Thursday, April 27, 2017
Tom Nichols notes overwhelming support for Trump among his voters despite abject failure in office in USA Today.
President Trump’s record in his first 100 days, by any standard of presidential first terms, is one of failure. Aside from the successful nomination of the eminently qualified Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, there are almost no accomplishments — and a fair number of mistakes.
The president’s first national security adviser had to quit after a record-setting tenure of only 24 days. The administration’s first major legislative initiative, on health care, crashed and burned in a spectacular political wreck. Foreign policy has lurched from alienating China to relying on China to help us with North Korea. A rain of cruise missiles on a Syrian air base led to a brief moment of hope for those who care about humanitarian intervention (and a moment of despair for Trump’s isolationist base); less than a month later it is all but forgotten by supporters and critics alike because no actual policy emerged from this stunning use of American force.
Meanwhile, almost every day produces a cringe-worthy moment of messaging failure, from spokesman Sean Spicer’s bizarre comment about how Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons on his own people to Trump’s claim that his ratings on a television news program were bigger than 9/11.
Not surprisingly, Trump is at this point the most unpopular new president in the history of modern polling. What is bewildering is that at the same time, 96% of Trump voters say they have no regrets about their choice. How can this be? Is it just partisanship, with Americans so divided that they will simply cheer on their own team and stay loyal beyond all rational thought?
The wide disagreement among Americans on the president’s performance, however, is more than partisanship. It is a matter of political literacy. The fact of the matter is that too many Trump supporters do not hold the president responsible for his mistakes or erratic behavior because they are incapable of recognizing them as mistakes. They lack the foundational knowledge and basic political engagement required to know the difference between facts and errors, or even between truth and lies.
As the social psychologist David Dunning wrote during the campaign, “Some voters, especially those facing significant distress in their life, might like some of what they hear from Trump, but they do not know enough to hold him accountable for the serious gaffes he makes.” In other words, it’s not that they forgave Trump for being wrong, but rather that they failed “to recognize those gaffes as missteps” in the first place.
This was most evident during the campaign itself, when candidate Trump’s audiences applauded one fantastic claim after another: that he saw Muslims cheering the 9/11 attacks, that the United States pays for over 70% of NATO’s costs, that he knew more than the generals about strategy. When he became president, he continued the parade of strange assertions and obsessions.
To be sure, some of Trump’s voters, like any others, are just cynical and expect the worst from every elected official. Others among them grasp Trump’s failings but fall back on the sour but understandable consolation that at least he is not Clinton. But many simply don’t see a problem. “I think I like him more now that he is the president,” Pennsylvania voter Rob Hughes told New York Post writer Salena Zito.
There is a more disturbing possibility here than pure ignorance: that voters not only do not understand these issues, but also that they simply do not care about them. As his supporters like to point out, Trump makes the right enemies, and that’s enough for them. Journalists, scientists, policy wonks — as long as “the elites” are upset, Trump’s voters assume that the administration is doing something right. “He makes them uncomfortable, which makes me happy,” Ohio Trump voter James Cassidy told the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale. Syria? Korea? Health care reform? Foreign aid? Just so much mumbo-jumbo, the kind of Sunday morning talk-show stuff only coastal elitists care about.
There is a serious danger to American democracy in all this. When voters choose ill-informed grudges and diffuse resentment over the public good, a republic becomes unsustainable. The temperance and prudent reasoning required of representative government gets pushed aside in favor of whatever ignorant idea has seized the public at that moment. The Washington Post recently changed its motto to “democracy dies in darkness,” a phrase that is not only pretentious but inaccurate. More likely, American democracy will die in dumbness.
Those of us who criticized Trump voters for their angry populism were often told during and after the election not to condescend to our fellow citizens, and to respect their choices. This is fair. In a democracy, every vote counts equally and the president won an impressive and legitimate electoral victory.
Even so, the unwillingness of so many of his supporters to hold him to even a minimal standard of accountability means that a certain amount of condescension from the rest of us is unavoidable.
In every election, we must respect the value of each vote. We are never required, however, to assume that each vote was cast with equal probity or intelligence.
Posted by Ballard Burgher at Thursday, April 27, 2017