Why do Donald Trump’s supporters stick with him?
I hear this question everywhere from people who, like myself, can’t understand how anybody could support this loathsome human being.
Isn’t Trump’s compulsive lying enough to turn them off? What about his constant bragging? Weren’t we raised to condemn excessive self-love, especially in those lacking decency and good character? Doesn’t his adolescent bullying of people who lack equal power disqualify him from national leadership? How about his making nice to a newly emboldened white supremacist movement in our country? What about his vulgar misogyny on the Access Hollywood tape, where he crowed about how his star status gave him license to be a sexual predator? Or insulting Gold Star families? Or launching a moronic “mine is bigger than yours” contest with a North Korean madman who responds badly to insults and has his finger on the trigger of a nuclear arsenal?
All we know for certain is that none of this has been enough to turn off Trump’s supporters. Commentators like to point out, as if we should take comfort from it, that “only” about 33 percent of American voters approve of Trump. Folks, that’s a boatload of people, tens of millions.
So, what gives?
Theories abound. On one end of the spectrum, Trump’s supporters are written off as a bunch of low-information, know-nothing white supremacists and deplorables. On the other end, they are credited with perspective, focusing on the core political agenda of fixing health care, enacting tax reform, reducing government regulation, getting immigration under control, and adopting a tougher foreign policy. To them, all of Trump’s personal dysfunction and bad behavior is “just noise.”
Many of us have encountered Trump supporters who fall into both of those categories. But if I had to put my money on a single explanation for why people continue to support Trump, the one that best encompasses the most people, I would look elsewhere.
Most people support Trump because he is the enemy of their enemy.
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is a Sanskrit proverb that has been traced back to 4th Century BC India. It is often used to explain otherwise inexplicable allegiances.
And many of the allegiances to Trump sure look inexplicable. Try coming up with an explanation for why Christian evangelicals enthusiastically support a profane, irreligious adulterer who twice abandoned wives and young children to conduct, in full public view, affairs with younger, flashier women. Or try to understand why people who will lose their access to affordable health care if Trump’s plan is enacted nevertheless support him.
Holding on to the support of these people is no easy task, but Trump has managed to do it. So far.
Trump’s unique political skill has been to identify a demographic of potential supporters, largely white, rural and non-college-educated, and make common cause with them against the people and forces that they see as their enemies.
To those who wonder aloud why Trump always needs to find an enemy to attack, that’s why. The need to create enemies is not just a symptom of Trump’s mental illness, it is also a political tactic.
Whether by animal instinct or shrewd calculation, Trump’s choice of enemies has been brilliantly successful at keeping his base behind him. In Trumpworld, ungrateful African American NFL millionaires are disrespecting veterans, the flag, and the country. Over-educated, citified television reporters are elites who look down their noses at the Average Joe. Brown-skinned Mexican immigrants are stealing the jobs of hard-working Americans. Pointy-headed government regulators are job-killers. Whiny LGBT activists are special-pleaders and enemies of religious freedom. Obamacare is tyranny. Tree-hugging environmentalists are the enemy of coal miners and small business. And Hillary Clinton is the Devil.
Steve Bannon, and others like him, will tell you that Trump has chosen his enemies well, and is on the winning side of every one of those battles. And they would be right if the world consisted only of Trump’s base supporters.
But those who make common cause with Trump because of their shared antipathy toward his enemies should think twice.
The enemy of your enemy isn’t necessarily your friend. In a complex world, complex forces collide from every direction. They cannot be reconciled simply by keeping faith with a 2000-year-old Sanskrit proverb. The enemy of your enemy may well turn out to be your enemy too, not your friend.
And so it is with Trump and his supporters. While his combative rhetoric enthralls them, his actions betray them. He has delivered on none of his big campaign promises, yet his supporters continue to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Maybe the honeymoon will end when Trump’s supporters begin to lose their access to health care. Or when they see the lion’s share of tax cuts go into the pockets of the 1 percent. How about blundering into a devastating war with North Korea? Or will it be when our economy begins to suffer by withdrawing from multinational environmental, trade and security arrangements, thereby isolating us from the rest of the world?
The binding force of a common enemy is strong, but the glue is not permanent. It will hold only until Trump does something that has a more immediate, recognizably negative impact on the lives of his supporters.
When that happens, hopefully Trump’s supporters will finally realize that even if Trump is the enemy of their enemies, he is not their friend.
Follow Philip on Twitter at @PhilipRotner. Philip is an engaged citizen and a columnist who has spent over 40 years practicing law. His views are his own and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he has been associated.