If you read the New York Times piece titled “Why Rural America Voted for Trump” and a response to it with the header “F*** You, Rural Elitists,” you’ll come away with the conclusion that both are overwhelmingly accurate. But, the conclusions embodied in them are diametrically opposed. How is that possible? The only explanation is that they describe, and are the results of, mindsets that are radically different, that have very different starting points.
Why, you wonder, is this even a relevant topic for an Armenian newspaper? Three reasons: First, most of its readers are U.S. citizens and will therefore directly impacted by Trump’s coming actions. Second, the level of vitriol among Armenians on opposing sides of Trumpism is unprecedented. It wasn’t this bad for Obama, Bush Jr., or Clinton, as I remember, so this is unhealthy within the confines of our community. Third, what kind of foreign policy he conducts will impact many of our compatriots throughout the Armenian Plateau and its environs.
Those who support Trump argue that they want change, are sick of elites, feel a strong economic pinch, perceive societal changes that they find undesirable, want to clean up corruption in government, and likely many other smaller items. There are also those who support him for truly vile reasons, such as racism, but I’m convinced those are a minority of his supporters.
Let’s look at these notions. “Wanting change” is very understandable. Who doesn’t? Things have been getting worse for most people for the last 40 or so years. But how and why is Trump to be believed? Based on what? One interesting explanation which I’ve heard in two versions, is that he should “be taken seriously, but not literally” or “look at what’s in his heart, not what he says”. The example cited is the “building a border wall with Mexico paying for it”: this is to be construed as he will do something about the border, for real, but the payment part is not necessarily a part of what he will do. But this sort of approach allows anyone to project just about any desire or interpretation onto Trump. How can that be a basis for supporting a candidate for any office? How can one take seriously a candidate who plays fast and loose with the facts? One example that stands out for me is when he claimed the murder rate had gone up, when in fact it had gone down? The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is known for one of his quotes: “you have a right to your own opinion but not your own facts.”
The anti-elitism argument is perhaps the most inscrutable. Trump is a billionaire. It doesn’t get any more “elite” than that. If people are sick of U.S. elites, by what rationale would they vote for such a person? A friend presented an interesting twist on this apparent contradiction. “Trump is part of the elite, but he’s not elitist.” That’s possible, and that could explain how people opposed to elites could vote for him. But anyone watching Trump is immediately beset by his arrogant manner and speech. That arrogance is a primary marker of elitism, that “I’m better than you” mindset. So we have another contradiction. But, if “elite” means something else to his supporters, that could explain things. I have the impression, based on the NY Times article cited above and other material I’ve encountered in right-wing media, that elite means “coast-dwellers, city-dwellers, the (so-called) liberal media, those who support evolving/newer cultural/sexual mores” i.e. those who are not on the conservative end of the political spectrum. But even here, Trump doesn’t fit the description.
The economic argument for supporting Trump also is fraught with contradiction. It seems very unlikely that a billionaire is going to understand the plight of middle class citizens, much less those who are even less well off. That lack of understanding is bound to manifest itself in policies he puts in place. This gap might have been filled by well-chosen advisors (i.e. his cabinet). But, even those people are coming from the same economic stratum as he. Plus, some of them are exactly the vile people who caused the economic crash in 2008 (remember that Clinton was rightly criticized for being too cozy with those banksters). While these choices were not known to his voters prior to Election Day, why do they not react with dismay now? There is the possibility that Trump’s anti-trade-agreement rhetoric got people to support him. But here again, he seems two-faced since he has significant interests overseas, including the manufacturing of Trump branded items sold in the U.S.
The societal changes and cleaning-up corruption angles overlap with the previous two points. Trump is one of the most conspicuously non-traditional people on the public scene, hardly a “family values” man is he. The banksters he’s nominating for confirmation to his cabinet are the absolute manifestation of corruption at the government-big business nexus. Plus, Trump himself can easily be described as a crook given how many of his employees and contractors he has screwed out of the money they were due. And, don’t forget, Trump said early on that when he gave money to various candidates for elective office, he did so with the expectation of favors, and got them. How is any of this uncorrupt and virtuous?
Perhaps Trump’s rallying cry of “make America great again” was appealing. After all, who doesn’t want their country to be great? But there was nothing of substance to back that up. By luck, I encountered another Moynihan quote that addresses this point: “Political society wants things simple. Political scientists know them to be complex… One could argue that, in part, the leftist impulse is so conspicuous among the educated and well-to-do precisely because they are exposed to more information, and are accordingly forced to choose between living with the strains of complexity, or lapsing into simplism.”
So, while these approaches may yield some insight as to the roots of Trumpism’s support, they do not result in clarity, at least not yet. A measured, rational, factual discussion of these (and any other, missing) perspectives would be beneficial in multiple ways. Please provide your input.