Last week Politico rounded up a passel of intellectuals and compiled their short takes on “what Trump showed us about America.” I was particularly taken with Francis Fukuyama’s exasperated humility. “At the end of Trump’s term,” he writes, “what I’ve learned is that I really don’t understand America well at all.”
Because, seriously, what the hell just happened?
The single most confounding thing about the Trump era is that we still do not really understand why more than 70 million Americans voted for Donald Trump, and why there remains a smaller core of fanatical supporters who will believe anything he says—most recently, that he won the election but that it is being stolen through voter fraud.
Fukuyama argues that none of the many theories that cropped up to explain Trump—globalization, downwardly mobile white backlash, social media, polarization on population density diploma divide, etc.—” adequately explains the fear and loathing evident on the right in America today.” I agree.
It’s easy enough to explain why negative partisanship can get vitriolic, but I suspect Fukuyama’s right that this sort of thing doesn’t capture how deranged and degraded the right became.
There is a qualitative change in the nature of partisanship that conventional explanations fail to capture reflected in poll data showing that a majority of Republican voters believe some version of QAnon theories about Democrats drinking children’s blood. Nor have I seen a good explanation for why so many conservatives can see such an imperfect vessel as Trump as the object of cultlike worship, or fear the Democrats as the embodiment of Satan.
I haven’t seen a good explanation, either. There’s a fat dollop of one-off special sauce in the recipe for a barking mad, ride-or-die Trumpenvolk. Established general theories of political behavior won’t be able to account for that.
Insofar as there is anything that counts as an explanation, I think it mostly comes down to the fact that “Donald Trump” is a mythical fantasy persona with fake hair, a fake tan, a fake fortune, and a real girdle invented by the flesh-and-blood Donald Trump, viciously narcissistic criminal sociopath. Don managed to turn his insatiable, infantile craving for validation into a legendary, larger-than-life cultural reality through an astonishing talent for manipulating mass perceptions of reality. But this puts him at permanent, scorched-Earth war with anyone who would tell the truth about him. And Trump wins more than he loses because he is, in fact, a grandmaster in the art of infowar. If he weren’t, “Donald Trump,” the combed-over Paul Bunyan of models, private jets, and branded luxury real estate would not exist, and the crook who invented him would not reside in the White House. But he does. He does.
After nearly four years, this remains shocking to consider. A grifting hardball propaganda artist really did succeed in getting a figment of his sociopathic childhood imagination elected president of the United States of America. This has not been a healthy development for American politics, to say the least. But I think this is what explains the vexing level of derangement that has Fukuyama and millions of other Americans baffled.
That said, I do think ordinary political science can carry us further than you might think. The polarization literature is rife with truly crazy survey results that illustrate the depth of emotionally charged negative partisanship. For example, in the 1960s, basically nobody cared if their kids married somebody who identifies with the opposing party. In 2010, half of Republicans and a third of Democrats said they’d be irked if their kids tied the knot across party lines. Of course, partisan antagonisms have only heated up since then. Personally, I don’t want my children to grow up and marry abstemious scolds who never finished college and refuse to quaff refreshing toddler plasma. Or does that make me the problem?
In any case, I think it’s safe to say that things have become worse over the last decade. Party has become identity. But nobody really loves their own party, so party identity largely comes down to white-hot, passionate loathing of the other guys. And that makes us unduly receptive to slanderous messages about the out-party. But blood libel-level receptive? Trump is an infallible, divinely-appointed ubermensch-level receptive? Yeah… I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure you need to add a big hit of nitrous to the mix of ordinary negative partisanship to achieve this level of insanity.
Now, I have a new piece this week in the New York Times on why more Americans pulled the lever for Trump this time than last despite Covid, and why the plague didn’t seem to hurt down-ballot Republicans at all. Part of the story is that polarizing negative partisanship leaves partisan voters with increasingly divergent perceptions of the real-world conditions we use to make judgments about incumbents’ performance.
When a Republican is in charge, Republicans think things are going great and Democrats think they’re falling apart, and vice versa. If it’s undeniable that something’s going poorly when your party is in power, then you’ll tend to think it’s the other party’s fault. If something is undeniably going well when the other party is in power, you’ll tend to gravitate toward stories that either chalk it up to dumb luck or find a way to give your party the credit.
When the electorate’s pretty evenly split, this sort of partisan confirmation bias reduces the force of “retrospective voting,” which can screw up elections as reliable referenda on incumbent performance, which in turn can screw up the kick-the-bums-out accountability function of democracy.
I think this kind of crazy epistemic polarization gets us a long way toward understanding why war-criminal-scale negligent homicide didn’t hurt Trump as much as you’d think, and barely hurt the GOP at all. But, again, I think you gotta spike the punch to get the better part of an entire political party behind the idea that your guy actually won an election he evidently lost by a healthy margin.
Logically, it’s not that big a step from believing that the economy is booming under your guy, no matter what the numbers say, to believing that your guy won the election, despite what the numbers say. But it’s a psychologically huge step. And there’s a huge political difference between a structurally unsound democracy shoddily creaking along and an entire party edging up to the repudiation of fair democratic elections.
