Figuring Out Trump Voters

Two views to explain the loyalty of Trump voters.

There was a long NYT op-ed by David Brooks posted a couple days ago and printed in today’s paper, offering an irresistible counter-intuitive thesis. And a response today by a writer for Vox. And my perspective given the Sagan/Druyan book I just read, and my own recent understanding.

NY Times, David Brooks, 2 Aug 2023: What if We’re the Bad Guys Here?

Brooks wonders, as do many of us, why so many people still support Trump, despite… everything.

He quotes the standard story explaining this that’s told by all of us anti-Trumpers, via Thomas B. Edsall via Marc Hetherington:

“Republicans see a world changing around them uncomfortably fast, and they want it to slow down, maybe even take a step backward. But if you are a person of color, a woman who values gender equality or an L.G.B.T. person, would you want to go back to 1963? I doubt it.”

Brooks comments and proposes a counter-story:

In this story, we anti-Trumpers are the good guys, the forces of progress and enlightenment. The Trumpers are reactionary bigots and authoritarians. Many Republicans support Trump no matter what, according to this story, because at the end of the day, he’s still the bigot in chief, the embodiment of their resentments and that’s what matters to them most.

I partly agree with this story, but it’s also a monument to elite self-satisfaction.

So let me try another story on you. I ask you to try on a vantage point in which we anti-Trumpers are not the eternal good guys. In fact, we’re the bad guys.

He then recounts a history since the 1960s, focusing on increasing economic disparities; how the educated and the wealthy built a world to advantage themselves. A meritocracy. And how those left out felt more and more resentment.

It goes on and on, and I’ve read this twice by now, and I can’t see that he offers any alternative. Professional positions are occupied by people with educations, and the uneducated feel resentful?

It’s easy to understand why people in less-educated classes would conclude that they are under economic, political, cultural and moral assault — and why they’ve rallied around Trump as their best warrior against the educated class. He understood that it’s not the entrepreneurs who seem most threatening to workers; it’s the professional class. Trump understood that there was great demand for a leader who would stick his thumb in our eyes on a daily basis and reject the whole epistemic regime that we rode in on.

What’s the alternative?? And why is the system different now than it has ever been?


Let’s consider this response, which considers Brooks notion as the “economic anxiety theory” of Trumpism as opposed to the cultural values theory.

Vox, Zack Beauchamp, 4 Aug 2023: I regret to report the economic anxiety theory of Trumpism is back, subtitled “In David Brooks’s new column, he asks the American elite if they’re the baddies. But he’s actually telling them a comforting fiction.”

Which opens:

The question of why Donald Trump manages to maintain such a grip on the Republican base, to the point where he can remain a nationally viable candidate despite all of his misdeeds and legal woes, is one of the most important issues in American politics. It’s a subject that has been explored extensively, with the best evidence converging on the same general story: Trump is the avatar of a kind of resentful reactionary politics, one uncomfortable with a changing America, that defines the worldview of a plurality (if not a majority) of the GOP faithful.

But this answer offers few easy solutions and makes some people uncomfortable, as it feels a bit too much like a judgment of Trump supporters. So we get efforts to reject the evidence, often relying on long-debunked alternative arguments.

The latest example of this phenomenon is David Brooks’s new column in the New York Times. In a piece titled “What if We’re the Bad Guys Here?”, Brooks criticizes those that would explain Trump’s persistent political support as a product of racism and anxious attachment to hierarchy. This explanation has some truth, he concedes, but is “also a monument to elite self-satisfaction.”

In its place, Brooks urges his readers “to try on a vantage point in which we anti-Trumpers are not the eternal good guys.” In this counterstory, Trump represents a boiling up of decades of working-class frustration with an economic system rigged in favor of those with college degrees. The elite’s unwillingness to face this hard truth, Brooks argues, is both a failure of introspection and a social disaster in the making.

The writer comments that “economic explanations for right-wing populism’s rise have long been the preferred theory of the elite.”

But the popularity of a narrative among the elite does not determine its truth or falsity; evidence does. And the data supporting this narrative is weak at best.

Rather, the best evidence typically points toward identity-based explanations: Racial and cultural conflicts are far, far more important than the kind of economic alienation Brooks wants to highlight. This is true not only in the United States but in other countries facing similar challenges from far-right populist movements — important comparison points that Brooks entirely leaves out.

Brooks’s column makes some important points, particularly about the flaws in the American economic model. But it’s one thing to point out those flaws, and another thing to posit that (as a matter of fact) they are behind the great divides in our politics — when in fact they are not.

And if we keep getting this wrong, we will never fully understand the nature of our democratic crisis — or what can be done to address it.

And the article goes on to present the evidence countering Brooks’ thesis, with a section headed “The overwhelming evidence for a cultural explanation” with another story beginning with the late 20th-century revolution in social values.

The article ends:

In his column, Brooks talks a lot about “narratives” and “stories” one could tell about Trump’s enduring popularity. What he wants, his stated objective, is to get his readers to feel differently about both Trump supporters and themselves.

“Let me try another story on you. I ask you to try on a vantage point in which we anti-Trumpers are not the eternal good guys. In fact, we’re the bad guys,” Brooks writes.

But this isn’t literary analysis. We’re talking about questions of fact: Competing social scientific theories about why a particular phenomenon, Trump’s persistent and enduring hard core of political support, exists out in reality. The question is not how David Brooks and his friends feel about Trump’s base, but whether what they believe about them is true.

To figure out how to get the country past its current impasse, we need to look at reality as it is, not as we imagine it might be. And the reality is that our deep political divide is rooted, first and foremost, in profound and largely irreconcilable views of who America is for and what its social hierarchy should look like. That may be unpleasant for Brooks — and all of us — to contemplate, but reality’s ugliness doesn’t provide an excuse for ignoring it.

Stepping back, I resort to my reading, as in my previous post. If Trump acolytes were concerned about the economy, they would be responding favorably to the current economic news. They don’t. They ignore the evidence, and insist the economy is in shambles. It’s all about tribalism. And, per the Sagan/Druyan book, the resurgence of primitive, tribal morality.

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