I have compared Donald Trump to Caligula before – the second time as recently as November, after the US election – and was privately amused that the day marking the official end of his reign, January 20, coincides almost exactly with the day of Caligula’s grisly end. But even I didn’t expect Trump to self-destruct the way he did last week, when he urged his supporters to protest outside the US Capitol.
Since then a lot has been said. Trump’s political career is finished, covered in disgrace. But that point, worth underlining, shouldn’t be confused with another: the character of the vast majority of Trump’s 74 million voters.
You confuse the issues at your peril if you’re interested in seeing the end of Trumpism, not just Trump, and if you want to see the back of it in Europe, not just the US.
Trump and the mob must be condemned but his voters need to be understood. Dismissing them all as racist, stupid or brainwashed should be an explanation of the last resort. That is, if you’re interested in effective opposition to the appeal of authoritarian populists.
At the cost of repeating what I said last week and in November: the more you know about the 2020 election – how the votes went, county by county, demographic by demographic – the more striking two questions are.
First, Trump lost, Joe Biden won and Biden’s victory is explicable. So why is it that so many voters believe the election was rigged?
The proportions vary according to pollster and the timing of the poll but the older the voter (Republican, Democrat or independent), the more likely they’re to believe Trump’s debunked claims.
To be clear: explaining why they believe cheating took place is not the same as saying that cheating did take place, just as explaining belief in ghosts is not the same as saying ghosts exist.
Second, you cannot appreciate the nature of Biden’s sweeping victory without appreciating Trump’s achievement in the same election. How could Trump be rejected so decisively while at the same time attracting more votes than Barack Obama at his zenith?
It was Trump’s charisma as well as his toxicity that pushed turnout up to 66.7 per cent. The previous high, when Obama was first elected, was 61.6 per cent.
The questions are two sides of the same coin. Older voters are more likely to believe cheating took place because in their experience (indeed, in the polling records) no incumbent with Trump’s numbers has ever lost.
He lost despite having 50 per cent approval on the economy. He lost despite having a large lead over Biden in the ‘very positive’ ratings (33 per cent to 23) right up till voting day. He lost despite retaining 92 per cent of his 2016 voters and increasing his overall vote tally by 11 million.
The mainstream media has lost credibility by going over the top in its anti-Trump coverage- Ranier Fsadni
You can read these numbers as underlining just how toxic Trump had to be for 81 million other voters to want him out – and you’d be correct. Biden’s strategy – to be as invisible as possible and make the election a referendum on Trump – was right.
But if you think that Trump attracted 74 million plain racists, you’d be wrong. Trump retained the vote of people who voted for Obama in 2012 but who crossed over to him in 2016. He attracted a greater share of the African-American vote than Republican candidates of recent memory and at least doubled his own 2016 share. He also significantly increased his vote among LGBTIQ and Muslim voters.
Nor did Biden attract back the traditionally Democrat, blue-collar Trump voters. He rebuilt the industrial ‘Blue Wall’ by outperforming Hillary Clinton in areas where she had herself bested Obama. Biden broke electoral records too but in the political centre and among voters with tertiary education.
The more you think Trump is racist and the more you think he acted against the best interests of blue-collar workers, the greater the puzzle: how can minority and working class voters believe this man truly speaks in their name?
To put it differently: why do they find Trump credible and not, say, the mainstream media, when it debunks Trump?
Part of the answer is that the mainstream media has lost credibility by going over the top in its anti-Trump coverage. The main answer has been outlined by scholars of populism and the emerging Euro-American political alignments.
Educated metropolitan elites are seen as unable to empathise with working classes whose lives are blighted by job losses, shorter lifespans, addiction and deteriorating neighbourhoods – communities badly hit by globalisation.
Calling Trump voters bigots might be self-satisfying to Trump critics but it helped Trump seem like the one who truly empathised. Given the way critics portrayed Trump as a narcissist, to speak of Trump as empathetic might seem ludicrous but it isn’t.
With his electorate, Trump comes across as one of them. He speaks in the same disjointed, pungent way, with an unpolished accent, eats junk food, wears his tie too long and scoffs at establishment wisdom. The more he was mocked for all these things, the more his opponents made him seem a surrogate for the entire working class, despite the actual privileges of his birth and wealth.
Why else would large masses of people shout “We love you” when he spoke? He never mocked them. Obama and Clinton, in unguarded moments, did.
The answer to Trumpism must involve a politics of empathy. Biden falls short of the political abilities of Obama and Clinton in many ways but he has never been caught mocking Trump voters as deplorable and unredeemable. It’s not because he is more guarded: he is crankier and more gaffe-prone. It must be because he does see Trump voters – the bulk of them – as people he can relate to.
A politics of empathy is the opposite of a patronising politics. As Bernie Sanders shows, it doesn’t have to be schmaltzy by substituting empathy for the real policy issues. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his address to Republicans this week, shows how rebuilding political trust begins with recognising real wounds and feelings of impotence.
In Europe, where the authoritarian populists are more successful than Trump, a politics of empathy is an essential part of strengthening democracy. To drop it in favour of self-righteous posturing is so dangerous, it’s unforgivable.
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