But how about ideological media bubbles? Can’t they get us all the way here? Sunstein’s law of group polarization says that the more ideologically homogeneous the group, the quicker it moves to the radical extreme. I’m sure this is part of the story, but as Matt Grossmann has shown, most Republicans aren’t in a hermetically sealed bubble. They watch CNN and read the Times, too, and they’ve got relatives whom they otherwise trust sharing correct information from credible sources on Facebook. It’s only a small minority of hyper-engaged partisans who end up in a self-reinforcing bubble. That’s not enough to get us to the normalization of radical and outright crazy opinions on the right.
Here’s where an explanation needs Trump’s singular mendacious genius. Trump is a propaganda wizard who knows how to hack the economic incentives of mass media outlets to constantly give him a massive platform for free. He exploits his access to huge audiences to nourish the wild lies that breathe life into his tall-tale fantasy persona. Huge numbers of people believe these lies and find the fantasy attractive. He then exploits his “earned” access to this audience, the credibility he’s gained by getting it to believe his lies about otherworldly business acumen, wealth, etc., to relentlessly destroy the reputation, credibility, and legitimacy of any individual or organization aligned against his interests.
This very notably includes every relatively neutral and unbiased source of accurate information. Trump is actively and preemptively hostile to any source of credible information because, again, he’s a criminal mastermind whose cultural and political existence is a figment of carefully cultivated disinformation and media manipulation, backstopped with legal, financial, and (if necessary) physical threats. His hostility to truth is absolute, because the truth turns him into a penniless guy in a prison jumper.
This is about 75 percent of the Donald Trump formula for success. He used it effectively in 2016 to bury the competition in the GOP primaries and recruit an unusual level of passionate loyalty from the Republican base. It’s easy to win on lies if you’re as good as he is at leveraging existing prejudice to split coalitions, attract loyal supporters and undermine the credibility of anyone who dares tell the truth about you.
Once Trump became party leader, the psychological dynamics of negative partisanship kicked in, making it much even easier to detach Republicans from any source of information other than himself or a slavishly loyal outlet trying to cash in on his fanbase. The GOP establishment learned early that Trump’s control of the party’s base and his effectiveness in brutally retaliating against the disloyal meant that there was zero political upside in contradicting him.
I think this is an absolutely crucial aspect of the story. Partisan voters reliably follow cues on issues and attitudes from party elites and associated media personalities. However, in-fighting among party elites confuses the signal and divides the base. The partisan cue-taking dynamic kicked into overdrive once the entire GOP and conservative media elite coordinated around vouching for almost every crazy thing Trump said and refusing to contradict even his most shockingly debased lies.
Here’s where the fact that Trump is a comprehensively corrupt criminal (not a normal thing is an advanced liberal democracy) sends American political culture off the deep end. Trump was selling foreign policy to dictators before he got into office. He was trying to rig this election from day one of his presidency, which got him impeached. And then he got hit with a huge crisis he could not handle, mainly because it is an ironclad personal rule to lie about anything that could make him look bad and then destroy the reputation of anyone who doesn’t go along. A quarter of a million of wind up dead, which only compounds Trump’s PR problem.
Trump’s absolute hostility to truth was always going to be a catastrophe. He’s president of the United States of America, a position that tends to invite intense scrutiny. He was never going to be able to skate by on first-order lies. So Trump’s counter-narratives had to become ever more convoluted, conspiratorial, and slanderously vicious to keep his supporters cut off from the truth and revved up to vote and, if necessary, to gun up and literally fight on his behalf.
Trump himself is primarily responsible for the batshit level of scurrilous disinformation banging around in the right-wing information ecosystem. Not all of the conspiracy theories originate with him, but a lot of them do. Trump’s happy to affirm ones that don’t, if he thinks it’ll help. He very clearly signals that if you can come up with a good story that further discredits his rivals and further severs his supporters from the truth, he will actively promote it and maybe even publicly adopt it.
The result is a proliferating arms race of sheer lunacy as crazed MAGA diehards compete to get dear leader’s attention and affirmation. And he gives it to them, which pushes their dangerous nonsense into mainstream conservative media. Standard journalists can then find it hard not to repeat and effectively amplify some of this crackpot stuff simply by reporting on it. After all, it is news.
However, American journalists mostly confuse fairness and objectivity with a ridiculous form of “he said, she said” false balance combined with a principled refusal to explicitly make incredibly easy and obvious judgments about who’s lying and who’s telling the truth. Taken together, this is how you get a truly alarming number of Republicans willing to believe that the Democrats run child sex-trafficking rings and that Trump really won an election that wasn’t even that close.
The bonkers nature of the right-wing media bubble plays a huge role here, but you have to explain why it’s as bonkers as it is and why Harvard-educated Republican senators go along with it. There’s no general explanation of any of this, just as there’s no general explanation of Donald Trump’s utterly unique, structurally engineered, comb-over bouffant. I don’t think it’s possible to grasp what the hell has been going on in this country without accepting that Donald Trump absolutely obliterated the mold of precedent. He created, performed, and brilliantly promoted a titanic self-aggrandizing mythical person, “Donald Trump,” with sociopathic shamelessness, ingeniously curated mass propaganda, and industrial-scale fraud, tax evasion, and boutique dictator financial services.
It worked because he’s a master at manipulating mass perceptions of truth. It worked so well that he got “Donald Trump” elected president of the United States. Perpetual war on reality, without which he could not exist, therefore became the modus operandi of the Republican Party, the executive branch of the United States government, and conservative media. Everything else falls out of that.