The White House as Puzzle Palace of Demagoguery and Lies

In a forthcoming Tidings column (April 3, 2017) for the Institute’s quarterly newsletter, I seek to provide some semblance of an explanation for what I find increasingly inexplicable: the fact that a substantial share of Americans continues to support President Donald Trump despite his wild inconsistencies, persistent lies, duplicity and now, attacks on public services vital to many of their families.[1] More, they do so echoing, as he often does, his campaign rhetoric, statements that he has in some instances since repudiated, if half-heartedly, but that his devotees continue to embrace as fact. This ongoing pattern of behavior among a share of the nation’s citizens is frankly puzzling, since it is by now empirically clear that Trump knows little about American governance and cares still less about the coalition that elected him. Such policies as he has thus far pressed would remove or dramatically reduce services or other support for those voters. I have concluded that what animates these citizens has nothing to do with reason. Instead, it appears to be a matter of an accepted social psychology, whose broad fundaments may be known, but the “why” precisely of individuals’ acceptance of Trump’s narcissism and lies, amid the increasingly clear and negative implications for their lives of his policies, remains something of a mystery. Without pretending to provide an analysis of this concern here, I offer several examples of Trump’s lies and deceit, and note his continuing popular approval among 41 percent of those responding in the latest Gallup Presidential performance poll, notwithstanding:[2]

The President this past week refused to recant his false assertion that former President Barack Obama gave orders to wiretap his Trump Tower offices during the 2016 national election campaign. Trump continued to press this claim despite a complete lack of evidence and criticism from several leaders of his own party.

Trump also initially supported another false contention, first publicly offered by his spokesperson, Sean Spicer, that Great Britain was complicit with the Obama administration in the wiretapping of Trump Tower that, in fact, never occurred. As might be imagined, this allegation deeply angered government leaders of America’s most loyal ally. The administration (though not the President personally) later reassured British officials that it did not in fact embrace this argument, but Trump has not relented in his overarching claims concerning the mythical wiretapping, nor provided any evidence to support his assertions.[3]

Trump, declaring “Obama Care is dead,” embraced the House Republican health care bill crafted quickly by Speaker Paul Ryan and a few other GOP House leaders to replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office scored the bill as very likely to result in the elimination of health coverage for 26 million Americans in coming years, while markedly increasing costs for those who would retain support under its provisions. Many of those who would lose assistance under the proposed law would do so as a result of its roll back of extensions of Medicaid coverage by several states under the provisions of the ACA. Paradoxically, a disproportionate share of those receiving such health care support voted for Trump. The President embraced the GOP bill anyway, and claimed that the Affordable Care Act was “dying,” for which argument there is no evidence, even as he was breaking his campaign promise to his followers that he would not reduce the Medicaid program when in office.[4]

Trump held yet another campaign-style rally in recent days—this one in Nashville, Tennessee—for which his supporters began to line up before dawn the day of the event. These individuals saw Trump again rail against his former election opponent, and this elicited a chant from the spectators of “Lock Her Up,” a manifestation of Trump’s lies during the campaign that Hillary Clinton was guilty of illegal actions and that he would imprison her if elected.[5] While he later announced he would do no such thing, since she was in fact guilty of no crimes, his supporters are still apparently persuaded that Clinton is a felon or worse. In consequence, they continued in Nashville to rage against a defeated opponent on the basis of allegations that were never true, while screaming their support for the man who concocted the lies that misled them in the first instance.

Finally, Trump released his first partial national budget outline in recent days and it called for draconian cuts in non-entitlement federal domestic programs, especially those serving individuals who are economically or personally vulnerable, including the aged poor and those with disabilities, for example. It also called for deep reductions in America’s capacity to conduct diplomacy around the world, to ensure its citizenry clean air and potable water and to promote scientific research in a wide range of health-related domains. In addition, Trump’s fiscal blueprint attacks the United States civil service, in the unfounded belief that it constitutes a “deep state” whose members are uniformly seeking to undermine the President. In so doing, Trump is proposing to assail the nation’s capacity to govern itself.[6]

Overall, to date, I have not yet discovered a fully satisfying explanation for why Trump has proceeded so systematically:

To lie repeatedly to those who have supported him, and to the nation’s citizenry more generally, about matters large and small, and thereafter routinely refuse to repudiate his falsehoods when called on to do so, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence.

