Column: Understanding What Motivates Trump’s Supporters

  • President Donald Trump applauds the audience after his remarks during a rally at the Four Seasons Arena at Montana ExpoPark, Thursday, July 5, 2018, in Great Falls, Mont., in support of Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., and GOP Senate candidate Matt Rosendale. (AP Photo/Jim Urquhart)

For the Valley News
Saturday, July 07, 2018

Among the mysteries probed on nightly cable (not Fox!), sustained support for Donald Trump reigns supreme. How, pundits and guests ask, does his support remain intact in light of his constant lies, petulant narcissism and erratic, crude, bullying behavior? How can anyone like this man? With the 2018 midterms on the near horizon, and the 2020 presidential campaign underway already, this question vexes Democratic strategists.

They’re barking up the wrong question. No one likes this man — or at least very few do. Trump was not elected because many millions of people liked him. He was elected because many millions of people don’t like us — Democrats/liberals/progressives.

Even a 2-year-old can see this.

In January, my then 2-year-old grandson, Jack, and I made a snowman in the backyard and decorated it with wooden accessories from LL Bean, courtesy of my wife. Jack especially loved the large, colorful buttons, each attached to a short dowel for shoving into the snowman’s torso. We finished and retired to the kitchen table for hot chocolate with marshmallows.

As Jack sipped his hot chocolate he said, “I like the buttons best.”

Having virtually no remaining impulse control, I said, “The snowman has bigger buttons than Donald Trump.”

Jack laughed, my wife rolled her eyes, and I asked, “Do you know who Donald Trump is?”

Jack said, “Yes, I do. He doesn’t like people.” My wife and I laughed and Jack rolled his eyes.

Then he added, pointing at us, “He doesn’t like you guys.” True that.

I asked, “Does he like you?” Jack said, “No, Donald Trump does not like me.”

I asked, “Does he like anyone?”

Jack replied, “Yes, he likes Donald Trump ... and Donald Trump.”

Every word of that exchange is true and precisely recorded. I wrote it down immediately.

Many folks, including myself on occasion, have attributed Trump’s success to a surge of white nationalism and long-simmering resentment over civil rights, gay rights and women’s rights. This attribution suggests that Trump supporters wish to return to the 1950s, or before, longing for a time when schools were segregated, women knew their place and homosexuals stayed in the closet. This is only partially true. Overstating the racism, misogyny and homophobia implicit in Make America Great Again has only served to add tensile strength to the Trump phenomenon.

The majority of Trump supporters approve of gay marriage. Many women who support Trump also support equal pay for equal work and other women’s rights issues. A highly visible minority of Trump supporters is explicitly racist, but the vast majority believes in racial equality and will evoke Martin Luther King Jr. as evidence.

Trump arose because many Americans believe all of these things have gone too far. From a psychological point of view, their threshold of comfort with change has been breached. They are angry because they think black activists and their white allies value Black Lives over all other lives, thereby diminishing the dignity and humanity of law enforcement officers, often their friends or relatives, who are killed in service to their communities.

They are not angry at the concept of equal opportunity for black children, but at the inequity represented by affirmative action, which they believe reduces opportunities for their own children.

They are not pressing for women to lose the vote or face workplace discrimination. They are angry that #MeToo represents a picayune dismissal of normative gender roles and behavior, thereby painting women as victims and all men as predators.

Most Trump supporters are not explicitly anti-gay. Look back at Vermont’s history: 18 years ago, during the debate over civil unions, thousands of “Take Back Vermont” signs adorned bumpers and barns. Nine years later, when same-sex marriage was legalized, there was barely a whimper of protest. This quiet revolution proceeded until the Supreme Court opened the nation to same-sex marriage. Where the Make America Great Again movement gains traction is when progressives advance the rights of transgender students or insist that same-sex education is included in the health curriculum at their middle school.

They are angry because they believe that highly educated “elites” look down on them, are blind to their decency and dismiss their values, their religion and their traditions.

It is why the contradictions in attitude toward Barack Obama are so confusing. How did the same country that elected Obama turn to an ignorant man who used “birtherism” to discredit Obama and now tries to erase every shred of his legacy?

It’s not entirely because Obama is a black man. Many who supported Trump and also voted for Obama were deeply disappointed by Obama’s presidency. They felt he was aloof, indecisively intellectual and did not deliver on his populist promises.

Most Trump supporters don’t hate black folks, gay folks, women or immigrants. They are just tired of progressives appearing to care more about black folks, gay folks, women and immigrants than we care about them.

I don’t agree with any of this. Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and the expanding campaign for universal dignity and equality are the next wave of progressive progress. But if we fail to understand what really motivates the segment of America that continues to support Trump, we will make strategic blunders. How can we understand this without capitulating to the uglier side of this political movement?

I don’t have the answer, but this will be the defining question in 2018 and 2020.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. Email him at stevehutnelson@ gmail.com.