Wednesday, November 30, 2016

For Trump's supporters, corruption is part of the deal

But Jan-Werner Müller, a Princeton political scientist who recently published an excellent little book about authoritarian populist movements, finds that Trump supporters’ indifference to Trump’s corrupt leanings is actually rather typical. Even when clear evidence of corruption emerges once an authoritarian populist regime is in place, the regime’s key supporters are generally unimpressed.

“The perception among supporters of populists is that corruption and cronyism are not genuine problems as long as they look like measures pursued for the sake of a moral, hardworking ‘us’ and not for the immoral or even foreign ‘them,’” he writes, “hence it is a pious hope for liberals to think that all they have to do is expose corruption to discredit populists.”

George Mason University’s Justin Gest is the author of a recent study of white working-class politics in the United States and United Kingdom, and one of his major themes is that there is a pervasive cynicism about politics and government among the people he interviews.

“Today’s working class, Rust Belt voters are disenchanted by what they perceive to be a political and economic culture of exploitative greed and gridlock,” he writes, “and are waiting for someone to adopt their cause.”

Per Müller, their enthusiasm for Trump doesn’t necessarily reflect a misperception that he is honest or that he will eschew greed and corruption. Rather, their view is that he is on their side and that the protestations of his opponents merely reflect the self-interested defensiveness of the establishment. Highlighting themes of racial and ethnic conflict as central to American politics further feeds this dynamic. Trump may be a sonofabitch, the thinking goes, but at least he’s our sonofabitch.
Ignore the clown, focus on policy:
A November 22 Quinnipiac poll revealed both the risks and the opportunities currently facing Democrats. It showed that attacks on Trump’s character have set in, and most people agree that Trump is not honest and not levelheaded. But it also showed that a majority believe he will create jobs, that he cares about average Americans, and that he will bring change in the right direction. Yet at the same time, Quinnipiac also finds that most voters favor legal abortion, oppose tax cuts for the wealthy, oppose deregulation of business, and oppose weakening gun control regulation.

Which is to say that the most normal, blandly partisan parts of Trump’s agenda are also among the least popular. And yet Trump’s support for them is what immunizes him from Republican criticism and oversight over the abnormal stuff. Defending the basic norms of American constitutional government is important, but doing it as a partisan agenda won’t work — it turns off Trump’s core supporters and signals to wavering ones that his opponents are focused on abstractions rather than daily life. As long as Trump is enjoying the lockstep support of congressional Republicans, his opponents need to find ways to turn attention away from the Trump Show and focus it on his basic policy agenda and the ways in which it touches millions of people.

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