I've tried to understand it, I really have. There is anger in this country. There is a legitimate feeling of disillusion with politicians in Washington. There is frustration over unemployment, underemployment, low wages, and an economy that just isn't rebounding as much as we all hoped. There is fear of terrorism, fear of crime coming across our borders, and fear of being persecuted for simply saying what's on your mind. But fear is common, we all share it. It is no excuse for supporting the ignorance and xenophobia of Donald Trump.
The rise of Donald Trump in the American presidential campaign has been as confusing to many analysts as it has been irritating to others. Many have speculated that Trump's supporters are predominantly low income and poorly educated people. But the evidence doesn't seem to support this. Another theory is that people predisposed to authoritarian rule are likely to be Trump supporters. Regardless of Trump's main demographic, at every turn, Trump seems to defy all the standard rules of political conduct and presidential campaigning. The more outrageous his proposals, the more support he seems to attain. From banning Muslims to insulting the Pope, Trump seems to advocate for the most outrageous ideas possible. Most of America (and the world for that matter) wonders how such an abrasive person could gain so much popularity. This week, we try to understand his popular appeal.
Trump seems to have tapped into a sort of raw (and I believe mostly unfounded) anger in this country over the current establishment. His supporters, while claiming to be the silent majority, fail to understand that American politics does not center around them, but should only include their voice as one representative among many. This is a voice which is NOT in the majority (as evidenced by the fact that a large majority of self-described conservatives and nearly all liberals are completely opposed to him). But his supporters don't care about that. They see their allies everywhere now (because confirmation bias is a great and terrible thing), and believe that theirs is the voice which has been ignored and left out over the past several decades.
His supporters say that they "don't want another politician," but instead they turn to something much worse: a salesman. They fail to realize that by the very act of entering the political race, Trump has become a politician. Trump uses all of the same tactics as politicians (avoiding questions, pandering to his base, and so on). But his supporters are too distracted by the fantastic sales pitch of a "great America" (whatever that means) to see that he has no true vision for the country outside a few ridiculous policy proposals. Trump is selling a feeling. The feeling that the people who know or care little about the complexity of issues have been left out of the political process. He is selling a feeling of anger, fear, and pure emotion which lies at the heart of his decision making. His supporters are a group that has felt marginalized or betrayed by the establishment. But the reason for the for this marginalization is obvious: their solutions to America's problems are completely unrealistic and childishly simple.
Take for instance, the known problem of Latino immigrants entering the country illegally. Democrats would rather see a path to citizenship and participation in the American economic system, while Republicans prefer to see more stricter enforcement of current laws and a system which de-incentivizes immigration. Whether you agree with these proposals or not, both of them are realistic, logical, and would help solve the problem in an ethical way. Simply put, Trump supporters just don't care about all that. They are utterly uninterested in the complexity of this issue and have gravitated toward the most extreme solution of building a wall and deporting all immigrants in the childish hope that it will just make the brown people go away. Never mind that building a giant wall along nearly 2,000 miles of mostly open desert is probably the definition of wasteful government spending, or that ripping apart immigrant families and deporting up to 12 million economic refugees is a horrifying abuse of basic human rights that is on par with some of the worst atrocities in human history. None of that matters, because these are ideas that feel good to some people. It is punishment for those who Trump supporters believe have wronged America, and a way to eliminate the fear that immigrants will change this country.
It's the same situation when discussing strategies against ISIS. Most mainstream candidates are debating between a variety of complex strategies (most of which are grounded in one foreign policy theory or another). These have mostly involved long discussions about ceasefires, pressuring our allies/enemies, or ground force deployments. They all recognize and appreciate the difficulty of the conflict. Trump, on the other hand, has advocated to let ISIS defeat Assad (even though they can't) and then take out ISIS with American troops (civilian casualties in Damascus be damned!). More recently, his Middle East strategy has involved other overreactions like banning all Muslims from entering the country, carpet bombing ISIS locations, and completely abandoning the region to Russia. These strategies are utterly devoid of logic and completely divorced from reality. But again, that simply doesn't matter because these ideas feel good to some people. It's so easy to just say "all Muslims could be bad, so let's just keep them all out" or "ISIS is bad, let's just bomb them all." These ideas feel good because they don't require thinking about negotiations, proxy wars, or the convoluted web of alliances in Syria. They involve raw emotion. Now emotion is a good thing, but pure emotion trumping logic (get it) is a very dark path to follow. This isn't an action movie. Our choices have consequences.
The bottom line is, Trump is a salesman. Like any politician, he will do and say what he needs to in order to get a sale (or a vote in this case). Only this time, what he is selling is a fantasy world masquerading as the "truth." A world where China, Russia, Mexico, and Syria all roll over and capitulate to the demands of The Donald. A world where ISIS trembles in fear of American bombs (and so do Syrian civilians). A world where everyone does exactly what the United States tells them to do because Trump said so. A world where the supposed champion of human rights, tolerance, and equal protection under the law betrays its founding principles and shuts its doors to those most in need. A world that doesn't (and shouldn't) exist.
The frustrations and anger that fuel Trump's campaign are understandable. Many of us have experienced years of underemployment and a political process that no longer appears to care for the average citizen. The Middle East seems to be in a much worse position today than ten years ago, and the gang violence which plagues Latin America is reaching unprecedented levels. But walls and bombs won't fix that. We shouldn't characterize Trump's supporters as stupid. Many of them are intelligent and caring individuals who want what they believe is best for America. But his rhetoric and ideas are intended to divide the United States, not unite it. We all want America to be "great," but outlandish rhetoric and unrealistic policies won't do anything to help that. The ultimate irony is that Trump's supporters want someone who isn't "bought and paid for by businesses and special interests," but seem to forget that Trump IS a business. They want to remove corporate interests from power (a noble goal), but are instead directly handing it over to one of America's major corporations. They're not freeing American politics from corruption, they are simply cutting out the middle man.