Nov. 25, 2020
Right after the election a good friend of mine, with whom I connect on Zoom every few weeks, asked the question many other people were asking: “What were they thinking?” He was referring to the millions of Americans who voted for Donald Trump. Bad enough to have elected him in 2016, liberal opinion holds, but at least then voters were not yet certain (even if they had a good idea) how he would govern. Perhaps he would “rise to the office,” as the old saying goes.
But this time everyone—supporters and opponents—were thoroughly familiar with his personality and policies. “I have been trying for four years to find something redeeming in those who support and enable him, and have failed miserably,” my friend added.
Therein lies our current dilemma: half the country doesn’t understand the other half. And if we hope to reconcile and reunify the warring halves, we need to know: what were they thinking?
Even here in the progressive bubble sometimes known as the Republic of Evanston, more than 3,000 people voted for Trump, almost 8% of the total. These people are our friends and neighbors. If this seems patronizing and condescending, it’s not at all meant to be; it’s meant to be respectful and even hopeful that conflicting opinions can be made understandable and even reconcilable.
So in an effort to find out the reasons for their support, I asked family and friends to refer Trump supporters to me. I heard back from people in Florida, New York, California, downstate Illinois and Evanston.
What I heard was revealing. Most of them conceded that Trump’s personal qualities were less than stellar, that he was bombastic, juvenile, “rebarbative” and paranoid. “He is a strong candidate for a psychiatrist’s couch,” wrote one. “I hate Trump’s demeanor,” said another.
But they all suggested that his policies and accomplishments more than made up for his personality.
Among those accomplishments, they said, were:
- Standing up to China. “He made our trade deals fairer.”
- Getting us out of the “terrible” Iran deal.
- Drawing down U.S. troops overseas.
- Getting NATO to “pony up” more money for defense.
- Pushing back against North Korea. “There’s more stability now.”
- Strongly supporting Israel.
On the domestic front, they wrote:
- Operation Warp Speed helped pharmaceutical companies bring effective vaccines to the market in record time.
- He reduced stifling regulations.
- Median household income hit the highest level ever.
- African-American, Hispanic-American and Asian-American unemployment hit the lowest rate ever. Women’s unemployment reached the lowest rate in 65 years; similarly, youth unemployment, veteran unemployment and Americans without a high school diploma also reached record low unemployment.
- Millions of American were able to get off food stamps.
- Pre-COVID, more Americans were employed than ever. Millions of jobs were created, including hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs growing at the fastest rate in three decades.
- Veterans programs were dramatically revamped, including helping veterans to receive timely and needed medical care.
- He supported the police and other first responders and the right to protest peacefully while condemning opportunistic violence in the streets. He was adamantly against de-funding of police.
“He improved our economy greatly and brought millions of jobs back to the U.S.,” said a retired math teacher living in Florida. “I approve of the wall he is having built, for that will give us control of immigration on our southern border.”
A Trump supporter from California, who has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and was most recently COO of a professional audio company, wrote me:
“I know I’m supposed to be ashamed of this, but I’m not… My personal belief is that I’d rather see results than worry too much about bedside manner, especially when survival is at stake.”
She inveighed against the leftward tilt of the Democratic Party and the “utter failure of the present-day media (including social media) to present the truth about Trump’s accomplishments, his character, and the dangers we’re now facing. It’s tough to separate the truth from the lies when you’re fed a daily dose of misinformation. What I fear most right now is not Biden in particular, or the left and their often-misguided policies. What I’m most afraid of is a rampant, self-righteous ignorance… that between a secretive, untrustworthy government and a biased media that has already shown itself to engage in outright censorship, the American people will no longer have the opportunity to know what’s actually transpiring.
“I could go on, but the point is Trump GETS THINGS DONE…for all Americans, including those most in need. And that’s what I personally care about, not politics. Ironically, the Republican party, thanks to Trump, has now become the party of the people, the party of the working class.”
A retired New York state lab technician said, “[Trump] has strengthened our military, brought big business back to our country, increased the GDP and stock market more than anyone, achieved the lowest unemployment rates ever for Blacks, Latinos, Asians and Women, accomplished prison reform, and just recently brokered a Middle East peace agreement. Just a few of his numerous accomplishments.”
Finally, the renowned editor, author and longtime Evanston resident Joseph Epstein had a piece in a recent issue of the Wall Street Journal in which he predicted Trump “is likely to go down in history as one of the most effective and most despised one-term presidents.”
Until the COVID crisis, he wrote, “Mr. Trump’s policies had vastly lowered unemployment rates, cut away entrepreneurially inhibiting financial regulations, and revved up the stock market. His enemies called him a racist, but his opportunity zones, prison reform and encouragement of black enterprise generally did much more for African-Americans than his African-American predecessor did. In foreign policy he cut America free from a badly conceived Iran deal, made substantial strides toward peace in the Middle East, and showed himself a greater friend to Israel than any American president in recent history.”
A few observations about the above commentaries. First, they preceded Mr. Trump’s current attempts to subvert and overturn the election results and spread inaccurate and inflammatory information, which might give pause to even his most ardent supporter.
And except for Mr. Epstein’s column, none of my interlocutors mentioned what I easily understand could be viewed as an infuriating and insufferable condescension against the “deplorables,” the snobby liberal “we-know-best” attitude.
This is often manifest in the question: “How can they repeatedly vote against their own interests?” (see the 2004 book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America”). As liberal columnist Mark Shale warned on “60 Minutes” a month or two ago: “The Democrats used to be a shot-and-a-beer party; now they’re Sauvignon Blanc.”
Then there are red flag issues like “woke” culture and “defund the police” and “open the borders” that confused and frightened many conservative and moderate voters.
Many if not most of these points could be strenuously debated. For example, progress against ISIS abroad and unemployment at home started under the Obama administration. And the president’s character is not something to be “put aside.” It’s at the heart of the issue: given his “rebarbative” personality, can he be trusted to govern fairly and with the wisdom and prudence the office demands?
But this isn’t intended to be a fact-checking or argumentative piece. It’s meant to understand the breadth and depth of Mr. Trump’s appeal. More than 73 million Americans voted for him, and it behooves liberals to understand why.