Monday, July 17, 2017

An Exercise In Futility

 In previous columns I discussed why the Republican Party is unfit to govern in any capacity. Most of the reasons why are readily apparent to anyone with even a modicum of objectivity (whether or not they agree with those reasons is a different story ... we'll get to that)1. However, this begs the question: if it's so obvious why the GOP is a failure, then why do people continue to support it? Or, to drill down even further, how come trump supporters are so adamant in their support for trump even as the evidence that he colluded with a foreign government to interfere with an election becomes more and more conclusive?

I have a theory on this, and it actually has very little to do with politics, current events, or the orange nightmare.

When the media discusses trump supporters, a common thread is that he managed to speak to their concerns in a way that nobody -- Republican or Democrat -- had previously. And while there is some merit to this argument, I think the real reason behind his support being so unwavering runs a little deeper, a little closer to the core of who we are as great apes of the species homo sapiens.

When asked to describe themselves, people generally do so in terms of membership in a certain group. They tell people that they are an architect, say, or a Rotarian, or a Democrat, or a musician, or Hispanic ... the list goes on. Very rarely will someone describe themselves thusly: "I am a believer that all people are equal, regardless of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. I don't eat meat out of preference, but I avoid seafood due to allergies ..." and so on. The reason for this partly because jeez, but that would mean interminably long conversations when you meet people, but mostly because it does not describe this person in relation to their tribe.

Your tribe can be anything. It can something as large as "resident of Earth," or as small as you and your spouse. Each and every person belongs to multiple tribes. Me, for example. I am a member of the following tribes:
  • Database administrators.
  • Political pundits.
  • Italian-Americans.
  • Musicians.
  • Fat guys.
  • Bald guys.
  • Virgos.
  • People who drive a Subaru.
  • Democrats.
  • Liberals.
  • Sound engineers.
  • Fathers.
  • Husbands.
... and so many more, too many to list here in toto.

And membership is a matter of degree, as well. For example, membership in the "Fathers" tribe is a huge part of who I am and plays a large role in my day-to-day decision-making, while membership in the "Virgos" tribe is pretty much on paper only because -- well, astrology is nonsense2. It's the same with everybody ... some tribes to which they belong play a larger role in their lives than others. This is natural, it's part of what makes us who we are as human beings.

In the case of many trump supporters, membership in the "trump" tribe has become a core part of their internal identity. I have heard some trump supporters start a sentence with something like "I used to be a Democrat, but after seeing/hearing trump ..."

The media has tried -- unsuccessfully -- to identify the common theme among his supporters: "They are working class voters." "They tend to be less educated." "trump voters skew older." Actually, no. Trump supporters are fairly representative of the broader cross-section of American society in terms of age, education, and income. About the only thing that can be said is that they are overwhelmingly white -- but that can be said of many candidates on both sides of the aisle -- and that they tend to adopt a libertarian flavor of conservatism.

Once you start to break things down in tribal terms, however, a picture becomes clear. trump supporters are people who, by and large, feel like they have been left out of all the "good" tribes (aka groups in which they would like membership, but are denied for various reasons): the wealthy, the intellectual elite, the political class, the people who get interviewed on TV about whatever the hot topic of the day happens to be. They are average, in almost every way, and America of the past quarter century has been focusing all its attention on those who are decidedly not average: the super-wealthy, or mass murderers, or pop stars, or the homeless. In the political arena, they have been shut out and ignored to a staggering degree. Politicians haven't been that interested in talking to average people unless they are willing to pony up massive campaign donations. Ideology makes for good theater, and as a fund raising tool it is extremely effective, but when it comes down to it they only want your money.

