Virtually every Donald Trump supporter I met in the line outside his planned rally in Chicago in March told me the same thing: She or he had come to be “better informed,” inspired by a distrust of the media (that Trump, I should note, continues to use to his advantage). Never mind that we’ve heard, arguably, too many of Trump’s words as it is; these folks in that Chicago queue wanted to be physically there — not looking through a television screen, but in the middle of a circus fueled by dissatisfaction with an increasingly brown America. And the sucker-punching violence perpetrated against protesters by some of these supposed Real Americans and Patriots keeps getting excused by the media these folks supposedly distrust. Their candidate has been happy to justify it.
And conservative pundits look like blind plumbers trying to fix a leak, inexplicably upset that the same cultural anguish and racial division they’ve fanned to help the Republican Party win elections since the Southern Strategy was implemented are now off the leash. With Trump, that resentment has now been made political flesh. Most pitiable are the reflections from those opposed to his candidacy, steadfast in their declarations that Trump isn’t a Real Conservative (as if his supporters gave a shit). But for all these conservatives’ ruminations on the “why” and “why not” of Trump, they fail to deal with the “how”: his faithful followers, who are knowingly supporting a sexist demagogue poised to make life even more unsafe for people of color and religious minorities in this nation. That demagogue is winning because people keep voting for him.
The New York Times’s David Brooks, to his credit, at least recognized the “how” in a recent column. Though he dismissed Trump as a vulgar narcissist who is “epically unprepared” to be president, he also included quite a bit of capitulation to Trump’s supporters, writing that fans of the real estate magnate and former reality star “deserve respect” because “they are left out of this economy.”
“Deserve” is a strong word, implying entitlement for a voter base already drunk on it. Trump supporters are entitled to their vote. They aren’t entitled to my deference.
This was reinforced for me when I read about a Washington Post/ABC poll that asked respondents this zero-sum question: “Which of these do you think is the bigger problem in this country — blacks and Hispanics losing out because of preferences for whites, or whites losing out because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics?” Of all the candidates, Trump’s supporters were the only ones who went over the 50 percent mark in believing that whites are losing out. This — along with their escalation of supremacist rhetoric and the violence they’ve exhibited at his rallies — is why I can’t give these folks any leeway.
Allowed to skate by for years with commonly accepted, exclusionary labels like Real Americans, these mostly white folks are getting the “patriot pass,” so to speak. They’re allowed to claim that they love the American project while they whine about how it’s evolving. They associate themselves with the candidate who most embodies prideful ignorance, who indulges white nationalist sentiment while simultaneously promising both the big-government gains that liberals won along with the cultural isolation and systemic advantage that conservatives so dearly protect.
Both liberal and conservative critics focus largely on Trump himself and his distracting antics, while giving the people most directly responsible for his emergence short shrift. Those people are deemed dupes, or the like, infatuated by Trump’s reality-show celebrity and entranced by his omnipresence in our media instead of recognized for being responsible for it. Frankly, it’s really patronizing and paternalistic to blame all of this on them watching too much tube. (It even bears a certain resemblance to the attitude that has justified the active disenfranchisement of African-Americans and many others throughout the country, whether through impromptu civics tests when registering to vote or today, through voter-ID laws passed under the guise of preventing fraud.) And though it may feel counterintuitive, only by respecting the intelligence of Trump’s supporters can we properly make them accountable for his repugnant rise.
Insulting them isn’t the most urgent danger here. By dismissing their autonomy, we let them get away with looking like rubes being played by their own candidate. These people aren’t victims or suckers, nor are they charity cases. Just like Ted Cruz devotees, they’re citizens with agency, willfully choosing to promote a candidate who is as unfit for public office as he is dangerous. While national attention has focused almost entirely on Trump’s character and GOP acquiescence, we can’t ignore the fact that his supporters are eager to rise behind an obvious and malevolent charlatan who makes my country an even more unwelcome place. A Donald Trump presidency is one where everything is someone else's fault, and this is what these people want. There’s nothing to respect about that whatsoever.