The single most important issue in this year’s election will be how voters feel about Donald Trump. A recent Pew poll showed that 51% of Trump voters said the major factors determining their vote were Trump’s personality, values, and leadership style, while 56% of Biden voters said what was motivating them was “voting against Trump.” This election will be about Donald Trump.
With all we’ve seen from him and all we’ve learned about him during the past four years, one might reasonably ask, “Why does he still command the fervent support of so many voters?”
Two quotes in last week’s New York Times help explain this phenomenon. One was from President Donald Trump; the other was from one of his supporters. When taken together, they help to explain the most important dynamic that is driving this election.
The first quote was an excerpt from Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal” in which he writes,
“I play to people’s fantasies. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion.”
The second came from a Trump supporter at a rally. After noting he couldn’t always understand what the president was saying because the sound system wasn’t working properly, he said,
“We could see what he [Trump] saw. We could feel what he felt. We could see the laughter and the joy and the excitement. So the couple of times I couldn’t hear him, that was okay; I knew I was supposed to clap. I don’t know what I was clapping about, but I clapped.”
It bears repeating, especially in this age of mass media, that elections are often decided not so much on policy prescriptions and platform proposals as they are on voter’s perceptions. Although health care, the economy, climate change, and abortion are all important concerns, they will not be the decisive factors for many voters in November.
While Democrats have published a detailed platform laying out how a Biden Administration will address most issues facing the nation, this year, for the first time in memory, Republicans decided not to produce any platform. Instead, they noted, “the president will run on his record and the promises he kept.” What exactly does that mean?
As president, Trump hasn’t kept any of his most prominent 2016 campaign pledges. Back then, he promised to build a “a great big beautiful wall” and that Mexico would pay for it. In the last four years, only a few hundred miles have been built with funds the president siphoned from the Pentagon’s budget. He repeatedly promised to end Obamacare and replace it with the “greatest health care system in the world.” Not only has that not happened, but as a result of his administration’s weakening of Obamacare provisions, almost 10 million more Americans are now without health insurance. He promised to “drain the swamp” of lobbyists in government, instead he filled his cabinet and key administrative posts with more special interest lobbyists than any administration in history. And he promised to bring mining and manufacturing jobs back to America. Since he took office, we’ve lost almost one-quarter million manufacturing jobs and seven thousand in mining.
In fact, with the exception of pushing through massive tax breaks that benefited the wealthy, appointing conservative judges, and deregulating a range of industry and environmental protections, Trump has done very little of what he promised. These actions certainly can’t explain why he has retained such strong support, especially among white working-class voters.
So why does he still have their support? It is because, as the two quotes cited at the beginning of this piece establish, Donald Trump, the effective salesman, intuits what people want to believe. He perfected his pitchman art selling apartments, a range of lifestyle products, exclusive memberships in clubs, and himself.
At the 2016 Republican Convention Trump told voters that the problems facing America were so great that only he could fix them. Caught in the whirlwind of social change and financial insecurity, and feeling abandoned by a political system they felt had paid attention to others while ignoring them, many alienated voters needed to believe that Trump would be their champion and make them great again. Four years later, despite the fact that they are no better off than they were before, they are loath to acknowledge that they might have been mistaken. And so they continue to believe, because the alternative is more painful.
Abraham Lincoln once famously said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time. But you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” Our president, it appears, mastered the first part of that saying. Like the bystanders in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” some voters may even know they’ve been fooled, but admitting it is hard. And so they defiantly cling to the illusion.
Recently, the New York Times released an extensive report on over two decades of Donald Trump’s corporate tax filings. What we learn from them is that his companies have been bleeding money for years – losing more than they made. As a result of these massive losses, he paid no taxes in 10 years and in the most recent filings paid a mere $750. His immediate response was to denounce the report “as fake news” – assuming, as he has before, that his supporters would choose to believe him over any media outlet. After all, as he said during the 2016 presidential debates, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
What will be decided, then, in November is whether a majority of alienated white voters will still need to believe in Donald Trump, or if Joe Biden will be able to win their support. To do this, Biden will need to do more than just criticize the current administration, he must provide voters with the confidence that he understands their aspirations and will be responsive to them.