To disregard not only his most ardent supporters’ needs, but also to attack them openly in his budget proposals, while making clear he was doing so in favor of the nation’s most wealthy, thereby breaking another promise to those who had elected him.

To embrace a health care law that includes policy actions he promised his backers repeatedly he would never undertake and whose provisions will disproportionately and systematically remove deeply needed support for many of those who have ardently supported him.

Given these realities, it is unclear why Trump retains even the relatively low approval rating he now maintains, much less how he attracts crowds who chant in support of fresh lies or bombast about his predecessor in office or his former opponent. The explanation for this riddle, when developed, doubtless will include a complex array of factors, but the fact is the nation’s chief executive and the ruling political party won office on the basis of the votes of a constituency to which each has repeatedly lied, and which each has shown no willingness to support, advancing ideological goals or the perceived economic interests of the nation’s most wealthy citizens instead. Meanwhile, many of the voters supporting Trump and the GOP who find themselves in this difficult position apparently have been convinced that all who question the President or other Republican leaders either are arrogant elites or simply despise them on intellectual or other grounds. What is lost in this strange scenario is the capacity, for those now being abandoned by the demagogue they elected, to learn the truth about his behavior and to act on it, rather than continue to embrace his routinely misleading and often fantastical rhetoric that appeals foremost to their fears of social and economic change. Notably, the market will do nothing to address those concerns; that is a role that only the often reviled “government” (and civil service) can play.

All of this has led to several profound and ongoing challenges to our democratic political regime:

  Trump’s continuing attacks on the legitimacy of the free press as well as other national institutions have apparently led his supporters to discount anything they learn that questions the claims of their leader, even when he systematically lies and undermines their interests. Our form of governance can only persist if its citizens legitimate it and support prudent actions based in reality, rather than fictional blandishments rooted in fear or hate mongering. This situation cannot be permitted to continue if freedom is to endure.

Whether those now supporting Trump are willing actually to engage in dialogue with those pointing out his lies and scapegoating and vice versa. Our democracy counts on civil engagement among those with differing points of view to permit it to address conflicts of all sorts. It is now a question whether such is possible in the current political climate of fear and othering, pressed continuously by Trump and his congressional and media allies.

Whether the Republican Party can recover some sense of serving the interests of all of the nation’s citizens, rather than continue its present path of ruthless support for the nation’s most wealthy while also embracing the President’s cruel and continuing demagoguery and exploitation of many of those who supported his election to secure those ends.

These factors will be critical in the near-term course for the nation and to its capacity to ensure self-governance in the longer term. Unfortunately, the primary trends concerning each of these matters today are not hopeful. Devotees of self-governance must redouble their efforts to address these concerns in as civil and disciplined a fashion as possible.

 

Notes

[1] http://www.ipg.vt.edu/Newsletter/index.htm , http://tidings.spia.vt.edu

[2] Gallup Daily: “Trump Job Approval,” March 17, 2017, http://www.gallup.com/poll/201617/gallup-daily-trump-job-approval.aspx Accessed March 18, 2017.

[3] Baker, Peter and Steven Erlanger. “Trump Offers No Apology for Claim on British Spying,” New York Times, March 18, 2017,  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/17/world/europe/trump-britain-obama-wiretap-gchq.html?emc=edit_th_20170318&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=40087534&_r=0 Accessed, March 18, 2017.

[4] Kamisar, Ben. “Trump: ‘ObamaCare is dead,’” The Hill, March 17, 2017, http://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/324453-trump-obamacare-is-dead Accessed March 17, 2017; Shear, Michael D. “Trump Takes a Gamble in Cutting Programs his Base Relies On,” New York Times, March 16, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/16/us/politics/trump-budget.html Accessed March 16, 2017.

[5] Renkl, Margaret. “Trump Takes Nashville,” New York Times, March 16, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/16/opinion/trump-takes-nashville.html Accessed March 17, 2017.

[6] Fisher, Max. “What Happens When You Fight a ‘Deep State’ That Doesn’t Exist,” Brookings Policy Brief, March 10, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/10/world/americas/what-happens-when-you-fight-a-deep-state-that-doesnt-exist.html?utm_campaign=Brookings%20Brief&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=46795634 Accessed March 10, 2017.