Something occurred to me while I was working on tax returns and listening to presidential campaign news. With three early primary victories and his large lead in most of the Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses, Donald Trump is likely to be the republican presidential nominee. His support comes from people who are angry, and that anger overwhelms their more traditional belief structure. This was pretty obvious in the Nevada primary results. Donald Trump won the evangelical vote by 14% over Ted Cruz, who is the more traditional evangelical candidate.
So people are angry. They are so angry that they will vote in ways that earlier versions of themselves would never consider. They may have previously voted solely based on social issues – in opposition to abortion and separation of church and state issues, and in support of other traditional fundamentalist “Christian values.” Now, they will use some rather odd justifications to support Trump.
There’s an episode of This American Life entitled “I Thought I Knew You” that’s worth exploring (thisamericanlife.org). In that show, conservative Christian radio host Tony Beam is baffled by Trump’s support among fundamentalist Christians. One of his regular callers justifies his support for Trump by referring to bible passages such as chapter 9 of 2 Kings in which Jehu kills pagan-worshipping Queen Jezebel and throws her body to the dogs. The caller points out that Jehu was “not a righteous man,” yet he was still an instrument of God, so Trump who is also imperfect can be an instrument of God too. To quote a line from the movie, The Big Chill, “I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.”
Why are Americans so angry? They are angry at the president for high budget deficits, the increased bureaucracy that came with ObamaCare, and for taking executive actions on immigration. They are angry at congress for getting so little accomplished. They are angry that so many good jobs were lost during the Great Recession, and that the new jobs created during the recovery are not of the same quality. They are angry that many people are being replaced by automation. They are angry that the country doesn’t take care of its people better, but also that it spends too much when it takes care of the “wrong people.” They are angry that America is no longer great, to paraphrase Trump, and they are angry because they are told to be angry by the media
The reason so many people support Donald Trump for president is not just anger, but a feeling of desperation. Obama became president a few months after the beginning of the recession. Before he was even sworn in, the republican leaders in Congress decided to systemically block any of the President’s initiatives so he would be seen as an ineffectual leader and the republicans would reclaim the presidency in 2013. Following the 2010 mid-term election in which the republicans gained control of both houses of Congress, that obstructionist strategy became much easier to implement and sustain. It has now morphed into legislative paralysis and little substantive work has been accomplished in the past 5 years.
Prior to the recession, people had a sense of hope. The booming housing market, and consequently, the increased value of most peoples’ largest asset generated some of that hope. The stock market climbed steadily between 2003 to 2007 so people felt good about the performance of their 401(k) accounts as well. They cashed in the equity in their houses and used the money to purchase feel-good items like boats and large screen televisions. Some looked at fast rising housing prices and decided to purchase additional houses or apartments as investments. It was easy – mortgage companies we not requiring any money down or proof of income, and infomercials showed the fabulous wealth that would come from this strategy.
Then everything fell apart at the end of 2007.
Just as it happened in 1929, the 2007-2009 recession was caused by a banking crisis. Bankers had made bad bets – often aware of the likelihood of catastrophic collapse – and it all unraveled very quickly. It’s no wonder that the people are mad at the bankers and mad at the elected officials who bailed them out. The banks came out of the recession with barely a scratch while entire lives were ruined for American citizens.
But… Some of those Americans can share in the blame as well. Just because there was cheap money, they didn’t have to grab it and do stupid things with it. This applies to those people who took the equity out of their houses to purchase TVs, boats, and vacations as well as those who were suckered into becoming real estate investors with no money down. These people may be angry at the banks and politicians, but they should also recognize their own roles in the debacle.
But what about the other angry people. What if they did everything right and still ended up loosing. They didn’t take the equity out of their houses to buy extravagances nor engage in wild speculation with their investments, but when the recession arrived, their jobs disappeared and perhaps they lost their houses. These people have a right to feel angry. They did nothing wrong. They followed the rules that are meant to lead to a good life and a reasonably comfortable retirement.
I suspect that many in that first group – the ones who made bad decisions and lost it all – may be inclined to blame others as a general practice. They can blame the banks for the bad decisions that led to the crisis and they can blame the infomercial spokespeople for lying about the rewards of speculative real estate investing. They can blame the government for helping bail out the banks, but hardly lifting a finger to help the average Joe. With all that blame to sling around, you can see how Donald Trump is an ideal candidate for them. He is a master at deflecting responsibility for any problem or factual error that others try to point out. He doesn’t just deflect – he attacks back with such cunning and flare that the public soon forgets the original attack.
For the second group – the ones who followed the rules and were burned anyway – Donald Trump is also the ideal candidate. He claims that he is going to fix America and in their desperation, they don’t need much proof of how he will accomplish this. They each have their own ideas about what needs to be fixed and Trump states things with such confidence that he comes across as believable to many of these people. Even the ones who don’t know whether he can do what he promises make statements like, “I don’t know weather he can do it or not, but I believe he has the best chance of getting it done.”
So Donald Trump will very likely be the next republican presidential nominee and could become the next president. People who don’t believe he can muster enough support to win the general election point to the significant number of voters who have a negative opinion of him, but they are discounting the desperation factor. I believe more people will turn to Trump in the wake of the likely abundance of negative ads that will be flooding media outlets over the next 8 months. Those negative ads are going to leave them sad, angry and dejected. Out of desperation they will turn to Donald Trump and PowerBall tickets.
Next Time: Lessons Not Learned – or Perhaps, Lessons to be Learned