This was the void that was filled by trump. Despite his crassness, his egomania, his fundamental dishonesty, even his ability to form complete sentences without a script, he managed to reach people in a way that very few before him have managed to do3. What is interesting, and what makes trump supporters unique, is the degree to which they identify with him. For many of them, identifying as trump supporters has become their defining characteristic (it's the same with some on the left, to be fair, but the left is not currently occupying the White House). Just as Mike Pence famously said "I'm a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order4," a significant percentage of trump supporters are putting identification with their guy as the largest part of their self-identity ... basically, replace "Christian" in Pence's comment with "trump supporter" and you will have a statement that applies to a sizeable chunk of the population5.

Once this basic fact of tribalism is understood, a lot of the ridiculous arguments we see online begin to make sense. When I get into a discussion with a trump supporter and point out the facts as they are understood today concerning the Russia investigation, to that person I am not giving them an objective run-down of events. What I am saying, in their opinion, is "You are wrong to be who you say you are. Supporting trump makes you less relevant as a person."

This was illustrated very plainly a while back when I penned an article entitled "Is Donald Trump Losing His Mind?" In this article I pointed out that trump is showing signs of cognitive decline, as measured by his use of language in unscripted situations. This is a metric that is recognized, and has been for decades, by psychiatrists, psychologists, neurologists, etc. as a legitimate measure of cognitive function. The question I attempted to answer is simply, is this cognitive decline within the range of what would be considered normal for any 70 year old guy who doesn't take very good care of himself, or does it point to incipient dementia?

Well. The internet blew up (relatively speaking, of course ... I'm still pretty small potatoes) with people accusing me of bashing trump, he's crazy like a fox, it's all an attempt to discredit him, etc. etc. The thing is, I could have used the name "O. J. Simpson" (who is also 70 years old) and not changed a single word elsewhere, and it would have been the same article. The reason people became so agitated is not that I was accusing trump of anything -- I wasn't -- but that, in their minds, at least, I was invalidating their very identities as trump supporters -- and, by extension, as human beings.

Herein lies the heart of the problem with all the well-meaning liberals who want trump supporters to acknowledge the facts of his corruption and incompetence. It will never happen as long as "trump supporter" remains a core part of their self-identities. Something like that is beyond the reach of facts, or logic, of reasoned debate. It is much more visceral, and trying to get someone to change this based on external factors triggers a primitive "fight or flight" response, often without the person even realizing it. You can see this behavior pretty much everywhere: from a toddler who insists that five comes after three and four doesn't exist, to the lengths nations will go to allow adversaries to save face.

This, at a very fundamental level, is what this becomes about: saving face. Telling a trump supporter about trump's lies and corruption is not simply giving them factual data (or not, depending on the source), it is an indictment. An accusation. A concrete statement that "you're wrong." And if there is any characteristic that can be attributed to human beings across the board, regardless of age, political affiliation, religion, nationality -- any metric at all, really -- is that we hate to be accused of being wrong about something so core to who we are.

This is why trying to "convince" trump supporters is nothing more than tilting at windmills. You may as well get into a debate about the merits of Social Security reform with a mailbox for all the good it will do6.

I gotta lie down.

Please like and share my Facebook page at You can also donate to my campaign to scare up some advertising dollars at

1If you are interested in re-reading these, Part 1 can be found here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

2Unless it isn't, at which point I apologize to whatever big shot is about to visit vengeance upon my head.

3Interestingly enough, this election cycle just past gave us two candidates who were able to reach people in this manner: trump, and Bernie Sanders. Even though they were diametrically opposed politically and ideologically, Sanders was able to tap into that same sense of disenfrachisement.

4Not for nothing, but this statement should be setting off alarm bells across the political spectrum. What he is basically saying here is that he is perfectly okay with this country being turned into a theocracy based on his fundamentalist Christian viewpoint. Handmaid's Tale, anyone?

5Whether or not this is a good thing will be left for the reader to decide.

6This may actually be preferable due to the much lower stress level involved, and because the mailbox is slightly less likely to call you a "libtard."

No comments:

Come At Me, Bro

So the latest stunt from Ron DeSantis and the Floriduh GOP -- and that's all they are is stunts -- is SB 1316, a particularly odious and...