “No, of course he’s not a good role model. But I like him as my President, and I’m not going to give any answer that will fortify Trump’s enemies –whom I also regard as my enemies – in their attacks on him.”

But I have no evidence for that interpretation. It’s just hard to wrap my mind around the alternative, which is that these Republicans really do think Trump’s a good role model.

And that alternative, which is more likely to be true, brings up the question that continually recurs for me regarding the supporters of Donald Trump: do these people simply not see what most Americans – and most of the world – see about Trump or, while seeing him clearly, do they find virtue in what others find appalling?

To the puzzle about Trump’s supporters, I have come to believe that there are many answers because various groups of people support him for different reasons.

For example, some studies have shown that “racial resentments” characterize a large portion of Trump’s base.   Other studies have found that “authoritarian” inclinations substantially characterize supporters of Trump.

Both can be true. And for other components of Trump’s base, still other explanations may be more on target.

For example, here’s a hypothesis I’ve come up with to explain one component of Trump’s support. I don’t imagine that it is a huge part, but I suspect it is a valid piece of the picture.

The specific group of Trump supporters my hypothesis is about is those white working class, and often rural, people whose economic and social situations have deteriorated over the past generation, whose income has stagnated, who have come to feel left out of the “American Dream.”

During the campaign, I wondered how can these people believe that Trump will improve their situation? How can they not see that he’s likely just conning them, the way he conned those students at Trump University, that he won’t use them and then stiff them, as he has so many contractors who have performed work for him?

And since the election, I’ve wondered: do these people not see that Trump’s policies are only leaving them out in the cold, as he erodes their health care coverage, their workplace protections, the air they breathe and the water they drink—all to fatten the already superrich and to strengthen the corporate power?

In this instance, that recurrent question – do they not see, or do they not feel about what they see as I would expect them to? – takes this form: Is there any way that — if they do see that Trump will do nothing to improve their lives — they might still like Trump being President?

The hypothesis that came to me provides a way that the answer might be yes—i.e. how they might recognize Trump will do nothing for them, but still see him as their hero.

Here’s how that could be:

There are good reasons to see a big chunk of Trump supporters as coming from the same part of the American population whose life-expectancy has been declining in a striking way. (In some areas, and population subgroups – especially in Appalachia, the rural South —  this decline in life-expectancy has been ongoing for a couple of decades.)

The demographers have identified as “deaths of despair” as the cause of this drop in life-expectancy in those areas. Life-expectancy has dropped, to be more specific, because of increases in three causes of death: suicide, drug overdoses (the opioid crisis), and deaths related to alcoholism.

Essentially, three different ways that despairing people are killing themselves.

(As for the reasons for the despair, experts see that as the result of “a 40-year stagnation of median real wages and a long-term decline in the number of well-paying jobs for those without a bachelor’s degree.” And they cite the injurious effects of this economic decline on family life, and people’s quest for meaning in their lives.)

Which brings us to my hypothesis (and I admit it’s just a hypothesis).

Despair means having no hope. And if one has no hope, one is not looking for improvement in one’s life. But one may be looking for vengeance against those whom one blames for one’s hopeless situation.

So, perhaps these voters are like Sampson in the Bible. Having been blinded by his enemies, the Philistines, Sampson calls out to the Lord for the strength to bring down the great edifice in which a multitude of the Philistines are celebrating. With that strength, he avenges himself in a last action that kills both his enemies and himself.

Some Americans, sunk into despair and yet still filled with rage, may be supporting Donald Trump as the wrecking ball against the American system they feel has betrayed them.

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Andy Schmookler was the 2012 Democratic candidate for Congress in VA-06, and is the author of the website “A Better Human Story” at http://abetterhumanstory.org/